Artist on File: Susan Llewelyn Elvidge
The old art of calligraphy transformed into modern art. The time is the 21st century when art is largely conceptual, digitalised, abstract, a mixture of all movements, no particular trends at all. Is there any space for the old art of calligraphy? Susan Llewelyn Elvidge’s answer to this question is “yes”.
Although calligraphy was originally meant for communication it has been recycled. The “new” calligraphy incorporates “figurative and abstract painting, exquisite colour combinations and modern patterns”, reveals Sue.”It can be happy, sad, dramatic!”, exclaims the artist, showing me a piece she had produced using a Dylan Thomas poem where the tone was definitively “angry”, she says . And this is how her new age work as a calligrapher goes.
Extremely knowledgeable on the history of calligraphy, Sue surprises me when she announces that its use started very early indeed, around 30.000BC. “That’s when mankind began making marks”, she tells me. After that, from Egyptians and Greeks to Romans all the way until the Middle Ages we never stopped using it: be it to express our religious beliefs or to register scientific discoveries. “However, with the advent of printing in the 15th century, calligraphy became a bit redundant”, remarks the artist. “From that period, we gradually lost this skill for 400 years”, she regrets. Fortunately, thanks to Edward Johnston, who researched ancient manuscripts and is now known as the father of modern calligraphy, its art was rediscovered in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Arts and Crafts Movement.
No wonder Sue is not short of words when she elucidates me on the ups and downs of calligraphy history. A qualified art teacher with 12 years of experience in arts and crafts teaching in secondary schools and 23 years of experience in calligraphy, drawing and painting teaching for adults in various colleges around Hertfordshire, she also enjoys doing talks to art societies like the ones in Harpenden and St Albans, not to mention her talk for HVAF in February 2010 on “How she teaches drawing”.
Teaching aside, since 2005 she has been focusing more on her creative calligraphy and commissions, which entail expressive interpretations of words and images using watercolours and gold leaf.
Prolific art worker and prize winner
Extremely versatile in her output, her commissions encompass calligraphy, pictures, demonstrations and murals.
In 1992 and 1997 the Education department of St Albans Abbey asked her to design and supervise the making of two panels for the Nave, depicting the early history of the building. This work was carried out with the collaboration of 3 hundred 10 - 11 year old school children who would work in groups of 30 and stick fabric pieces onto her design, as part of their educational experience visit. The outcome was two large and colourful murals that still hang in the Abbey Nave. A third mural for the Abbey was produced by the artist in 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. This panel ended up winning the First Prize in the St Albans City & District Council section of the Art at Work Awards in the same year.
Sue’s mural work can also be seen at St Michael’s Church School where she crafted a panel to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the school, with the help of children as young as 4 years of age, in addition to teachers, governors and parents in a real community enterprise.
When it comes to her picture commissions, they range from landscapes to portraits of beloved family members and animals, using pastels and watercolours.
Showing consistent high quality in her art work as a whole, her calligraphy commissions seem to me the most special ones; perhaps because it has become a rare art form in our fast paced modern world, as it demands time, patience and accuracy in its production. “Calligraphy is difficult”, affirms Sue. “It’s like learning to play an instrument. You can’t pretend you can do it. The negative and positive shapes have to be perfect; the harmony has to be perfect”, she asserts bluntly. The artist recalls she would frequently spend a whole day practicing just one letter when she was at university. Her impeccable work for books of remembrance, dedications, certificates, wedding and events stationary and personalised illuminated panels shows that her efforts were well worth it. “The panels are usually commissioned as special gifts to mark a milestone in the recipients’ life, for example, a special birthday or anniversary. They involve many hours of research and, as the work in itself is very delicate and detailed, must be ordered well in advance”, she explains. Prices of calligraphy commissions usually range from £400 to £1000.
Having reduced her teaching hours to accommodate talks and commissions in addition to her personal artwork, Sue still runs a regular calligraphy class in Fleetville, St Albans, once a fortnight on Friday afternoons. The duration of the courses depends on the pace of the students. “I’ve got students who have been coming to my classes for the last 15 years as calligraphy can be a continuous art discovery with pupils working on names in books, stationary, panels and so on”.
Future of a nearly forgotten art
Asked how she foresees the future of calligraphy, Sue is quick to answer that “it has to be as an art form, rather than mere writing. She adds that she “would like people to get a better insight into calligraphy and value the amount of specialised work that goes into it”. And most of all, she would love them to “appreciate it”, she concludes.
To contact Sue please see: www.susanllewelynelvidge.com or via
firstname.lastname@example.org / 01727 863432 – 07773 283423
Interview by DENISE BOWSER