Friday, 8 September 2017

Requiem for the written word

Review of Percy Kelly 'Painted Letters' exhibition at Whitehaven Archives, September 2017

I'VE long been a fan of late artist Percy Kelly - not so much of his paintings as his 'painted letters'. When he wrote to friends - and even when writing to the taxman - he would illustrate his letters with drawings and paintings of the local landscape or perhaps the room he was sitting in. They are a beautiful blend of words and pictures. And fortunately for me many of his painted letters are cared for at Whitehaven Archives - just a few yards from where I live.  

During September, a number of his letters were dug out of the vaults and put on public display for an exhibition. They are a requiem to the written word. In an age of texting, email, messaging and other temporary mediums, Percy Kelly's letters remind us of the beauty of the written word. Let's be honest, even those of us who still use pen and ink only scribble out handwritten notes on rare occasions. Few of us would take time to write in neat italic or copperplate - and then spend half an hour painting the view out of the window to go on the bottom of the letter. One can hardly blame today's generation for simply texting CUL8R. 

Percy - born in Workington in 1918 - once said 'I believe in years to come these letters of mine will gain as much fame as the drawings and paintings'. I think they will fare better than his traditional art because his letters represent one last hurrah for handwriting in the final days of this ancient but doomed art. 

His letters are a final farewell before we sink into digital hell. It won't be long now before UK schools follow other countries and drop the teaching of handwriting in favour of keyboarding. For a few years there will be old fuddy-duddies like  me who will still fight handwriting's corner but then it will be gone. Streets and cafes will be full of people tip-tapping away into small metal devices in the palm of their hand. Messages they are convinced are vitally important will vanish into the ether as quickly as they do. There will be nothing worthy left behind.

I'm sure some folk will still gaze in wonder at Percy's letters and no doubt someone will point their smart phone at it, take a picture and post it on Twitter. For a few hours it will 'go viral' but I fear most still won't understand what Percy was trying to tell us: that the medium is the message, that sometimes how you say something is just as important as what you are saying. That the pen is mightier than the word.

- Alan Cleaver

- See also 

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