In an era when many schools don’t even teach cursive handwriting anymore because everyone taps out their messages on screens, it may seem quaint to focus on a woman known for her handwriting. But that’s exactly why we’re attracted to Esther Inglis, featured in the Folger’s current exhibition, “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700”.
Inglis was a master of calligraphy, an art form that raises handwriting to a whole new height. Hundreds of manuals depicting many styles of writing were published in Europefrom the sixteenth into the eighteenth centuries, providing copybooks for amateurs and professionals alike. One in the Folger collection even shows the correct and incorrect ways of holding a pen:
Esther Inglis, or Langlois, was the daughter of French Huguenots who fled to London around 1569, then relocated a few years later in Scotland. Her father, Nicholas Langlois, eventually became Master of the French School, with a stipend from James VI. Inglis herself was born about 1571, and was evidently trained in the fine art of calligraphy by her mother, Marie Presot. Around 1586, Inglis started making the small decorative books for which she is known. Miraculously, almost sixty of her manuscripts survive, and four of these are at the Folger Library, given by American book collector, Lessing J. Rosenwald, from 1946 to 1959.
Inglis made several self-portraits. In this one from V.a.91., wearing a ruff and large black hat, she sits at a table with a book, paper and writing instruments spread before her. On the paper is the inscription, “De dieu le bien/ de moy le rien” [“From the Lord goodness, from myself nothing”], a sentiment that Inglis frequently repeats. She sees herself as God’s handmaid and her work as part of His service.
With the exception of her dedications to various persons, the texts used by Inglis are not original, but draw on popular religious works: the Psalms in various versions; the Song of Solomon; portions of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; the Quatrains of Guy du Faur, seigneur de Pibrac; and the Octonaires by French Protestant theologian, Antoine de la Roche Chandieu. The two on display, Folger MSS V.a.93 and V.a.94, feature versions of the Psalms and demonstrate two different styles practiced by Inglis. V.a.93, which dates from 1599, is in her earlier black-and-white style, where she copies title page borders, historiated capital letters, printers’ ornaments, and emblems from printed books so meticulously, that they hardly appear to be handwritten at all. On this page she has copied an emblem from Jean Jacque Boissard’s Emblemes (1588):
V.a.94 represents her later colored floral style which, as Anneke Tjan-Bakker has pointed out, is reminiscent of Flemish illuminated manuscripts. This influence is especially evident in the title page to V.a.94, which is framed by large flowers carefully arranged on a gold background:
Inglis sometimes reused her floral designs, pricking them with a pin in order to transfer to another sheet of paper. The flower on fol. 13 of V.a.92 (Octonaries) has been “pricked” in this way:
Inglis used a different style of writing on every page; here we see two more examples of her virtuosity from V.a.92:
Inglis presented many of her books to members of the English court and to highly-placed French and Dutch officials who were working for the Protestant cause. The presentations were not only bids for patronage, but appear to have aided the work of her husband, Bartholomew Kello, a Protestant clergyman. She had moved with him to England and he seems to have worked for both Queen Elizabeth and James I. Her dedicatees include Prince Henry, son of James I; the diplomat Sir Anthony Bacon (brother of Sir Francis Bacon); Lucy, countess of Bedford; Catherine de Parthenay, vicomtesse de Rohan; and Prince Maurice of Nassau. Inglis’s dedication to Prince Maurice highlights the way she thought about her books:
While the variety of handwriting delights the sight the spirit may similarly be raised towards the great Creator, by the diversity of prayers and Royal songs sung by the great Prophet [David].
She goes on to suggest that the small size of her volume will make it “more easily carried” (V.a.93).
A number of her books are beautifully bound in embroidered bindings which were likely also made by Inglis. The one for Prince Maurice features his coat-of-arms on brown velvet:
The Psalms dedicated to Prince Henry are splendidly cased in red velvet embroidered with seed pearls and silver-gilt thread:
If you’d like to read more about Esther Inglis, here are a few sources:
- Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
- Tjan-Bakker, Anneke. “Dame Flora’s Blossoms: Esther Inglis’s flower-illustrated manuscripts.” English Manuscript Studies 1500-1700. Vol. 9 (London: British Library, 2000), 49-72.
- Ziegler, Georgianna. “’More than feminine boldness’: the gift books of Esther Inglis.” Women Writing and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart England. Ed. Mary E. Burke, et al. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000: 19-37.