My Recollections of Grace Melvin

By Irene Alexander, 1986

     Calligraphy has enjoyed an unprecedented popularity in North America in the last 10 years. Albeit there was a healthy interest in the Portland area prior to the past decade. It is in the light of this interest that I wish to write about Grace Melvin, who brought the scribal arts to Vancouver from Britain in the 1920's. My recollections of Grace Melvin go back to when I was a very young student at the Vancouver School of Art in the late 1930's. It is now nine years since she passed away, having lived on in the home of her late brother-in-law Charles H. Scott, who was the first (sic) Director of the Vancouver School of Art.

     I, for one, am relieved that they were both spared the Art School's change of name to the Emily Carr College of Art in 1980 when the school moved to their new location on Granville Island - no reflection on Emily Carr! In my time the V.S.A. occupied a two storey wooden building on Cambie Street at the corner of Dunsmuir. The school had had its beginnings on the top floor of the old Vancouver School Board building at 590 Hamilton - the same building they were to return to, in whole rather than in part, during the 1950s when the School Board offices moved to their new building on West 10th Avenue.

     What brought Grace Melvin to Vancouver in 1927 from her native Scotland was a letter from Charles Scott inviting her to come and set up a Design Department in Vancouver's fledgling art school established just two years earlier. She took a leave of absence from her teaching position in Design and Applied Arts at the Glasgow School of Art to come out to this new art school in a city less than fifty years old with a population of some 125,000.

     What Grace Melvin was bringing from Britain was an art school strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the Art Nouveau movement which was at its height. The leading light at the Glasgow School of Art was its Architect, Charles Rennie McIntosh (the William Morris of Scotland), who was strongly supported by the Principal, F.H. Newberry and a dedicated staff, the McNair sisters, Ann McBeth, Margaret Swanson, etc. The school's library is a consummate model of his ideas on Interior Design and form following function - the reading tables, chairs, book shelves, lighting fixtures and drapes were designed & made by him under his direction.

     When Grace's two year leave was nearly up, she decided to resign from the Glasgow School of Art and stay on in the new world as Head of the Design and Applied Art Department at the Vancouver School of Art. What she left behind was an enriching art experience both as student & instructor, having been 7 years on the G.S.A. Staff, with the proximity of London and Paris where she would study during her summer vacation periods. Much of that time was spent at the British Museum in the Manuscript section where she obtained permission to make copies of some of the magnificent MSS. - no photocopy machines in those days!

     It is from this time that lettering, illuminating and the book related arts became the dominant interest in her pursuit of the Arts and Crafts over the next 30 or more years. Up to the time of her departure for Canada, she was scribe to the City of Glasgow, having been commissioned to create many Illuminated Addresses for prominent personages. What she came to was new, exciting and challenging - affording the opportunity to impart her rich background of Arts and Crafts knowledge in relatively untilled but fertile ground.

     To my certain knowledge, Grace Melvin was the first crafts person to bring the art of the broad edged pen to Canada. There were commercial artists doing built-up lettering and signpainters facile with brush lettering. And there was that particular breed known as engrossers, who used the prevailing pointed steel nib to outline letters, which would then be filled in with pen or brush, as well as achieving thick and thin strokes (as in the Copperplate hand) through pressure and lift. But they all had one thing in common - they exemplified the "printed look," whether typeface or engraved, rather than from naturally pen formed letter shapes from the basic study of early manuscripts.

     No doubt Charles and her sister, Jean (Ed.: Scott's wife) described Vancouver of the 1920's very accurately to Grace for she arrived in Vancouver with a trunk load of craft tools and supplies. She was to re-order directly from the old country for several years - setting up a wee supply store in her little office at the Art School. Incidentally, it wasn't until J.G. Fraser opened the first comprehensive Artist Materials and Craft Supplies in the 400 block West Pender Street in the late 1930's (Ed.: 1938 at 602 West Pender) that we as students could purchase the necessary course requirements, outside of her wee shop.

     Browsing through the Vancouver School of Arts Prospectuses of the 1930's gives one a comprehensive idea of what the Design and Applied Art Courses included: Needlework Design (stitchery, weaving, etc.), leatherwork, book binding, etching, lino-cuts, wood engraving, block-printed textiles, pottery and ceramics, design application to wood and metal (painted, carved or gilded), lettering, illuminating and Heraldry. Quite a formidable list wouldn't you say! Before going any further, it must be said that the Vancouver Art School had made an impressive name for itself across Canada by the 1940's, for the sound instruction in Drawing, Painting, Composition and art history - all due to the tremendous energy, talent, and organizational ability of the Director, Charles H. Scott.

     Grace Melvin made a strong impression on her First year students from the very opening day of class. Despite her diminuitive size, she had an iron will that could have commanded an army. She had the courage of her convictions and an enthusiasm for life that was infectious. Her manner of dress was different to say the least - no manufactured things off the rack for Grace! She designed her own clothes and either made them herself or had them made for her. Two things struck you - the colours she would choose to put together and the style, which I can best describe as the "layered look."

     It could start with a plain skirt, a blouse, an overblouse - longer and open - a scarf or sash, a 3/4 length smock worn while in class - all in a myriad of blues, greens and purples with accents of mustard yellow or apricot. Frills and flounces she abhorred, her coats and suits were always well tailored. Grace had a penchant for hats - broad brimmed as a rule - which, along with her mid-calf dress length and low heeled shoes, tended to make her appear shorter than her 5 foot plus. All of which set her apart from the crowd.

