When Barbara Baron returned to Washington last summer from six years in Europe, she expected to find a gold shine waiting for her.
"I thought I was going to set the world on fire. I had high expectations of coming back and finding myself much in demand." She was mistaken.
Leaving for Paris, where her husband was assigned to the American embassy with the Maritime Administration, Baron was one of but a few local practicing calligraphers. Since then, calligraphy-the art of "beautiful writing," as it translates from the Greek-has experienced a renaissance.
"I found that in my absence the state of calligraphy in this city had changed greatly," Baron says. "The city is just inundated with calligraphers. I really have to sell myself short in order to make a business."
As if to mock television advertisements that tickle fast-buck instincts with promises of quick fortunes after a few handwriting lessons, the number of calligraphers in Washington has grown seemingly out of proportion to demand for their services. While only a few shops are listed in the Yellow Pages, under "engrosser," literally hundreds of calligraphers in the area are available by word-of-mouth for odd jobs-wedding announcements, birthday and Christmas cards, invitations, poems, prayeers and such.
In the last three years, a local calligrapher's guild has sprung up. Largely an organization of non-commercial aficionados who learned the art recently, it already claims 400 members. Classes regularly held at the Smithsonian Institution, community colleges, universities, private studios and community centers add to the growing ranks. Yet those seeking a share of the commercial market (citations, resolutions, honorary awards, certificates, etc.) must complete with established giants in the field, such as Tolley Gallery downtown, which employs four full-time calligraphers.
Some jobs, such as writing an honorary certificate for a departing employee, bring anywhere from $100 to $500 at Tolley's, depending on the amount of a detail, color and gold gilding. Elsewhere, a $35 to $50 charge for wedding invitations is for a master copy, the printing is extra.Envelopes run about $1 each. For around $2, a calligrapher will fill in the blanks on your award citation.
Because the number of artisans around far outnumbers commissions, many calligraphers are placing their chips in the arts/crafts market, hoping consumers will recognize as collector's pieces stylized lettering, artistic scrollwork, gilding and coloring, applied to expensive appers.
The addition of calligrapher Phyllis Goodnow to the Corcoran art shcool faculty is greeted with great expectations.
And the shows. Calligraphers are exhibiting their works, renditions of poems, prayers, texts, for public consumption. "We sold seven out of 47 pieces at our latest show," says Washington Calligrapher's Guild exhibition person Marti Greenberg. "And that's really good."
The calligraphy camp is divided into those few who earn their living at it, mostly in area commercial studios; those who do not; and guild and non-guild persons. About 50 area calligraphers are showing at the Martin Luther King Library through the end of the month. Around 40 are guild members, the rest independents. "This show," says Baron, who is not in the guild, "will either make it or break it for me."
Baron traces her calligraphic roots to Tolley's, a firm William E. Tolley started in 1946 when he returned from "walking all over France" as an infantryman in World War II. Tolley's father, Adrian B. Tolley, was the official White House calligrapher, and chief of the social office, from the Wilson through Eisenhower administrations. His first job at the White House was writing invitations for Woodrow Wilson's marriage to Edith Bolling Galt.
Today the White House employs two calligraphers full time, William Gemmell and John Scarfone. Both have been at their posts for a number of years. They are charged with writing the White House's formal invitations and graphics work for the First Family.
Baron, now 34, was a pre-med student at Longwood College before she dropped out. She failed chemistry. With her background in biology, however, she was "good at fine lab drawings." She worked in a dry cleaning shop, then as a nurse's aide. "Finally, I met someone who convinced me that I deserved better than working in a dry cleaning store. So I got a job as a clerk typist."
When that job ended four years later, she used her unemployment checks to enroll in a graphics course at the Corcoran. The instructor, who commuted from New York, happened to be a hobbyist calligrapher. "It was something I hadn't been exposed to," says Baron, "but I went absolutely nuts about it. I just like letters."
Some of the students visited Tolley's to see the work. One day, "the Tolleys called me up in a panic because three of their workers had left." She spent six months there learning different alphabets. When pregnancy forced her to leave, Tolley gave four accounts. "They were bringing in about $4,000 a year, which was like $7,000 in those days.
"When my son was just growing up," she says, "I stumbled on a couple of accounts that needed illumination."
"Tolley really didn't do that much illumination," Baron says. So she took lessons, briefly, from the man wh illuminated Christmas cards for the National Cathedral. Then, when her husband was assigned to Paris, she received permission to visit the manuscript room in the French Bibliotheque Nationale.
"Up to that point, I really had only about three hours of basic training. But I have a terrific eye, and I'm a great forger." Like the aspiring art students who line the great halls of the Louvre copying works by master painters, Baron spent two years laboriously imitating 15th-and 16th-century calligraphers and illuminators.
"A lot of these documents were breathtakingly beautiful, the bindings covered with precious and semi-precious stones. For me, without much instruction, the only way to learn how to do it was to do it."
The next four years the family spent in Brussels. Baron devoted that time to building a portfolio. She jointed The Society of Scribes and Illuminators based in London. "When I found out we were leaving, I ditched the kiddies with my husband and went to London for four days and worked with the treasurer," who since went on to work for the royal family.Then her surprise, arriving here, to find the market flooded.
"Most of the stuff I do, I do for myself or as gifts for my friends. I'm crazy about Emily Dickinson, or a really clever text by H.L. Mencken. I'll take one of those, use the text and put a fancy border around it. People think I'm kidding myself because it can take 45 hours to do something like that. But there are some sensitive people who might appreciate that kind of work. I'm concentrating on finding them."
Greenberg attributes the calligraphy revival to Englishman Edward Johnson. In the early 1900s, Johnson drew students from far and wide, including the United States. Still, a few years ago opportunities for formal instruction remained limited. Then, seven years ago Sheila Waters, also of England, who had done work for the queen, arrived in Washington.Things have not been the same since. Hundreds of would-be handwriting specialist flocked to her courses, and those of Mimi Armstrong, at the Smithsonian and private studios. Many of those showing their work boast Sheila Waters' tutelage.
Charles Jacobs of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving taught himself 13 years ago and went to work for a signmaking company before he landed an apprenticeship at Tolley's. He spent a year there, learning to write citations and government resolutions, before he was hired at the bureau. He specializes in making plates for money, stamps and certificates.
Some pieces in the Martin Luther King Library show sell for as little as $35 to $50; others $100 to $200 and more. One of Jacobs' pieces, an illuminated inaugural address by John F. Kennedy, is valued at $4,000. But that one, he says, he's saving for the auction block. CAPTION: Illustration, the Calligraphers, Graphics by Mimi Armstrong and Pat Thyden; Picture, Barbara Baron and her work, by James Parcell-The Washing Post