A Book of Scripts – Alfred Fairbank. Cover by Jan Tschichold, from a design by Juan de Yciar, 1960.
The author of A Book of Scripts was Alfred Fairbank who, like Samuel Pepys, spent most of his working life as a naval administrator in London. Pepys’s famous diary gave a first hand account of events such as the Great Fire of London, but Fairbank’s legacy may well prove to be even more long-lasting.
During his time at the Admiralty, Fairbank spent his leisure time learning to produce illuminated manuscripts and established a reputation as a calligrapher. Around 1920 he came across some manuscripts from the Italian Renaissance in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Fairbank decided that the best qualities of these scripts could be amalgamated into a simple modern hand, giving an elegant and contemporary solution to the problem of writing quickly, fluently and legibly. He called this new hand, ‘italic’.
After the Second World War he founded the Society for Italic Handwriting which aimed to improve the nation’s handwriting by aspiring to the standards of the Renaissance Italian masters.
When he retired from the Admiralty, Fairbank moved to Hove and taught at Brighton College of Art from 1955 to 1966. He also taught italic writing to student teachers. One of his colleagues described “a tall figure, stooping a little from years of calligraphy, moving punctually and deliberately up the hill to the teacher training department, holding a net bag with some precious book or manuscript to share with the class”.
The Art College bar in Brighton played a special part in my life. In 1978 I was a postgraduate student at the teacher training department which by then had moved even further up the hill, close to Sussex University. In the only photograph I can find of Fairbank he comes across as a somewhat buttoned up gent, who would have stood out in the staffroom of the achingly hip establishment that the Art College had become by the late 70’s. But I wish his italic writing classes had been part of the PGCE syllabus; at least I would have learned something useful.
Fairbank developed the first italic nib and devoted most of his time to improving the handwriting of the British public through articles such as ‘A Graceful Cure for the Common Scrawl: A Fair Italic Hand’ and the series of nine Beacon Writing Books. Despite his efforts, standards declined steadily as schoolchildren in the 60s and 70s were left to develop their own individual handwriting styles.
At his Memorial Service a friend said, “Not only was he one of the finest calligraphers of our time but there was given to him that rare chance to turn a personal activity into something far-reaching…. he eventually turned his scriptorium into a worldwide movement for the reform of handwriting”.
Today, most people know italic as the little slanted I that sits between B and U on their word processor’s menu bar.