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A Conversation With British-American Calligrapher Peter Thornton

Today our faculty interview series now brings us to the United States, as we speak to Peter Thornton. With over forty-five years of experience in the lettering arts, Peter has given workshops around the globe and has taught at over twenty-five international calligraphy conferences. In 2006, he moved to Tennessee to marry his wife Sherri, with whom he created a study group known as The Serifs. This year at Rendez-vous, he will teach The Ruling Pen… The Perfect Foil and Contrast - The Magic Ingredient (a class suited “for all levels of skill and optimism”). Read on to learn more about Peter’s influences, teaching philosophies and how a job delivering flowers to a crematorium led to a life-changing apprenticeship.

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters? Do you have any specific memories from a young age?

I grew up in a small town in Lancashire with the lovely name, Newton-le-Willows. One memory at the age of eleven, was when we went camping quite close to N-le-Ws. It turned dark and foggy so we pitched our tent a little away from the road. When I awoke, I looked out of the tent to realize that we had pitched the tent in the middle of a roundabout of a very busy road!

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

This was a type of 'pointed italic' that in the late 1960's was called 'calligraphy'. However, the first hand I was taught was Foundational and at the time it didn't 'resonate' with me any more than the Trajan inscription did but now, knowing more, it does allow me to appreciate it/them and other classic scripts to a better level.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

I was fortunate to take some classes with Anne Hechle at the time that I needed them the most! This aspect of timing of teacher/student can be just so critical and now as a teacher, I have sometimes felt that I may have been the right teacher at the right time which is a truly rewarding feeling.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you prefer to work with music or in silence?

I'm not sure that I ‘create’ but mornings are good moments for me to 'play/work'. For me, and I suspect for others, that ideas come from actual working and not simply waiting. I almost always have music on, from Bach and other classical pieces to meditation music.

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What are three of the most essential tools of your practice and why?

A clear idea of my objective, a clear desk and, I guess, a clear mind?

Anne Hechle told us 3 words that Irene Wellington said to her, “Clarify your intentions” and those words I have found to be consistently so important in my own work.

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Could you share about your work creating Book of Remembrances and royal certificates? How did you first get involved with these types of commissions, and has there been a project that was particularly meaningful, challenging and/or rewarding?

I had a part time job at art school delivering flowers and I once took them to Southport Crematorium and that's where I first noticed a Book of Remembrance! I wrote to the firm for an interview and applied and got the job! I worked there for fourteen years, and it was an excellent apprenticeship. I'm not sure how, but I received a commission to do a scroll for Prince Charles with a fixed design and fixed price. So one Saturday I went upstairs to begin it (on a 3 foot square card table in our bedroom) and I came down five or six hours later with it totally completed! I received the equivalent of eight to ten weeks wages for this one day of work!

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What was the first calligraphy conference you attended, and how did it make an impact on you? How many conferences have you attended and what keeps bringing you back?

My first conference was The California Experience in 1985, and I was so amazed (and still am) at the enthusiasm and the amazing organization of all those volunteers that made this 'happen'. I have now attended over twenty-five or so and my amazement has not diminished at all. The last question here is simple. The brilliant and incandescent enthusiasm of the students for whom my gratitude is endless.

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You will be teaching “Contrast - The Magic Ingredient” and “The Ruling Pen... The Perfect Foil” at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from these classes and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I hope simply to direct and ignite further their enthusiasm to both these very connected topics. Contrast has been, and still is, a major theme in my/our world. The ruling pen, was for me, akin to taking off my calligraphic corsets and releasing a fluidity in letters that took me happily, quite by surprise.

One of my teaching mantras is that I'm teaching “a method of study rather than a style of writing”. The other is that, wherever you sit in class, we feel the person on our left or right is better than us because when we look at their work, we see it for what it is. However when we look at our own work, we see it for what it isn't! But later, when that “image of perfection” has evaporated from our minds, we then see it for what it actually IS and not in competition with that original image.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in England versus the southern United States? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

Perhaps as a continuous, comfortable and steady glow rather than a flaring and infectious fire?? I've been away from UK mainstream calligraphy for over 12 years now and so this may be a rather shallow and incomplete picture. The main areas of community for both Sherri and myself are CLAS in North Carolina (who have done SO much in and for my calligraphic journey) and The Serifs, a new and small group we have just started in Atlanta. They both give my current explorations and trials a real purpose and for that, I'm truly grateful.

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What is something about you that people might be surprised to learn?

I enjoy vegetable gardening, fly fishing and of course, peeling grapes for Sherri. A surprise? I left home when I was 21 with $15.00 and a one way boat ticket to Iceland and traveled around the world for four years, working at some very odd jobs and going to art schools. I lived in a cave on the island of Crete for a little while.

Peter Thornton

United States
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