“Calligraphy is simply the art of writing, or of sketching and drawing transferred to the use of letter design, on the beautiful blank of a fine sheet of paper. . . . Now in doing it, it has to be clear and it has to be beautiful.” Arnold Bank (1908-1986)
In a world where a Google search of “Lady Gaga” returns about 273,000,000 results in 0.23 seconds, a search for “Donald Jackson Calligrapher” returns about 2,690 results in 0.18 seconds. That is 101,487 Lady Gaga hits for every Donald Jackson hit. Why is this meaningful in any way? Who the heck is Donald Jackson anyway?
The answer is that Donald Jackson is one of the premiere graphic artists in the world, working in one of the oldest metiers – calligraphy. His work has completely redefined the field and is of extraordinary quality. In a thousand years, after the next apocalypse, Jackson’s work will be cherished and hoarded. He will be known as the anonymous “Master of Monmouth.” If you search on the internet for him, you will find reference to his two standard books on calligraphy, The Story Of Writing (1981) and The Calligrapher’s Art (1985). He is also calligrapher to the Queen of England.
I know of Jackson because in my youth I studied calligraphy with two people. The first, Roger Marcus, introduced me to calligraphy at a class he was teaching in Santa Barbara, California. Roger is a multi-talented person. I remember him walking around his house singing the “Largo al factotum” aria from the Barber of Seville while juggling. He was an actor, a software designer, guitarist, and so much more and was a fine practitioner and teacher of calligraphy. He cut his own quills, ground his inks, did gold-leaf work, prepared and wrote on vellum. He prepared everything by hand and created stunning works. As an instructor, Roger encouraged freedom and boldness of hand and design, the pen moving effortlessly across the surface.
I did not have the talent of a Roger Marcus and the freedom and boldness he encouraged often was to my detriment as a calligrapher. I was like an enthusiastic amateur boxer sparring everywhere. I received a severe reality check when I studied two years with Arnold Bank at Carnegie-Mellon University. Banks was the Muhammad Ali to my amateur pugilist and laid me on the canvas. In the days where all my time was spent in the theater department, Saturday mornings with Bank were a great form of distraction. In an almost medieval atmosphere, I learned the structure of letters, and from letters, alphabets. From these internal structures came the structures of words and then sentences. In my time with Roger, I produced dozens of pieces of work. In my time with Bank, I produced only one. He critiqued it so severely that I spent my time trying to catch up on my learning instead of trying to create.
So, back to Donald Jackson. Roger Marcus’s inspiration was Donald Jackson, with whom he studied several times over different years and subsequently became good friends. In 1998, the Benedictine abbey of Saint John’s and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, commissioned Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. Jackson put together a team in Wales to execute the work, and the resulting “Saint John’s Bible” is a monumental achievement.
As a major artistic, cultural, and spiritual endeavor, it is the first handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible commissioned since the printed press was invented five centuries ago. The final work is written and illustrated on 1,100 sheets of lambskin vellum and is being referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Calligraphy.”
This link is to an interesting article on the development of the project, but please take time to explore the Saint John’s Bible itself at this link; it is truly an astounding accomplishment for Jackson and his team. In order to give you a sense of the scale of the original work, here is a photo of Pope Benedict XVI receiving a full-sized copy of the Bible.
This work is in the tradition of the Medieval master craftsmen who we celebrate at Via Lucis. They are both impelled by the same religious ideas. In the world of the Romanesque, the religion was celebrating its first millennium. In the world of the Saint John’s Bible, the religion is celebrating its second. It is an extraordinary work that deserves more recognition and understanding. The world needs fewer zealots like the Terry Jones or Fred Phelps and more believers like the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Monastery. I seldom make a commercial pitch, but this work deserves an exception. If you are interested in buying the different volumes of this work, you can find them at Amazon. Today I couldn’t help myself and went to a gallery in Harwich where I first saw the prints a few months ago. I bought this 10″ x 20″ framed Giclée print of Psalm 1, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked …”. The scribe is Brian Simpson and the illumination is by Donald Jackson (and both studied with calligraphy pioneer Irene Wellington (1904-1984)). It is glorious in our home.