Archive for the 'Calligraphy' Category

Aug 26 2007

Calligraphy of Robert de Montesquiou

I have long felt that civilization is at its greatest when the art of calligraphy reaches a high level of excellence—which doesn’t say a whole lot about the present cultural moment. Why don’t people bother about their penmanship these days? Why are mindlessly scribbled words somehow acceptable? When people take time to craft their letters with delicacy and care, whether in Vedic India, medieval Spain, or 18th century Paris, they are not only communicating their thoughts beautifully but bringing grace and refinement into their lives. I discovered the joys of calligraphy
several years ago, and I take time to practice my penmanship whenever I
feel the need for some quiet time. I also enjoy reading old fashioned
handwriting books just to admire the exuberant joy people used to take
in distinctive scripts.

Which brings me to a man I have long been fascinated with, Count Robert
de Montesquiou
(1855-1921). Montesquiou was a celebrated fin-de-siècle aesthete and served as a model for two of the most fascinating characters in all literature: des Esseintes in J.-K. Huysmans’ A Rebours and the
Baron de Charlus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I am a firm believer in making art out of life, and if ever there was a human being who succeeded at this it had to be Robert de Montesquiou.

Montesquiou was a prolific writer, and his books, while dated, can be interesting. So imagine my delight when I discovered that one of his books at the University of Illinois library, Brelan de Dames (1912), contains his autograph. And this particular autograph is one of the most beautiful examples of penmanship I have ever seen:

I had long been interested in emulating examples of 19th century penmanship which weren’t burdened by elaborate Spencerian flourishes. I could see at once that Montesquiou’s script was exactly the kind of thing I had been seeking. It is carefully wrought, deliberately paced, and exquisitely beautiful. The man knew a thing or two about practicing Zen, even if he had probably never heard of it.

I started to wonder if I could find further examples of his penmanship in some of his other books, and after a few week’s searching I had some luck. Most of Montesquiou’s books are now online at the French ebook site Gallica. When I downloaded Montesquiou’s Le Chancelier des Fleurs (1907), I discovered that the scan included not only the text of the book but images of several holograph letters written by Montesquiou with his distinctive penmanship. Two sample pages:

I have never seen holograph documents in any other Gallica text, but the person who scanned this book must have made an extra effort to include Montesquiou’s letters as well as the text. Thank you, whoever you are. Now I have a lengthy sample of Montesquiou’s penmanship, which I can study to my heart’s content. And who knows? Maybe someday when I have world enough and time I might even try to create a Montesquiou true type font.

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