‘Upwards of 884 distinct Characters' - C18th Handwriting

07.10.2016 | category: General
Reading Capability Brown's Account Book at RHS Lindley Library
Reading Capability Brown's Account Book at RHS Lindley Library

‘Upwards of 884 distinct Characters’ was writing master Joseph Champion’s estimate of how many different styles of handwriting were in use in mid-eighteenth-century England.*  Today we select from a wide range of computer typefaces, but professional scribes in the eighteenth century could turn their hands to archaic, exotic, or specialist styles of letterforms to suit the type of document they were writing.  

Capability Brown was not a professional scribe and wrote in the mercifully legible style of an English Round Hand, ‘a Sunny Interval’ between the invigorating seventeenth-century Secretary Hand and tedious nineteenth-century Copperplate

It was Brown’s handwriting, and the barely distinguishable hands of his Surveyors - Alexander Knox, Samuel Lapidge, and John Spyers - to which I was introducing a select company of garden history researchers at the RHS Lindley Library in September.  We were of course using the Library’s rare Capability Brown Account Book as one of our key resources.

It was useful to look at Brown’s handwriting in context. Viewing a range of contemporary C18th handwriting, from clerks to labourers to lords and ladies, it emerged that one of the closest comparable hands is that of the painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  

Brown’s handwriting was neither the best nor the worst from the perspective of legibility nor beauty. He used relatively few archaic symbols or letterforms, and his abbreviations were standard. So very quickly everyone was transcribing selected pages from the famous Account Book, and almost word-perfect too. 

About the Author: Peter Foden, Archivist & Palaeographer www.peterfoden.com

Peter and Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibtions at RHS will be running a skills sharing seminar Interpreting Brown's Account Book for the Capability Brown Festival on the 20th of October 2016. There are a few remaining places which can be booked here.

[Penmanship, or, The Art of Fair Writing. A New Essay]