     She could never resist a beautiful piece of fabric - if the texture and colour appealed, she would buy 3 or 4 yards and tuck it away in the drawer for future use. If we were working on an Applique piece in the needlework class, she would say "Now geruls (girls), rummage through the remnant bins at the Bay or Spencers, ye never know what little tr-r-r-easures ye will find for a very small price." All of which had the effect of making us very aware of colour, texture, and the qualities of silks, wools, cottons, linens, felts, and hessian. If you did not soon become aware, she would scathingly cut you to ribbons by exclaiming - "Aach, ye have no tactile awareness!"

     Winning a scholarship to study Drawing & Painting is how I entered the Vancouver School of Art, but by the end of the first year, I knew in no uncertain terms that it was lettering, illuminating and Heraldry that I wanted to study and later specialize. All of which meant going through the necessary disciplines - elementary principles of design, planning and layout, space filling of given forms and the study of Historic Ornament. We would spend a good deal of time on plant form studies, for as she would say, "You will learn more about design by studying Nature than I could tell you or you could read about in any number of books." And when it came to the Theory of Colour - after making our elaborate colour wheels and taking down copious colour notes, she would say - "Now open your eyes and look around you at the mountains, sea and forest primeval in this gor-r-r-geous part of Canada for you will not find colour more varied, more subtle, or more beautifully displayed than in this part of the world."

     As young students, we would imitate her strong, Scottish accent and laugh at her extravagant praises of the flora and fauna of British Columbia. Now, triggered by a sunset or pebbled beach, her words come to mind and I am reminded of how appreciative she was at having come to live and work here and how very much she came (to) love B.C. and in doing so, opened our eyes to its beauty. She brought me up short one day when I was watercolouring a detailed study of a Pussy Willow branch - "Irene, that branch is not just two shades of green, can ye not see the pinkey pearples (purple) around the bud?"

     At this point I must say that Grace Melvin's Lettering and Illuminating classes were not popular with most of the students - even though a certain amount of lettering was a requirement in the commercial art class. As she would say herself, it was the most disciplined of all the Applied Arts. This may seem strange in the light of Calligraphy's popularity today, but then italic handwriting for everyday use, with the attendant broad edge felt markers, cartridge loaded fountain pen sets in a variety of sizes and a plethora of Italic in 10 Easy Lessons type of books did not exist then. Even though Alfred Fairbanks launched the concept of a cursive Italic in 1927, it wasn't until well after the Second World War that it began to manifest itself on this continent.

     We began with studying the Trajan Roman Inscriptional Capitals, learning their shapes and proportions without the use of compass or ruler, I might add. After a few projects in built-up Roman Capitals, out came the "witch" pens from England and the Higgin's Ink and we did our first broad-edge pen strokes. Starting with the Uncial Hard, then into Semi-Uncial with particular emphasis on the "Book of Kells." At that time, the Studio publication of Sir Edward Sullivan's edition on "The Book of Kells" was all that was available with colour plates. We were allowed the privilege of looking at it and making notes, in the class room only, she guarded her books jealously for which I don't blame her after some of my experiences! By this time we were using Wm. MItchell nibs and reservoirs and were expected to have our own copies of Edward Johnston's "Writing & Illuminating & Lettering" - referred to as the "Bible." $2.95 Hard cover then! We also had her exemplars which had been published by Longmans, Green and Co., England. As for Graily Hewitt's "Lettering" about the only other working text book available before the Second World War, she would say - "Why learn from the student when you can study from the Master?"

     Most of our projects were carried out in Edward Johnston's "Foundational Hand," based on 10th century Carolingian. The Gothic period was passed over in a cursory manner as not being very viable in the 20th century - a Johnston attitude, make no mistake! The last hand was the Italic in its formal use only. We laboured long and hard at pen practice, letterforms, spacing, and pen borders before we were ever allowed to do any illumination. You may have noticed that I have seldom used the word Callligraphy in the course of writing this paper on Grace Melvin - there is a reason for that in that before this current wave of popularity - the connotation was that you were referring to Chinese, Japanese or even Islamic writing - for it must not be forgotten that Calligraphy - that is the art of broad edged pen executed with disciplined freedom - had been dead in the Western world for some 300 years - until Edward Johnston revived the Art at the beginning of this century.

     Looking back on her work now, one can see the William Morris look in her lettering work before 1920 - whereas her later work definitely has the Edward Johnston influence. His Foundational Hand became the precept in her own work as well as a model for her students. I realize now that I knew her in her greatest working period - culminating in the National Books of Remembrance for the Royal Canadian Engineers - World Wars I and II - both permanently housed in the Lord Kitchener Chapel in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England.

     It is also in this time frame of the 1940's that she collaborated with Marius Barbeau on the book, "The Indian Speaks." She had often expressed her interest in B.C.'s native Indian art and culture, when it was not popular to do so as it is today, I might add. Her Indian studies began to reveal itself in her decorative works of the 1930's and most certainly in the 1940's. Grace did all the lettering, illustration, book design and cover jacket for "The Indian Speaks," published in 1943 by the MacMillan Company of Canada Ltd. As students we all thought that there was more than a book between Grace and the French Canadian author! However, Grace never married, not from want of being asked as she was wont to say! But then, she was ahead of her time with a very independant spirit, whose Art always came first.

     Grace Melvin retired from the Vancouver School of Art in 1952 - drastic changes were happening to the School that Charles Scott and Grace Melvin had put together with so much integrity and love of art - but that's another story. Her failing eyesight turned her from lettering and illuminating to painting and sketching. It is interesting to note that the "calligraphic line" dominated her flower paintings for quite some time but her studies became more painterly as her forms became more abstract patterning. Grace, like her brother-in-law Charles, will be remembered with appreciation and affection by their many students. It has pleased me to have been asked to write about a lady who has influenced my life a great deal and whose contribution to Vancouver has been largely overlooked and fast-fading without something written down.

     Irene Alexander.

Document provided courtesy of Renee Alexander