Ask any calligrapher if they own a Speedball Textbook and I'm quite sure they will say "yes." My first calligraphy instruction book was a Speedball Textbook published in Spanish. It was free due to the oddity that it had been shipped in error to my employer at the time. Why did I want it? Because it was time to address my own wedding invitations and I needed to learn to do calligraphy (I'm not the only naive one who has fallen into this trap). The small paperback volume has always been chock full of samples and step-by-step instruction for aspiring pen users. Even the most recent edition will include pages of instructional alphabets by the original author and artist Ross F. George who published his first edition in 1915. Yes. It's been a hundred years, and the useful booklets are still on the market.
My purpose here is not to write a biography of George, but to write a little bit about an illuminating trip my friend and fellow lettering artist Katherine Malmsten and I took to visit his granddaughter Suzanne George Yourkowski, now the caretaker of all the original artwork included in the Textbooks. Her grandfather died in 1959, and Suzanne's father left the collection to her. We were graciously received by Suzanne after our trip across the mountains from Seattle to Cle Elum, Washington. Spread out before us in Suzanne's home was quite an overwhelming collection of original paste-ups and originals George had done for his publications. Because he was also a sign painter who owned a sign business in downtown Seattle, samples from this part of his career work were also in Suzanne's collection. I photographed a few items so that I could do this post, but the entire collection has been scanned for use in what we all hope will be a comprehensive biography of Ross George's work.
Above you can see, on the left, a page scanned from my Spanish language 20th Edition Textbook. On the right is an original exemplar done by George. The original is slightly different (possibly an earlier version) but the overall model style is the same. The intricate touching-up of the original artwork is meticulous.
Familiar to many Textbook users is the exemplar to the left. Because calligraphic styles done with pointed steel nibs (pen points) are currently enjoying a broad popularity, this model is no doubt still being heavily referred to. Here you can really see the extensive retouching George did to make the letterforms appear nearly perfectly made when reproduced in his books. Surprise! Even the masters of our craft resort to correction fluids. Practitioners of calligraphy know that one-off perfection is beyond our human reach.
Suzanne spent five hours with us as we pored over the collection. Keeping us supplied with fresh coffee, homemade soup and bread, Suzanne also answered a lot of questions and allowed us to feel completely comfortable in our hands-on examination of her grandfather's impressive life's work. Wouldn't you think that we would be the ones to offer something in return for this valuable experience? Just when we felt indebted to Suzanne, she gave us our pick of a handmade sign from Ross George's illustrious career as a sign painter. I should have photographed Katherine's, but didn't think to because I had fallen in love with my own pick: Cloth Hats for Fall. I am a hatmaker, it is fall, and this perfect little tutorial message is handwritten in pencil on the back of my treasure:
Showing how the surface of rough finished mat boards can be effectively emphasized by airbrushing with a side shot. Note how the lettering treatment harmonizes with the subject.
Clearly, George loved letters and their expressive potential even if they were humbly drawn for a shop window sign.
Thank you, Suzanne George Yourkowsky, for a memorable day and for your kindness to Katherine and me!
Postscript: My work was included in the 23rd edition of the Speedball Textbook. Katherine's work is included in the upcoming 24th edition of this classic. Click to go to the: Speedball web site.