Museum preserves the written word


ManuscriptsAs a calligrapher, among other things artistic and clever, Yoka van Dyk chose some Elizabethan manuscripts for her Vaults story, manuscripts that were displayed as part of the Glass of Fashion Act 2 exhibition. Real ones and copies, the manuscripts exemplify the writing styles of the 16th century and, although in “English”, prove difficult for the layperson to decipher.
Among the real ones is a manuscript of the awarding of letters patent to the town of Totnes in Devon, England, by Queen Elizabeth. It is dated 1596 and is an unsigned copy of the original. “It was possibly a back-up copy,’ says Yoka.
There is also a 1577 commercial contract on heavy parchment with three red wax seals attached. And in another cabinet is a facsimile of William Shakespeare’s will.
The genuine articles are beautiful in their execution and design and it proves once again that our museum has a vast variety of treasures, atypical of your usual provincial institution.
The Totnes manuscript came from the collection of Charles Babbage, grandfather of an early Wanganui identity of the same name and the man credited with the invention of the first “computer” in the 1830s. This and other manuscripts passed into the possession of his Wanganui grandson and, eventually, via Mr Herbert Babbage, to the museum in 1923.
“A lot of people do genealogy,” says Yoka, “and will come across wills or deeds from their ancestors, written in this kind of secretary hand.” She says there are websites set up to teach people how to read that type of script, and others from days gone by. One such site is run by the University of Leicester –
“This handwriting, the secretary hand, was used through the 16th century into the 17th century,” she says, and pointed out that a word could be spelled a variety of ways in the same manuscript, spelling standards being completely unknown until a much later date. “There could be 20 different ways to spell a word which makes it complicated reading.” Even letters could change shape a number of times throughout the length of a document. Yoka says there was the secretary hand and the chancery hand, an Italian style cursive script developed from the Roman hand. “It was fast, legible and beautiful,” says Yoka, “but italic had one drawback; it was easy to forge.”
The museum has many such documents containing a range of writing styles, all of which interest the knowledgeable Yoka.
“I used to teach calligraphy and I’m a book person [book binder, writer, engraver] so that’s why I have a great interest in ancient manuscripts. I studied them a lot in Holland, going to the museums to see manuscripts.”
There’s a box of manuscripts that were presented to the museum in 1959, having been bought by the collector in the 1920s in London when they were still relatively easy to obtain. Hundreds of years old, some still bear their wax seals and are, with the right training, still quite readable. Yoka demonstrated the changing nature of writing over the years, and named each style of script. Words like Gothic and bastarda were added to the calligraphy lexicon as we studied well-preserved paper and expensive vellum.
“It’s something I’m interested in and I use it in my own books. The very act of writing is a personal thing and it’s something we do less and less. The very act, the flow of writing, is a special thing but how often do we sit down to write a letter?” asks Yoka. She says she finds calligraphy a meditative thing, slowing the thought process to “get to deeper layers”.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 8th May 2013.  Reproduced with permission from the publishers.


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