A career in calligraphy

 25 March 2011

Cherrell Avery is a calligrapher who is passionate about the visual expression of words. She combines teaching, from beginner to expert, with producing private commissions.

Calligraphy work can involve illumination with gold.
Calligraphy work can involve illumination with gold.

Cherrell Avery is a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators and the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society. She regularly exhibits her work both in the UK and abroad. Calligraphy is a second career for Cherrell, who originally trained as a primary school teacher and worked in this sector before the birth of her three children.

An artistic background

"The physical feel of writing is such a joy to me. I get swept up in this process which is almost meditative."

Cherrell grew up in an artistic home, where her mother often painted, and her father enjoyed working with pen and ink. Early childhood visits to museums and cathedrals also helped inspire the young Cherrell. At the age of five she even made her own ‘Mappa Mundi’, a medieval European map following a visit to Hereford Cathedral.

“After A levels the idea of going to art college appealed to me. However, I eventually opted for a more academic route with a degree in Classical Studies and Philosophy followed by a PGCE. I spent a number of years working as a primary school teacher and found I particularly enjoyed having responsibility for art and handwriting.”

At the end of the school day Cherrell relaxed by attending occasional creative evening classes, such as calligraphy, watercolour and pottery. She had always enjoyed lettering and discovered a new and rewarding hobby in calligraphy. Cherrell was instantly hooked.

Getting training for calligraphy

Cherrell decided not to continue with a career in school teaching after the arrival of her own children. She wanted something more flexible to fit around her young family. Cherrell had already begun to accept small commissions from friends, and also attended part-time evening and day courses in calligraphy for about five years.

“By this stage I was starting to think that calligraphy might offer me everything I wanted from a career. However, I also knew that full training would be absolutely essential. I came across a degree course in calligraphy which was then offered by Roehampton Institute and I was fortunate to be able to do study on a part- time basis over four years.”

Cherrell helped to fund the course through some part-time calligraphy teaching in adult education, since she was responsible for all the tuition fees and childcare costs herself. Her background as a qualified teacher helped with this.

Starting a career in calligraphy

After graduating Cherrell continued teaching part-time, and became an accredited tutor for the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society. She had already been invited to be a Fellow of the society, after they had seen her work exhibited at the degree show at Roehampton.

Cherrell also started accepting commissions via word of mouth, working from a studio within her own home. She has never needed to advertise, although has her own website. At any one time Cherrell usually has just one commission in progress. This helps to keep her workload manageable alongside her teaching commitments, which occupy about three days of her week. Like any teacher, Cherrell has plenty of preparation to do.

"I was thinking about calligraphy as a career. I knew that full training would be absolutely essential."

“Showing my personal lettering art at exhibitions, both in the UK and abroad is another important aspect of my work. I recently showed my work in a gallery in Bruges, where I was pleased to sell some of my work.”

Cherrell enjoys every aspect of being a calligrapher, even though being self-employed can have its drawbacks.

“When you run your own business there is lots of administration, including emails, phone calls and keeping accurate accounts. But this is outweighed by my enjoyment of the job. The physical feel of writing is such a joy to me. I get swept up in this process which is almost meditative. Clients often give me really positive feedback about my work, and it is a great privilege to make something that they will treasure.”

Working as a calligrapher

Some calligraphers concentrate on events stationery, such as invitations, envelopes, menus and table-plans, and it is possible to earn a fair living in this field.

“Producing high-quality events stationery is harder than it looks, as you have to prepare samples for clients and the work is time-consuming, often with irregular hours and tight deadlines. I do this sort of work occasionally but prefer more creative commissions.”

Her work for clients tends to fall into three main categories:

  • The first is commemorative commissions, such as formal certificates and inscribing names and events in books. “I sometimes illuminate work with gold but always pass Coats of Arms, known as heraldry, onto colleagues who specialise in this field”
  • Her second area of work is more informal, such as interpreting a poem or passage of text in an artistic way. This might be a unique gift for a special occasion. This offers Cherrell the opportunity to interpret the client’s brief more creatively
  • Cherrell also enjoys the occasional “design for print” where she might be asked to design greetings cards, logos and lettering for adverts and magazines. One of the most exciting projects was to produce lettering designs for Marks and Spencer home furnishing. 

“Film work is a glamorous, albeit occasional aspect of my job. One exciting commission involved being a calligraphy consultant for the film ‘Bright Star’ about the life of John Keats. I spent time studying and reproducing period handwritten documents and was filmed actually writing some of them.”

Advice for aspiring calligraphers

  • Practise is very important. It is like learning a musical instrument – the more you do, the better you become. Learning the techniques and skills of calligraphy takes time and determination. Patience is also vital, and you need to be very thorough and careful in your work
  • Sound training is essential. Many people start with an introductory course at their local Adult Education class.
  • It is worth considering joining a calligraphy society to gain further experience. For instance, The Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society “Ladder of Progress” provides support towards achieving their accredited Certificate or Diplomas in the subject. Their website also includes a list of tutors and where they teach
  • The Society of Scribes and Illuminators runs an Advanced Training Scheme suitable for experienced students. It also provides a fantastic modular correspondence course for ‘distance learning’
  • There are regional calligraphy groups worth contacting too. Similar to the national societies above, they produce newsletters, organise talks, workshops and exhibitions. It is also a way of meeting other calligraphers in your area.

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