I nearly did not submit a piece of work for this year’s South London Lettering Association SLLA exhibition. With a toddler and a three month old, I didn’t think I would have the gumption to get it done. Last year I exhibited a commissioned work which I had already prepared, but this year I needed to create something specifically for the exhibition.
With the theme, Romance & Revolution: commemorating 200 years since Jane Austen’s death and 100 years since the Russian Revolution, it would be natural for my experience with the traditionally romantic copperplate script to inspire me toward Jane Austen. However, I was drawn to the Russian Revolution, and quickly decided that I would not only work with a key piece of prose of the time, but that I would also capture both English and Russian versions.
I discovered seminal poet, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem resonated with me. In particular:
I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble words I overheard you use.
Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing.
Even in new grief.
Для них соткала я широкий покров Из бедных,
у них же подслушанных слов.
О них вспоминаю всегда и везде,
О них не забуду и в новой беде
Creating bilingual calligraphy for the SLLA exhibition
My first task was to find the Russian text of the poem. I could easily find the English translation, but not the original, so I asked Anton at Ufoblique Penholders to help me out. Then I set to work studying the Cyrillic alphabet and determining how to create the letters in Copperplate script. I sought help from local Russian mums via Facebook groups, as well as the lovely calligraphy community on Instagram, to make sure that my script was correct and legible. (I really hope it is!)
This piece is purely my own design, not for a client, and I felt a great sense of freedom for where it could go. I ruminated over a number of nights letting thoughts develop into what could be possible. Black, red and strength were my inspiration.
I wanted a striking juxtaposition of the two languages. I work predominantly in fine, pointed pen scripts such as Copperplate, Spencerian, Uncial and modern calligraphy, so it seems crazy that I decided to create the English translation with Roman capitals — the most daunting of broad-edged hands, which I have never even dared attempt. I dunno, I just decided that’s what needed to be done, so I grabbed my copy of Veiko Kespersaks’ Calligraphy in 24 One-Hour Lessons and hoped for the best!
My intention was for these English letters to be a curtain, a shroud, a backdrop — almost illegible and unimportant — to the original text. It’s why I wasn’t worried that words wrapped from line to line, rather than being complete. The letters had to be bold enough to carry the weight of this duty, yet light enough that the Cyrillic script stood out on top. I created the Roman capitals in watercolour, ensuring that the letters faded significantly in the centre where the Russian would overlay. For the Russian prose — the main feature — it had to be delicate yet striking, hence created in blood red copperplate script.
Although my Roman caps would make someone more experienced cringe, I feel heartened by the fact that SLLA welcomes amateurs and the piece itself is written by a woman who was not following the rules but succeeding nonetheless. I’m so proud of this piece for so many reasons:
- I challenged myself to develop a new alphabet into my existing script
- I shook off my nerves and just bloody well painted some Roman capitals, Sinatra style (aka, my way)
- I learned to cut mount board, you know — fancy angles and whatnot and did that too
I’m so excited to be showcasing this piece (which is also for sale, FYI, wink wink). I hope that if you’re in London between Oct 17 – Nov 3, that you might just drop in to the SLLA exhibition and see it in the flesh, alongside some fantastic works from local calligraphers.
I also welcome all feedback, but don’t tell me I spelt something wrong in Russian or I’ll cry.