The Lost Art of Handwriting


p297 Inglis c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Esther Inglis, excerpt from Proverbs of Solomon (1599) (all images courtesy the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford)

When was the last time you sat down to write a letter? In an increasingly digital existence, handwriting as a practice — let alone correspondence by mail — falls further and further from daily discourse. Handwritten: Remarkable People on the Page (2024) by University of Oxford Fellow Lesley Smith collects samples of handwritten documents from notable people in history from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford’s collection, ranging back as far as the second century BCE.

In an introductory essay, Smith cites Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which he asserts that technology for making high-quality reproductions would devalue the concept of an original work. “Benjamin was absolutely right in recognizing the importance of the new technology,” writes Smith, “but equally wrong in his analysis of its effects.” Far from rendering originals obsolete, the exclusivity of such objects and documents has made them all the more precious.

p40 Elizabeth I c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Elizabeth I, cover of book of prayers she personally embroidered for her stepmother Queen Catherine Parr (1544), gold and silver thread on blue silk background
p43 Elizabeth I c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Elizabeth I, handwritten dedication to Queen Catherine Parr in a book of prayers she gifted to her (1544)

Grouped into categories such as “Poets and Novelists” (including T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and Franz Kafka), “Reformers” (like Martin Luther, Eleanor Rathbone, and Mahatma Gandhi), “Spies and Detectives” (such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy L. Sayers), and many more, the book catalogs letters, diaries, sketches, scientific notes, and professional outreach from a colorful coterie of historic figures. Much like signatures, a handwritten letter indicates the presence of its author in ways that typewritten words never can. Though handwriting analysis (or graphology) has been largely debunked as a science, it’s still fascinating to see how some of the most resoundingly famous writers actually, you know, wrote.

For example, Handwritten includes reproductions of excerpts of “Volume the First,” a collection of short works Jane Austen wrote by hand beginning around age 11 and consolidated into a single notebook in 1793. These pages, despite their strike-through revisions and spelling errors, demonstrate a refinement of penmanship that feels par for the course for a lady of her milieu.

p57 Austen c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Jane Austen, excerpt from “Volume the First” (1792–3), hand-copied text from a notebook she kept between around the ages of 11 and 15
p294 Sanvito c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Bartolomeo Sanvito, handwritten copy of Epigrams by Roman poet Martial (c. early 1460s)

Other letters included in the collection also reflect the handwriting conventions of their time. Letters from Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII almost look like the text of illuminated manuscripts, with their ornate, blocky, and serif-heavy calligraphy.

The final section of the book is dedicated to “Scribes and Calligraphers” — people who earned their livelihoods by setting words to paper. Though their names are less well-known than some of those in other sections, the works of handwriting in this section are especially phenomenal, making it a grand conclusion. In an excerpt from a 1599 edition of Proverbs of Solomon lettered by Esther Inglis, for instance, multiple forms of her handwriting are on view, including roman, italics, and capital-letter text around the border of a self-portrait — as well as the words that depiction, in turn, inscribes into the page.

With ever-fewer numbers of people willing to engage in the time-consuming process of making things by hand — even thank you notes, or letters to loved ones — perhaps the best a celebrity can hope for is a font that characterizes their persona (for better or worse). But at least with Handwritten, we can page through a detailed archive of those who saw the value in setting things down by their own hand.

p210 Lewis Carroll c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
Lewis Carroll, logic problems for John Cook Wilson (1896)
p52 Donne c Bodleian Library University of Oxford
The only surviving handwritten poem by John Donne (c. 1612–31), gilt-edged paper

Handwritten: Remarkable People on the Page (2024), by Lesley Smith, published by University of Chicago Press, is available for purchase online and in bookstores.



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