Studies in a Second Hand

What kind of critical framework can be set up to make sense of the intuitive aspect of making drawings? Can the ‘intuitive’ be scrutinised, while allowing drawings to maintain their own visual independence? How might this investigation relate to other disciplines that produce work by hand? Since my time at The Royal College of Art, these questions have been at the core of my work, and have formed the basis for several ongoing series of drawings.

I began by thinking about the act of drawing in its broadest sense, and in particular its most basic constituent process- the manual production of line. Drawing shares this activity with handwriting, which can be seen as a culturally and socially codified way of handling line. Writing embodies language itself, as well as nationally standardized styles. I thought that teaching myself a self-consciously old fashioned English style of handwriting might be a fruitful exercise in examining my own, naturalized way of handling line.

English Roundhand, which later became known as Copperplate, became ubiquitous in England in the first half of the 18th century. Numerous manuals on the style- or hand- were published, the most important being George Bickham’s The Universal Penman of 1740.

Despite several florid and generalized passages extolling the virtues of the art of writing, the Universal Penman does not issue any practical instructions for the writing student. Instead, it consists of over two hundred extravagantly engraved pages of hand-written moral maxims, letters, invoices and bills. The logic of a book on penmanship which combines moral instruction and business correspondence is made clear in Bickham’s introduction, in which he explains that ‘if the learner is us’d to copy the great variety of examples which are here produc’d, his hand will grow confirm’d in an aptitude and readiness, which will insensibly arrive at perfection and dispatch; and give in writing, what we admire in fine gentlemen; an easiness of gesture, and disengag’d air, which is imperceptibly caught from frequently conversing with the polite and well bred.’ Bickham is therefore comparing the accomplished execution of fine handwriting with gentlemanly conduct, crucially placing value and emphasis on the effortlessness of both. His suggestion is that the diligent practice of penmanship will lead to a desirable ease of handling in the same way that familiarity with a socially elevated code of behaviour refines one’s own. Both require studious attention in order to achieve easy familiarity.

This studied nonchalance is captured in the Italian term Sprezzatura, which translates literally into English as carelessness, but is better defined  as the art of concealing an art. Bickham goes on to state that ‘A full, free, open letter, struck at once, as it discovers more of nature, so it gives a masterly beauty to the writing’. This gets to the paradox at the heart of Sprezzatura, which is that fluency and naturalness are, of course, cultured and achieved by studious practice. This, then, is the cultural becoming natural.

As human ingenuity eliminates the need for human ingenuity, many such manually laborious activities have been replaced by more efficient and convenient mechanised technology. Today’s English ‘clerks’ require an understanding of InDesign and Word, rather than a dextrous familiarity with pen and ink. In this country at least, the status of the handmade object has evolved from pragmatism to privilege.

This evolution has established a situation that would have been unimaginable to the pre-industrial Bickham: now, the more proficiently an image or object is made, the less hand-made it looks, or is assumed to be. This has implications for drawing, and perhaps even greater ones for disciplines outside of art’s critical boundaries. How important is it that such skills are noticeable, both culturally and economically? How might the hand-made be distinguished from the mechanised? Finally, what might constitute  ‘sprezzatura’ in contemporary terms?

These drawings are three of many produced in an attempt to address these questions. The first series are drawn from British Vogue photo shoots. The drawn images are eventually pushed to the point where they are almost invisible as such. The apparently effortless  scenario is persuasive, as the ‘easiness of gesture, and disengag’d air’ of each pose. Yet each model- her behaviour and her image- have been composed with studious care.

The second ongoing set of studies are taken from 19th century graining manuals, copying from a copy in order to make both visible. At the time the manuals were produced, the labour and materials of the grainers would have been cheaper than the wood they sought to reproduce.  Replica materials are now ubiquitous, wood is cheaper, and professional grainers are almost extinct. As Donald Judd said, ‘an imitation wooden surface of plastic is the symbol of the century. All classes love it.’

Finally, a series of drawings from letters received from members of The Copperplate Special Interest Group painstakingly reveal the labour involved in their production.

All these drawings require practice, but through this investigation I’m getting a better understanding of what that means.

Juliet Haysom 2011