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Interview: Donald Jackson, calligrapher

24 November 2023

‘I pray most often for a perfect letter G. It used to be S, but I got better at them’

I was thrilled when I first experienced making letters with a pen and red ink, when I was a young child. With the encouragement of sympathetic teachers, it became a lifelong work.

I was awarded a two-year scholarship to art school in Bolton when I was 13,
and continued with postgraduate studies in London till I was 21, drawing from life, painting, print-making and design, and for six years specialising in calligraphy and bookbinding.

Calligraphers work professionally where words need to be visually expressed
in a way which enhances the reader’s emotional response or understanding of the text. How do you make the words look friendly? How do you make a document look legal? How do you make the text in a Bible look sacred?

The Saint John’s Bible project
(using the Roman Catholic version of the New Revised Standard Version) was the result of my proposal in 1998 to the monks and community of Saint John's Abbey, in Collegeville, Minnesota, that I should write out and illuminate the words of God — to write out each word, letter by letter, page by page, highlighted with colour and imagery, in the spirit of the great medieval Bibles, to sound a fanfare of belief and conviction.

I wanted to use the ancient medium,
but emphasising the women in the Bible, the poor and destitute, and using references to contemporary life with fragmentary elements of multicultural design to acknowledge the co-existence of other roads to God. The monks of Saint John’s picked up the baton and wisely defined the focus and purpose of the project as “to ignite the spiritual imagination”. This became the project’s chosen “mission statement”.

The Bible project was to become all-consuming for myself and my wife and our close-knit team.
In the event, it took almost 15 years to complete, and a whole team of calligraphers, artists, and craftspeople. This included directing and producing 300 copies of a full-size facsimile. This month, three sets have been given by the Episcopal Church in the United States to the Lambeth Palace Library, Canterbury Cathedral, and Sarum College, in Salisbury. Other copies are to go to Durham and St Davids.

The facsimiles can cost from $185,000 for a basic copy,
and up to as much as $1 million. They’re funded by a lovely Episcopalian couple in Texas. That’s one of the great things: although the text is the official Catholic version of the NRSV, it has been adopted by Anglicans, Methodists — even Mormons.

Until now, the only copy in the UK was at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Yes, the temptation is to keep them safe in a glass case, but the St Martin’s version is in constant use in services, read from, looked at by schoolchildren.

The original vellum manuscript is not yet bound,
and resides in the library at Saint John's University, Minnesota. Since its completion, sections of it have been exhibited almost continuously in North America. Some pages have shown in the V&A in London.

There was a recent story about an astronaut taking a picture of one of the Saint John’s Bible illuminations in the cockpit of his space module circling the earth.
Outside the window is the earth from outer space; in the foreground, propped on the dashboard, is our picture of the earth from outer space. I get a kick out of that.

That which is written, or appears to be written,
by the human hand reaches out directly to the heart of the beholder. If I write you a letter by hand, you pay attention. I do; everybody does. That still works with the scriptures, because the energy that went into it is also reaching out.

Documents of state,
a hand-written place card or names on a table-plan, a gilded heraldic consent for a royal marriage, a love poem or a tirade — all draw the eye and extend an invitation to engage more fully with the text.

The calligrapher’s aim is to breathe life,
soul, and rhythm into his writing. The whole of one’s body, from the tip of the head to the balls of the feet, is involved in the chemistry of the act. Emotion physically expressed goes into, and evokes, a physical and emotional response to the message. The forms and founts are chosen or created to match the differing cultural expectations of the reader, and the aim is to strike a harmonic note touching the universal.

Different media inspire and require a physical response from the maker.
The way paint spreads, ink flows, vellum accepts the caress of a quill, responds to the touch of the quill, as do the writer’s fingers as they hold a weightless quill pen which has the same consistency as a fingernail.

I love to work with a quill pen, carefully selected,
and prepared calfskin vellum, with the pen’s flow and handling qualities — primarily goose feathers — cut to the required width and pliability. When I work, engraving glass or carving in wood, I love to let the material speak from its own personality, but also to leave it more handsome than I found it. It’s a tall order.

Playing with variations and combinations and colours inspires innovation, exploration, and surprises.
[The Japanese potter] Shoji Hamada said: “The starting point is often less important than where the marks lead you — into the unexpected.”

Gold grabs you.
It says “Hey there.” It engages people with the script, bringing light from gold and colour to the pages in the celebration of the sacred text.

I don’t do pride easily,
not getting “too big for my boots” being well drummed into me from an early age. Dipping your pen in the ink and starting to write on a blank page is guaranteed to keep you humble. But a sense of achievement comes every time the pen hits the surface and, magically, a letter, or just part of a letter, somehow comes out just right, and that’s what keeps my world turning round.

I have always felt myself to be in the hands of God,
but there was a moment as a child that the gold-painted lettering around the balcony of the Bedford Wesleyan Chapel in Leigh, Lancashire — “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”, which I, even as a child, recognised were not beautiful letters — became a living mantra and filled my body.

I found what I experienced to be the formalities of differing practices of Christian denominations increasingly distracting,
unconvincing, and contradictory. Oneness, which I see as closeness to God, seems antipathetic to schism, tribalism, and exclusivity of creed. However, I do respond to the sincerely held, albeit differing, beliefs in a unifying, all-encompassing spirit with many different accesses.

Umpteen times at work throughout my life,
and in working on the Saint John’s Bible, I laid myself open almost constantly to that presence, trusting that ideas would come, and I was not disappointed. Every time an artist seeks ideas, it’s a form of prayer, an acknowledgement of something waiting round the corner to be found. Or, more specifically, we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s finding us.

If there’s anything else in life I want to do,
it is to create more space to listen to what I’m told to do next. I am waiting to hear the answer to that.

When I’m not working,
I like people-watching, travelling, seeing other people’s art and architecture, and country pursuits.

Feeling unheard or disrespected makes me angry,
but, whenever that happens, I know the anger belongs somewhere else — that is to say, at myself.

Nature makes me happiest.
And hitting a nail on the head at my first shot. Getting something right.

My least favourite sound is the crackle from a collapsing, empty plastic bottle.
The best sound is the ocean.

I have no hope for humanity on this planet.
I do have hope for the regenerative power of nature, but not for the future of mankind.

I pray most often for a perfect letter G.
It used to be S, but I got better at them.

I happen to have been, accidentally, locked in a place of worship at dusk
— in Grosmont, on the Welsh borders, with Brother Dietrick Reinhart, a learned monk and president of Saint John's University. My first thought was to escape as quickly as I could. Fortunately, I discovered that churches are easier to break out of than into. But, if the opportunity were to arise again, I would choose to be with the same man. He’s a rare visionary and leader.

Douglas Jackson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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