Designer of Dreams

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Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948

Despite being extended until 1st September 2019, tickets for the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams – the largest Dior show ever staged in the UK – have sold out and those lucky enough to attend are still made to queue while they wait for the crowd to abate. So, what is it about the man that has caused the entirety of London to flock to the museum? Spanning from 1947 until the present day, the exhibition explores the history and impact of one of the leading fashion designers and fashion houses of the 20th century. Most importantly, perhaps, the V&A focuses on Dior’s relationship with Britain.

“I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.” – Christian Dior, 1957

The exhibition opens with a brief biography of Dior’s life before delving into his extensive wardrobe. Christian Dior was born on 21st January 1905 to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer and owner of the firm Dior Frères, Maurice Dior (1872-1946) and his wife Madeleine Martin (1879-1931). For the first five years of his life, Christian lived in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy, France, until the family relocated to Paris. Here, he grew up with his four siblings; an older brother Raymond, and three younger siblings, Jacqueline, Bernard and Ginette, who changed her name to Catherine. Catherine Dior (1917-2008) was Christian’s closest sibling who helped to preserve her brother’s legacy after his death. She was also a member of the Polish intelligence unit based in France during World War II and survived capture, torture and a year in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Despite his wish to study art and architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Dior’s parents insisted he enrolled at the School of Political Science in Paris, in the hopes that he would become a diplomat. Dior withdrew from the school after three years and completed his military conscription. In 1928, his parents relented and provided money for their son to open an art gallery with his friend Jacques Bonjean (1899-1990). Unfortunately, this business venture was short lived as the Great Depression, the loss of the family business and the death of Dior’s mother, meant the gallery had to close.

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This failure did not put Dior off pursuing an art career and he soon found himself working for the Paris-based fashion designer Robert Piguet (1898-1953). From 1937 until he was called up for military service, Dior worked as a modéliste (in-house designer) and was given the opportunity to design for three Piguet collections. Although the Second World War disrupted his career, these few years with Piguet set him up for the future. “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”

After leaving the army in 1942, Dior began working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958) as one of the primary designers. Although the fashion house aimed to preserve the French fashion industry, Dior spent the remainder of the war designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators.

When the war was over, Dior received a job offer from Marcel Boussac (1889-1908), the richest man in France, to design for the Paris couture house Philippe et Gaston. Dior, however, had dreams of opening his own fashion house and turned the offer down. On 8th December 1946, with financial help from Boussac, Dior founded his fashion house, presenting his first collection on 12th February the following year at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

“I have never seen such a crowd at a dress-show. Both showrooms were crowded and smart women were sitting all the way up the stairs, where they could only get a short glimpse of the manequins as they passed.”
– Betty Kenward, Tatler and Bystander, 1947

Originally named Corelle (which means circlet of flower patterns in English), the line was renamed New Look after the editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow (1887-1961) declared, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!” This new look was more extravagant than the clothing worn during the war years, which had been restricted by rations on fabric. The skirts were also much longer, which initially received criticism from women who had grown used to showing their legs.

Dior introduced boned, bustier bodices and wasp-waisted corsets, combined with petticoats to make the skirts flare out, giving the women’s bodies more shape. One of the most famous designs from the collection, the Bar suit, was inspired by the bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. It comprised a sculpted jacket and a pleated, full skirt, which quickly became the emblem for the New Look.

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”
– Christian Dior, 1957

In his lifetime, Dior designed and launched 22 collections, which comprised more than 150 different looks. Each line had a title that reflected the type of style Dior had been inspired by or invented, for example, Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe and Flèche (arrow). Each one complemented the curves of the female figure and the movement of the human body. Each season was hotly debated in the fashion media, however, Dior’s designs continued to awe and inspire the public.

Dior’s first fashion show in Britain took place at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, which was so popular he began touring the country, showing his collection at various grand locations, including Blenheim Palace. Many of these events were held in aid of charity and attracted huge crowds of guests. The funds raised from his first show went towards creating the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum, Bath). Another show raised money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday

Only four years after opening his own fashion house, Christian Dior received his most prestigious commission. “Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?” is what Dior asked Princess Margaret (1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) when asked to design a dress for Margaret to wear on her 21st birthday. As immortalised in the photograph by Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Princess Margaret opted for gold, which was the colour used for the golden straw embroidery and sequins that embellished the skirt of the dress.

