Foundational hand


Sheila Waters in the Foundations of Calligraphy writes: ‘At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Johnston was the major discoverer of the lost art of how formal bookhands of ancient illuminated manuscripts had been written: with square cut quills which produced thick and thin strokes at a constant pressure.
Half uncial, based on sixth- to eighth-century models and having a vertical axis to all the letters, was his early choice of a training hand for his students.’

In Johnston’s own words in Writing, Illuminating… (1906) ‘The best training is found in the practice of an upright round-hand. Having mastered such a writing, the penman can acquire any other hands -sloping or angular- with comparative ease.’ There was no specific mention of a ‘foundational hand’ up to this point.

Below is Johnston’s simplified and modernized half-uncial for ‘those who have not sufficient time for a careful and thorough study of an early MS. [manuscript]’ (Johnston, 1906). The tip of the pen is held in a horizontal position.


‘But on the advice of Sir Sidney Cockerell, Johnston changed his model to a more natural slanted pen style that was based on an English tenth-century manuscripts and still had a circular o, and he named the style Foundational Hand.’ (Waters, 2014).

The earliest incarnation of the Foundational Hand appears in Johnston’s Manuscript & inscription letters from 1909 ‘showing admirably the constructive power of the pen in making characteristic letters out of skeletons.’

Here we find for the first time the ‘Foundational Hand: an excellent formal hand for MS. work and to develop into later forms’

The letters are ‘copied from a 10th century English MS, slightly modified’. The manuscript that Johnston refers to is the Ramsay splatter (British Library Harley MS 2904).





The proportions of letters in this first Foundational Hand are somewhat narrow. Letters such as o are slightly squarish.

In The Imprint articles that appeared in 1913 we find a new version of this foundational hand. From this form ‘various more “Roman” forms may be derived, and also various italic forms, and we will find that, by using a broader nib, we can also make of it a more “Gothic” character, and can develop a “black letter” variety. Besides being useful in itself, particularly as an educational hand, it forms therefore an excellent basis for further development, and I would strongly recommend its acquisition by craftsmen generally. It may be noted here that, other things being equal, the open hands are more legible than the compressed, and the forms of medium weight are more legible than the heavy forms. The most legible hand will probably be found to have an externally [outlined] circular 0, and a stroke–weight of about one–fifth its height.’

foundationalhandjohnstonimprint01detail.jpgThe forms from 1913 are rounder, clearer and more robust that the 1909 version.

foundationalhandjohnstonimprintdetail.jpgJohnston’s idea of ‘foundational hand’ is a major contribution to the understanding of the construction of Roman scripts. It is the ancestral form, from which roman (regular) and italic forms emerged. In The House of David… from 1916, Johnston uses the term Foundational Hand to define the following script.



The Foundational Hand is intended as a very practical script for anyone who wishes to learn to write. Because the objective of writing, Johnston would have said, is ‘to be read’ and the objective of handwriting education is to ‘be familiar with the words’. Johnston proposed his Foundational Hand to the London County Council Education Committee which had sought his advice on writing models on two occasions . The committee finally ‘expressed the disapproval of both the square nibbed pen and the style of handwriting advocated by Mr. Johnson.’

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