For one long hot summer, working in a nearly deserted art gallery in Paris, I tried my hand at calligraphy. After a week or so working there I had even grown bored of reading (me!) and thought this would be a dignified enough occupation if ever the lone patron of the day should wish to look over my shoulder. I invested in a calligraphy pen with lots of different nibs, an array of coloured inks and a very dull manual. Soon enough I understood that calligraphy is even more painstakingly precise than drawing with no real artistic license permitted (until you reached total mastery that is) and that is has its own rhythm which is… SLOW. Actually it’s more a balance between a stillness of mind, a precision of hand and a brave heart… It takes courage to “attack” that blank space knowing that the slightest hesitation will break the flow and leave a microscopic puddle of ink where the line broke, spoiling the whole thing. Although a fine art, it is closer to meditation than to painting I believe. Something like a breath made visible in ink…
At 22, zen practices and the impatient girl I was, were not quite compatible (if I’m honest, still not sadly) and when the summer ended and I had hand-written three full sets of around 800 envelopes for the invitations to the next openings I let my pen dry in its case and that was the end of my calligraphy career… it did improve my hand writing though! I have kept a nostalgia, bought many nibs and ink bottles I didn’t need (but then that’s not my fault at all as they are totally irresistible) and am so very delighted to meet this morning Eric de Tugny, owner of the delighful store Mélodies Graphiques in the Marais in Paris and calligrapher extraordinaire.
As I push the door, I notice in the window a large bottle of Violette de Cannes which looks more like a perfume than an ink, an array of nibs, old fashioned naturalist and calligrapher implements and… a very beautiful drawing of a spider (I think). Although insects are truly not my forte, they are Eric’s absolute passion and it turns out he not only has an exhibition of his drawings Elytres et Carapaces (Elytra and Shells) in Paris that March 2015 but also that he’s on his way to Costa Rica with a expedition of volcanologists to discover some new delights to draw!
Was I expecting to meet one of the only five “scientifically exact” insect drawers in France? Would I have guessed there were even five? Hum… But I can understand that after writing over ten thousand envelopes a year for weddings and invitations, the man needs to turn his skills to something else. Although some of his jobs are fun because that sealed envelope with a letter inside might be for a period film, or that poem for a sophisticated lover (with awful handwriting?) or might involve carefully adding names to an old family tree, mostly these days, it’s envelopes (1 euro a pop).
It seems I am not the only one who can’t resist a cute bottle of ink or a pretty hand-made card as Eric’s old fashioned store is never empty that morning and so we continue chatting while he elegantly wraps some sticks of sealing wax, a few nibs, a dry stamp he has designed for a client or rolls a sheet of wrapping paper pretty enough to be framed. Finally I dare to ask the question: “Was he already good at writing when he was young?” but what I really mean to ask is: “Is there a chance in hell for the average / bad scribbler to ever approach his level of skill?”
He laughs at my demand and yes, it turns out his father had beautiful hand writing he admired greatly and so Eric worked hard from an early age at his… An appreciation of reading and writing seems to run in his family as his mother used to be a book binder, then selected stationery for the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette. Helping her is how he met first the distributor of El Papiro (the glorious Florentine “papier à cuve” marbled paper maker) and eventually took over his job. But it’s with the Rossis (also producers of refined paper in Florence) that he became not only friends with the whole family but even contributed some artwork of his own to their range of postcards. He nearly opened a El Papiro store in Paris but Mélodies Graphiques was born instead, some nearly thirty years ago, and I get the feeling he doesn’t mind being a free man, choosing with discernment which other tools of his trade: nibs, feathers, inks, etc. to stock.
Many come here for advice as Eric can really explain why you should get this 1950’s nib (not made anymore but he still has a bit of stock) rather than any other as it is so perfectly suited to your purpose being so flexible and flowy. Of course I had to buy one myself after hearing him talk about it to a client (don’t laugh) but I did resist investing in a woodcock feather, a specialty still made by one person in France especially for miniature painters who praise its finesse and delicacy, although it was most beautiful.
As for a good all rounder ink for calligraphy? Eric swears by the Encres Herbin made here in Paris since 1670 if you please! They are much “lighter” than shellac inks and can be used with a brush, a nib and in a fountain pen. As with any that can be used in a fountain pen, these inks are dyes not pigment inks and do not dry waterproof… a good thing since otherwise how could you tell he cried when he read your letter? (In truth most inks -shellac or acrylic- are not suitable for a fountain pen as it will kill your pen when it dries clogging the super fine little tube the ink flows through… with the possible exception of inks for technical pens -although these do dry up eventually too.) The range of colours of the Herbin inks is really tempting but remember too these inks fade -which is not such a drama as usually sketches and letters are stored away from the light- but perhaps not so suitable for making artworks. You could try however their Encre authentique, also known as “Lawyers’ Ink” as this intense black ink was used by French notaries to write official deeds and acts… it comes with a three century fadeproof warranty! (Its exceptional longevity is due to the Campeche wood tannin added.)
Voilà, I do hope one day soon you will have the sweet pleasure of pushing that door yourself and being greeted by the charming man who cares for this somewhat dying art of calligraphy with such a passion…
Mélodies Graphiques 10 Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 75004 Paris – Phone: 01 42 74 57 68