Sunday 30 December 2018

The Excellency of the Pen and Pencil (1668)

In September 1940,  several young lads and a dog stumbled upon a remarkable cave near Montignac, a small village in the Dordogne region of France. The walls of the cave were full of beautiful pre-historic images depicting animals, humans and abstract symbols. The animal depictions in the Lascaux caves are stylish and accomplished and some of the symbols include non-figurative dot clusters that may be rudimentary star charts. 

Lascaux is a rare time capsule of human mark-making from about 20,000 years ago. The images are beautiful evidence of the sophisticated mark-making skills of the Homo sapiens who had come from Africa and who were living in Europe from about 40,000 years ago.  To modern humans the antiquity of the Lascaux images is daunting. Although the images were made at least 1,000 generations ago they show that our ancestors had cognitive capabilities that were essentially identical to our own. 

Even more daunting is the fact that the Lascaux images are relatively modern examples of human symbolic mark making. The oldest known evidence of deliberate human mark making is a 70,000 year old piece of ochre from South Africa that was polished and then engraved with a distinctive, angular geometric pattern. 

The abstract representations engraved into these Blombos ochres are composed of fine geometric patterns. They are the product of manipulative skills and fine motor control that is essentially the same as that of any modern engraver, calligrapher, typographer, watchmaker, artist or scientific instrument maker.

As a species humans are blessed with exquisite manual dexterity, in the form of a tightly integrated eye-brain-hand system. Because we are dominated by our visual sense, it is easy to make the assumption that within the eye-brain-hand system, the eye guides the hand. However, this assumption underestimates the importance of the hand. In some specific and important instances we find that the hand guides the eye.  

Humans naturally use a number of different hand grips. A range of power grips are useful for holding on to an object whilst forcefully hammering or throwing. More important for mark-making is a range of specialised, precision grips. These are not used to deliver force, but rather to exploit the very fine control our hands are capable of. 

An immediately recognisable and distinctive human precision grip is the pen-hold grip which is shown most clearly in the top-right panel of the image. This grip is the most important precision grip that we habitually use for mark-making. Using this grip, humans can delicately control a sharpened stick, pen, pencil, burin or brush. Historically, this grip has allowed medieval scribes, ancient Chinese calligraphers and modern engravers to create exquisitely controlled movements that were recorded onto parchment or paper or into blocks of wood or metal. 

It is easy to be tricked by the ubiquity of this grip into thinking that it is commonplace, it is not, this is a uniquely human grip; 
In particular, the way one holds a pen (and other, similar objects) is known as the precision grip - and even our closest primate relatives cannot manipulate objects with such delicacy and skill.

This book was published in 1668 in Little Britain, an area at the north of the City of London that is close to the Lame Hospital (St. Bartholomew's) and the Aldersgate within what remained of the city's Roman walls. It was published soon after London's Great Plague (1665, 1666) and the Great Fire of London (1666).  

In the 17th Century, Little Britain was dominated by booksellers. In 1664 alone, nearly five hundred pamphlets were published there. The writer Roger North describes Little Britain in the reign of Charles II as;
... a plentiful and perpetual emporium of learned authors, and men went thither as to a market. This drew a mighty trade, the rather because the shops were spacious, and the learned gladly resorted to them, where they seldom failed to meet with agreeable conversation. 
Two editions of this anonymous volume were published in 1668. It is a disjointed collection of illustrations and passages that explain a wide range of mark-making techniques: Drawing; Etching; Engraving; Painting in Oyl; Washing of Maps & Pictures; Limning (painting miniatures); copper plate etching with Aqua Fortis and in the second edition an explanation of mezzotint.

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: Clockwise from top left the panels show: an artist sketching a foot; an engraver copying an image; a painter working at an easel with a palette and mahl stick and a cartographer finishing a map using pots of ink or colour.}


Breuil, H.(1941). `A Remarkable Painted Cave on the Estate of Lescaux.'  Nature. 147, 12-13.

North, R (1984). General Preface & Life of Dr. John North. Ed. P. Millard. UTP, Toronto.

Staski, E. & Marks, J. (1992). Evolutionary Anthropology. Harcourt Brace, Fort Worth, Texas.