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The dress, which is worn by a pale-faced mannequin at the V&A’s exhibition, was an adaptation of one of Dior’s recent designs Matinée poétique. The asymmetric shoulder line, buttoned bodice and full skirt were made to suit small-waisted women, such as the princess.

If Dior was not already an international sensation, he was known worldwide after designing what would become Princess Margaret’s favourite dress. The following year, he began producing ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments to be sold at prestigious department stores, such as Harrods in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester. To do this successfully, Dior established the business C. D. Models, which was renamed Christian Dior London Ltd in 1954. Through this company, Dior established licensing deals with a range of British manufacturers, allowing him to use certain fabrics, such as Ascher and the Cumberland Mills.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Princess Margaret was not the only famous person Dior designed for, although she was probably the most important. When the novelist Emma Tennant (1937-2017) became a debutant, she ordered a red strapless gown. Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the author of Love in a Cold Climate, ordered the Daisy wool ensemble to wear when she had her portrait painted by Mogens Tvede (1897-1977). Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) ordered a number of Dior dresses, including her wedding dress, and Dior also designed a muslin embroidered wedding dress for a nineteen-year-old Jane Stoddart.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dior experimented with a huge range of styles, however, he continually returned to historic periods in his designs, particularly the Belle Époque from the late 1800s. He particularly liked the tight-waisted styles and elegant silks worn by people such as the French Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III (1808-1873). Dior was also inspired by the neo-classical architecture of buildings such as Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, Petit Trianon, and his own premises on Avenue Montaigne.

The V&A carefully replicated Dior’s favoured architectural style to create an 18th-century scene in which to display these historical dresses. The outfits would not look out of place in the royal court at Versailles despite being made during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Although Dior is no longer alive, his fashion house continues to draw on his original ideas and preferences.

Dior also took inspiration from places he had visited around the world. In the 1920s, as a young man, he travelled to London, Athens, Leningrad, Istanbul and the Balearic Islands. Some of his first designs were based on the architecture and fashion he saw on his trips. As his fame grew, Dior’s fashion house expanded to other countries, spanning from the Americas to Japan, which gave him several more styles to play with. The V&A focuses on five of the countries that inspired Dior: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico.

“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

Growing up in Normandy and Paris, Dior was always fascinated by plants and gardens. His mother was proud of the family garden and the young Christian enjoyed studying all the flowers. It was only natural that flowers would become a stimulus for his designs. The shapes of the dresses in his New Look collection were influenced by the shape of an inverted flower, however, they were not what people would call “flowery”.

Dresses in his later collections had stronger floral themes, often involving embroidery and colour to make the shapes of petals. If the dress was not decorated with flowers, it resembled a flower itself. After Dior’s death, the successive designers at House of Dior continued to return to Dior’s garden theme.

Clothing was not the only thing that Christian Dior focused on. Even before he had set up his fashion business, Dior was determined to launch a perfume. In 1947, he and his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche released their first scent Miss Dior, named after his youngest sister. It is said that while Dior was thinking of potential names for the perfume, Catherine walked into the room and his colleague announced: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!”

“Perfume is the finishing touch to any dress.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

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Miss Dior flacons

Miss Dior was released in several different formats: travel sets, vaporisers, and a variety of shaped flacons, including one in the shape of a dog. Dior did not stop there, however, and released more perfumes, such as, Diorissimo, which is scented with lily-of-the-valley. In more recent years, The House of Dior has issued Eau Sauvage, Poison and J’adore.

Sadly, Christian Dior died from a heart attack on 24th October 1957 at the age of 52 while on holiday in Montecatini, Italy. His death being totally unexpected has led to a number of rumours about the cause of the heart attack. Some claim the attack was brought on after choking on a fishbone, whereas the Time’s obituary stated he died while playing a game of cards. Another source spreads the rumour that the heart attack was caused by a strenuous sexual encounter. To this day, the true circumstances remain undisclosed.

Despite dying at the height of his career, his fashion house did not suffer. The running of the company fell to Dior’s apprentice Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), who would eventually go on to found his own fashion label. Over the years there have been a number of other worthy designers who have kept the House of Dior at the top of the fashion leaderboard.

As part of the exhibition, the V&A explores the works of the six creative directors that have led the House of Dior since 1957. Each designer brought new ideas to the table whilst also retaining the renowned visions of Christian Dior.

