I have been interested in sculpture and line drawings since well before my time as a student at the Royal College of Art. There, I focused on making sculptures that employed processes while my instinctive love of drawing was suppressed by the research climate, which seemed to demand that all aspects of a practice must withstand total rationalization. Intuitive visual and aesthetic decisions were suspect; verbalized arguments and written explanations were seen as reliable guarantees.
I enjoyed the rigor that this constant linguistic examination ensured, but I remained unconvinced that it could incubate the best in art practice. But what kind of critical framework could be set up to make sense of the intuitive aspect of making drawings? How could I critically analyze the ‘intuitive’, while allowing my drawings to maintain their own visual independence?
My subsequent scholarship at the British School at Rome added a cultural dimension to these considerations. I remember one conversation from my year there with particular vividness, during which an archaeologist made plain his previously unaired criticisms about the resident artists and their work. The bulk of his complaint rested in the nature of the work that the artists produced, which, in his opinion, showed no Italian influence whatsoever. When I pressed him for an example of what he might consider an appropriate level of Italian influence, he answered that perhaps they should be spending time at the Vatican, making pictures of St Peters.

At the same time that I was so clear that his answer was the wrong one, the reason why the conversation remained so memorable was because I was unable then to provide a clear, concise counter-argument to his. As an art historian or archaeologist resident in Rome, it was enough to speak Italian and to be looking at and writing about a specific aspect or example of Italy’s culture. Their subject matter was explicit. As an artist, it would be easy to produce pictures of Rome’s landmarks, but this activity in itself would not constitute true cultural influence. Returning to the questions with which I left the Royal College, I felt certain that my enquiry would be illuminated by investigating the process of making, rather than focusing on its product.

Drawing, rather than drawings

I therefore started to think about the act of drawing in its broadest sense, and in particular its most basic constituent process- the manual production of line. Drawing shares this activity with handwriting, which can be seen as a culturally and socially codified way of handling line. Writing embodies language itself, as well as nationally standardized styles. I thought that teaching myself a self-consciously old fashioned English style of handwriting might be a fruitful exercise in examining my own, naturalized way of handling line.
English Roundhand, which later became known as Copperplate, became ubiquitous in England in the first half of the 18th century. Numerous manuals on the style- or hand- were published, the most important being George Bickhan’s The Universal Penman of 1740.
Whereas a modern student might reasonably expect a book on handwriting to limit itself to the discussion of that task alone, Bickham’s table of contents includes titles such as:

On the Art of Writing, Reading…No. 2
Command of Hand, Education…No. 3
The Writing Master, Honesty…No.9
Covetousness, Vive la Plume &c…No.16
Human Prudence, Frugality &c…No.18
Labour, Reputation, Bills…No.31
Advice to Young Tradesmen, Notes…No.36
Wisdom, an Invoice, Bill of Lading…No.43

Despite several florid and generalized passages extolling the virtues of the art of writing, the Universal Penman does not issue any practical instructions for the writing student. Instead, it consists of over two hundred extravagantly engraved pages of hand-written moral maxims, letters, invoices and bills, all ‘embelish’d with beautiful decorations for the amusement of the curious.’ The logic of a book on penmanship which combines moral instruction and business correspondence is made clear in Bickman’s introduction, in which he explains that ‘if the learner is us’d to copy the great variety of examples which are here produc’d, his hand will grow confirm’d in an aptitude and readiness, which will insensibly arrive at perfection and dispatch; and give in writing, what we admire in fine gentlemen; an easiness of gesture, and disengag’d air, which is imperceptibly caught from frequently conversing with the polite and well bred.’

Bickham is therefore comparing the accomplished execution of fine handwriting with gentlemanly conduct, crucially placing value and emphasis on the effortlessness of both. His suggestion is that the diligent practice of penmanship will lead to a desirable ease of handling in the same way that familiarity with a socially elevated code of behavior refines one’s own. Both require studious attention in order to achieve easy familiarity.

This studied nonchalance is captured in the Italian term Sprezzatura, which translates literally into English as carelessness, but is better defined as the art of concealing an art.
Bickham goes on to state that ‘A full, free, open letter, struck at once, as it discovers more of nature, so it gives a masterly beauty to the writing’. This gets to the paradox at the heart of Sprezzatura, which is that fluency and naturalness are, of course, cultured and achieved by studious practice. This, then, is the cultural becoming natural.

The Universal Penman simultaneously advocates the art of writing as both virtuous personal accomplishment and practical commercial asset, as its wealth of examples demonstrate. This makes clear the value of a skilled hand as a social currency, with elegantly flourished and correctly executed penmanship functioning as a visual equivalent for the English codes of behavior.

Since returning from Rome to London, this enquiry has proved a fruitful territory. During this time, as well as working on drawing in my studio, I have been working on two separate large-scale sculpture commissions. The first, Spring, for which I was awarded the Jerwood Sculpture Prize, was unveiled in June. My project at Lake Shore in Bristol is due to be completed in December. Both have been informed by my investigation, but my Lake Shore project perhaps demonstrates this influence most clearly. My approach to making use of latent aspects of a place (in this case, the geothermal heating system integrated into the redeveloped 1970s building and its surrounding landscape) and employing material processes (thermal transfer via pumped fluids) has much in common with previous sculptural projects. However, rather than making use of ready-made equipment, I will be modifying the bronze casting process itself. Warm wax will be extruded through a bespoke die to form hollow lengths. These will then be cast directly, eliminating the usual mould-making stages. This adaptation will lend the process an immediacy and tactility, as I will have to skillfully manipulate each length into the required curves before the wax cools. This will take practice, but I now have a better understanding of what that means.

Juliet Haysom, 2008