In the 19th Century, Birmingham was the centre of the world’s pen trade. Here, in an area called Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, various writing utensils were created. An upgraded pen nib was created that could be mass produced in a manner that allowed them to be made efficiently and sold cheaply. These were sold worldwide, allowing many more people to write. The Birmingham Pen Trade not only boosted the economy but also provided people with writing instruments for cheaper – which boosted education and literacy for all. The irony of that, however, is that the history of this pen trade is not taught very widely in school. And so, in 2001, the Pen Museum was opened in one of the former pen factories.
On World Calligraphy Day, I had the absolute pleasure of spending the whole day at the museum. It only seemed appropriate to visit such an important location on this day. The Pen Museum has three spaces. The first contains the history of the museum and the pens, a beautiful display of nibs and a great little shop. The second has more nibs that a stationery shop. They walk you through the manufacturing process here and you can even make your own nib to see how it’s done! The last space is where they set up several little workshops. I wanted to take a moment to share some of the things that happened on the day at the museum.
This year, there were three classes and of course, I had to try my hand at all three. There was no timings or bookings for the classes. You could just sit down whenever there was a space. Each class held around four to six people, depending on the size of the table.
Arabic Calligraphy –
The Arabic Calligraphy workshop confirmed what I already knew: that it’s stunningly beautiful but also incredibly hard to master. I struggled, to say the least but it’s an art that will take you decades to fully master. It was really interesting to give it a go and learn a bit more about the time, effort and history of arabic calligraphy nonetheless. There are a number of different styles, that each take many years to learn. To master them all, you need a lot of time and practice. We actually did this workshop using bamboo sticks, which I found really interesting. Turns out, it is definitely quite tricky to use bamboo. That’s something that would take time to get used to too.
Modern Calligraphy –
Modern Calligraphy was the one I was most used to. I attended a workshop on this at the first World Calligraphy Day in 2017 and it stuck with me, though I could certainly use some practice in it. This year, the sessions were run by Jane Lappage. She introduced the style to the group, showing us the proper way to hold a pen and giving us some worksheets that we could practice with. It’s a really enjoyable style, which ends in beautiful results. Modern calligraphy is one of the most common styles of calligraphy that you see on social media these days. Well, at least, it is on my feeds. Although the workshop was aimed at beginners, Jane definitely taught me a few new things and refreshed my memory on the correct posture and way to hold the pen. The reminder was very useful.
We had a play with paints and how they work with calligraphy nibs – and honestly, I am pleasantly surprised by the results. It was a little hard at first to get used to the flow of ink but after getting a bit more familiar with it, it started to flow nicely.
Traditional Calligraphy –
The final workshop was the Traditional Calligraphy workshop. There are many different fonts and styles of this. We were taught Uncial by Sheila Smith. And honestly, I think I am now in love with the more traditional forms of calligraphy. I previously tried my hand at the modern styles more often but after this session, I am a sucker for traditional. Uncial script is a beautiful style of calligraphy and I am honestly just in love with it. It was commonly used by Latin or Greek scribes, which shows how old it is. It’s still incredibly beautiful, easy to read and quite easy to learn. I’m by no means an expert but I managed to pick up some of the basics in the short workshop. With practice, I have no doubt that I will be able to improve.
It’s interesting how different each form of calligraphy really is. The nibs you use might differ – hell, the pen itself can too. The way you hold the pen also changes. In modern calligraphy, there’s an emphasis on pressing hard on the nib when you go down to create the thicker lines. However, in traditional, we were told to maintain the same pressure on the pen.
In Birmingham or the surrounding areas?
If you’re in the area, check out the Pen Museum’s upcoming events and workshops. Both Jane and Sheila often hold workshops there. If I lived in the area, I would definitely be going to them regularly. They are both fantastic teachers, teaching a style that they have clear passion for. The workshops are great for beginners but they also cater for the more experienced. If there is a particular thing you want to improve on, just let them know and they can adjust for it.
At the Pen Museum itself, we even had a chance to learn a bit more about the history of the pens and nibs – and a chance to make our own one! The museum part is not huge but there’s still quite a lot to learn there – especially if you attach a workshop or two onto it.
Calligraphy takes practice!
Calligraphy and lettering is a very popular art form right now. It’s super trendy and social media is full of it. It is quite easy to start doing but it does require a lot of practice – regular practice – to be and stay good at it. I would personally suggest trying a few different mini workshops like this to understand which sort of calligraphy style you want to try. There’s a huge variety and sometimes, a certain style might be better for you. I previously would struggle with modern calligraphy, trying to teach myself to improve at it. However, I found Uncial script really fun to write it and since, have been practicing that. It’s been a lot easier – and more fun – since I made the change.
By next year, I am confident that I will be ready to learn another style or two. But for now, I am going to attempt to master Uncial. Practicing calligraphy is one of the things that I am doing to improve my self-care. It’s one of the Stationery Self-Care methods I have suggested here but there are many more.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the workshops at the Pen Museum, check out their website. I highly recommend looking at their events so you know what they have coming up!