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Yves Saint Laurent working for Christian Dior, 1950s

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was appointed creative director at the House of Dior when he was only twenty-one years old. Before Dior’s death, he had worked as the designer’s assistant, however, his new role meant he could design his own line of clothes. His first collection in 1958 was a great success, which was followed in 1960 with the Silhouette de demain (Silhouette of tomorrow) line. Saint Laurent introduced the concept of skirts worn over trousers and geometric style cuts. Unlike Dior, who emphasised thin waistlines, Saint Laurent’s waists were elongated and were matched with turtle necks, hats and coats. His time as creative director, however, was short-lived, being called up for national army service in 1960.

Following Saint Laurent was Marc Bohan (b.1926) who was the House of Dior’s longest serving creative director from 1960 until 1989. Bohan had worked for a number of other fashion houses, such as Piguet where Dior had worked earlier in his career, before joining the House of Dior in 1958. As creative director, one of his most successful collections was the Slim Look, which was considered to be “a complete triumph” according to the New York Times. The Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was so taken with the design, she ordered twelve dresses.

Bohan’s aim was to design dresses that women loved to wear. He famously remarked, “N’oubliez pas la femme,” which means, “Don’t forget the woman.” He stuck to this ethos throughout his time at the House of Dior, believing that it was important to make a woman feel good and comfortable in what she wore as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Bohan eventually left the company to become the director of the London house of Norman Hartnell.

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Dior by Gianfranco Ferré

Despite being a leading fashion designer in Milan with his own fashion line, the next creative director Gianfranco Ferré (1944-2007) joined the House of Dior in 1989. Ferré was very proud to be chosen to work for Dior and helped to breathe new life into Parisian haute couture. Although he experimented with fine fabrics and embellishments, he tried to retain some of the original features of Christian Dior’s designs, such as the tight waits and full skirts. His first collection at Dior, Ascot-Cecil Beaton, won him the Dé d’Or (Gold Thimble) award.

Gibraltar-born John Galliano (b.1960) was the next person to take the reins as creative director. During his 15-year stint, Galliano pushed the boundaries of haute couture, creating eclectic designs based on extensive research throughout the world. Rather than merely creating clothes for women to wear, Galliano designed imaginative sets for fashion shows, which transported the audience to other worlds complete with imaginary characters that complimented his extraordinary designs.

Galliano brought the House of Dior into the twenty-first century, mixing in elements of subversive social themes with fashion. Simultaneously, John Galliano was the head of his own eponymous fashion company, which he left in 2011 at the same time he left Dior. He is currently the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

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Christian Dior by Raf Simons (b.1968), wool coat, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2012

Raf Simons (b.1968), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, joined the House of Dior as the next creative director in 2012. In stark contrast to his predecessor Galliano, Simons was a minimalist, focusing on the cut and line of his garments. His aim was to produce modern, practical clothes for contemporary women. He was obsessed with detail and gave ateliers precise instructions about tailoring. His clothes attracted a younger, newer generation to the works of Dior and the House received many more clients.

After Simons left to work on his own brand in 2016, the House of Dior employed its first female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri (b.1964). Her first ready-to-wear collection of t-shirts featuring slogans, such as “We Should All Be Feminists,” caused debates amongst the fashion world. Chiuri believes the role of a designer has changed in the past decade; rather than only creating pretty dresses, the designer is responsible for allowing the public to have a voice.

“I strive to be attentive and open to the world, and to create fashion that resembles the women of today.”
– Maria Grazia Chiuri

Although Chiuri draws on the designs from across the history of the House of Dior, she aims to put the needs of contemporary women first, focusing on both feminity and feminism. She has been inspired by many women of the past, such as the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who are the faces of early feminism.

“The ballgown is your dream, and it must make you a dream.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

The exhibition ends with The Dior Ball, which shows off dozens of evening dresses and ballgowns produced by the House of Dior over the years. Christian Dior loved designing clothes for balls and parties because he could be as imaginative as he wished without the restraint of the practicalities of everyday-wear. The gowns took finery and excess to the extreme, which has been replicated by the successive creative directors.

Set out on revolving platforms in a room with changing lights and enchanting music, walking into the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into a fairytale. Many of these stunning dresses have graced the red carpets at film events over the past seventy years and it looks like stars will be continuing to chose Christian Dior for numerous years to come.

The V&A has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200-or-so of Dior dresses up close, which, unless you can afford to buy one, is as close as you are ever likely to get – that is if you have managed to secure a ticket. Extra tickets for Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be released monthly, for the month ahead. Very limited tickets are available to purchase daily at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come-first-served basis.

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Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

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By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.