Ask locally trained calligraphers where they learned to do such beautiful lettering and chances are the majority will answer, "from William Tolley."
Tolley "sets the standard for people in this area to measure up to," says calligraphy teacher Louise Megginson.
Tolley, a Fairfax County resident who is the son of former White House calligrapher Adrian B. Tolley, decided after World War II to follow in his father's footsteps. He worked out of his home at first, attracting clients by word of mouth; then he opened a small studio in the District in 1959.
He now has about six calligraphers, most of whom learned the craft from him, working at Tolley's Studio at 821 15th St. NW.
Tolley's business has grown prodigiously in the last decade, a fact fellow calligraphers attribute to his skill but Tolley attributes to "government regulation."
"Washington has become the center for associations and organizations who need to lobby against regulations," Tolley explains, "and so we get more work from these outfits -- members certificates, citations and so on."
Filling in the names on 100 certificates looks tedious, and it can be, Tolley admits.
But Rebecca Wild, a calligrapher on Tolley's staff, says as she pencils in a name, "It's funny how you never really get bored -- each letter is still a challenge."
Wild uses a letter style known to most Washington area calligraphers as Text Hand. Tolley developed the style and describes it as "a simplified Old English, very legible, very flexible -- the letters can be widened to fill out a line."
Calligraphers typically work with a dozen basic lettering styles, ranging from traditional script and Roman to the more contemporary-looking italic and cursive. "Actually," Tolley says, "cursive goes back to the 9th or 10th century, but it has a contemporary feel."
But designing a calligraphy work involves much more than picking a letter style, Tolley says. "I look at an order from a customer and try to visualize the piece -- it's like flipping over a deck of cards in my mind."
He tries to personalize each work, he says. "You need to know the organization or the person you are working for," he says, "and decide how traditional, how contemporary, he would like it. Then we lay out the work.
"Traditional layouts are usually symmetrical. That is, you can draw a line down the middle of the paper and the copy looks the same on both sides. Some contemporary pieces have everything down in one corner, or slanted to one side -- very jazzy."
Decisions on lettering are based on the "feel" of the piece and the "weight" of the message, calligraphers say. Louise Megginson, who works for Tolley when she is not teaching at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., explains: "Roman, Old English and Gothic look big and important, so we use them on areas that need to stand out." For the body of the message, text italic and script are often used.
Script is the only form of lettering that requires a special pen, one with the nib attached to the stem at an angle "so you can see your work as you write," says Deborah Adler, another of Tolley's workers, as she demonstrates. "The paper is also held at an angle -- it's a funny way to write."
The paper used in Tolley's studio is invariably Strathmore, a high-rag-content paper that Tolley, smiling, says is "eminently correctable." Electric erasers on each calligrapher's desk indicate the importance of this quality.
"We misspell names or center work incorrectly or get copy from the customer that has mistakes," Tolley's crew admits.
"And if I've put 10 or 12 hours into a piece and make one mistake, would you like to pay me to start over again?" Megginson asks.
That's just what would happen with the traditional sheepskin, Tolley says. "I had a customer insist that I use sheepskin once, and it was impossible to correct. The ink soaked right through the surface."
Tolley is realistic about his craft and notes, "You have to work within the limitations of the customer." But he believes, like Charlemagne, that calligraphy is the "queen of the arts" and it can be used "strictly as an art form."
The studio produced a show this summer that demonstrated the range of calligraphy, including everything from poems that looked like illustrated manuscripts to letters built into pictures and pictures that enveloped the letters that formed them. The show was at Tolleys' Gallery, an art gallery owned by Tolley's wife Eleanor and attached to the studio.
Like painters working within the limits of oils and sculptors working within the limits of marble, calligrahers must work within the limits of the alphabet. But Tolley says, "I believe a good calligrapher can produce a work as original as any artist. I believe that."