Obituary: Heather Child

Heather Child was the most distinguished calligrapher living in England, where her revered master, Edward Johnston (1872-1944), revived the art at the end of the last century. Besides her own work, which stretched over 70 years, she did more than anyone else to propagate Johnston's gospel.

She was born in 1911, in Winchester, where her father, Francis Child, was a doctor and surgeon to Winchester College; one of her great-aunts was Josephine Butler, ever memorable for her tireless campaign against the white slave trade. She herself gave early signs of the adeptness that marked all her work; she was "good with her hands" and could turn them to anything. Her vocation did not come until 1928, when she went to the Chelsea School of Art, where she studied under Mervyn Oliver, from whom she learned not only calligraphy but the diversity of arts that went with it.

Oliver had been one of the first pupils of Graily Hewitt, the favourite calligrapher of Sydney Cockerell. He had been a solicitor, unhappy in his work, when Cockerell found him and told him to join Edward Johnston's class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he soon became his best pupil, succeeding Johnston as teacher at the Central School. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Johnston, all the more remarkable because he did so little, in terms of finished work. But the feeling of awe with which he approached any task was implicit in everything he touched, even if he did not finish it. This was the gift that he imparted to all his pupils, and they to theirs.

So this gift came, in apostolic succession, to Heather Child. Like Johnston, she was the most modest of people, and now took a job with the Gas Light and Coke Company, where her talents were quite humbly deployed, writing labels and notices with a minimum of fuss but perfect attention to the words and their arrangement, as Johnston taught. Her work came to the attention of Sir David Milne-Watson, governor and managing director of the company. Milne-Watson, who had joined the company in 1897, was famous for the interest he took in both the education and the well-being of its employees, and he divined Heather Child's special talent. He and his wife Olga became almost second parents to her, and she spent holidays at their house in Dorset, Hadley Chase.

In 1936 she was elected to the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, which had been founded by Hewitt and others in 1921 (among the other founder members was the great calligrapher, Alfred Fairbank, founder of the Society for Italic Handwriting). She had developed a particular gift for ornamental cartography, and her two first exhibits at the society's annual exhibition were a map of Hadley Chase, and, priced at 17 guineas, a "Map of the Wessex of Thomas Hardy's Novels". This was country she knew well; one of her treasured memories was a visit to Max Gate in the year before Hardy died.

Just before the Second World War she was awarded a scholarship at the Royal College of Art to extend her knowledge and practice to other branches of art. Her mother prevented her from taking this up, on the grounds that her presence in London would worry her father, then about to go off to the war. This was a matter of lasting regret to her. Instead she went to Dorset, where she was able to nurse Sir David Milne-Watson, who had cancer. She also started and ran the Dorset blood transfusion service, latterly with the companionship of Dorothy Colles, the portrait painter.

After the war she returned to London, where her work was in much demand. She was one of the many calligraphers who worked under the direction of Alfred Fairbank on the Royal Air Force and American Air Force Books of Remembrance, and she designed the heraldry for the Lifeboat Service Memorial Book. She took a special delight in heraldic draughtsmanship, and wrote the book Heraldic Design (1965); her practical work ranged from the arms of the City Guilds on the new Information Centre at St Paul's Cathedral to a game, hand-painted on wood, to teach the elements of heraldry. She did another such game to teach the common names of plants, in which she took an even greater interest.

Among the many books that she wrote (in both senses), perhaps the most successful and widely known was the Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers (1956), for which she provided 245 illustrations. Perhaps the most beautiful of all her work in this vein was Some Wild Orchids of Britain, the book that she wrote and painted on vellum to the commission of Philip Hofer in the Fifties, which is now with his collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard.

She also wrote Decorated Maps (1956) and, by way of example, executed the huge decorative "Map of the Printing Schools of England", presented to Beatrice Warde, the queen of printing education, in 1961. With Dorothy Colles she produced the delightful Christian Symbols (1971). She designed church memorials, a crucifix for a church in Dorset, kneelers for another in Ipswich.

Her most permanent achievement, however, will be her writing on calligraphy. Three editions of Calligraphy Today (1963, 1976 and 1988), a chronicle of its revival, two of The Calligrapher's Handbook (1976, 1985), were all her own work. But perhaps even more important was the achievement of finally getting Edward Johnston's long-planned, never-finished, manual of writing into print, Formal Penmanship in 1971 and Lessons in Formal Writing (with Justin Howes) in 1986.

Those who have read Priscilla Johnston's 1959 memoir of her father will remember the relentless procrastination that he brought to the final statement of the principles of formal writing, a never-to-be-reached testament, as something akin to the Quest for the Holy Grail. To be confronted with it in 1971, finished, printed and bound, was a miracle, like turning a corner and walking into a unicorn or the Holy Grail itself. It was only achieved by a patience and concentration equal to that of Johnston himself.

Many other things will keep Heather Child's memory green. She was the first Chairman of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1964, reorganising it in the difficult period after the resignation of Alfred Fairbank from the presidency, and again in 1971. She was also Chairman of the Federation of British Craft Societies and a trustee both of the Art Workers' Guild and the Crafts Study Centre in Bath. This was a particular enthusiasm of hers and she gave it specimens of her own and others' work so that students should be able to learn by example. The Ditch-ling Museum and the V&A have also benefited from her generosity.

She was herself the soul of modesty, never refusing any opportunity for doing good, wasting (some would say) time better spent on her own work by performing the administrative tasks that others were reluctant to do, but always with efficiency and grace. She was the keystone of the bridge that links Johnston and his work with the host of contemporary calligraphers who have spread his lessons, so well exemplified by her, all over the world.

Heather Josephine Child, calligrapher, writer and craft-worker: born Winchester 3 November 1911; MBE 1975; died Petersfield, Hampshire 18 June 1997.

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