Issue 127 On Sale Now!
Your finest pen may caress a notebook with confidence or perhaps your hand lettering days came to an abrupt halt when school ended, but there’s one thing we can all agree upon – there is something very magical about inky adventures on paper. There’s one person who knows that better than anyone, and that’s Betty Soldi. An internationally accomplished calligrapher and graphic designer, she’s worked with brands from Fortnum & Mason to Hermès. Her delicate, swirling script is enough to captivate any onlooker, so read on and be inkspired to try it for yourself.
Betty Soldi’s introduction to calligraphy is enchanting. She was born into a Florentine family famous for making fireworks and that, believe it or not, was the start of things to come. “Growing up just outside of Florence, I remember spending time with my grandmother, tearing up strips of newspaper and scrunching them into small balls which would then be used to stuff the fireworks,” remembers Betty. “The more compressed all the elements, the better the bang! So newspaper ink on my hands was my first taste of what would later become writing ink on my fingers.”
Betty’s love of writing led her to a BA course in Graphic Design and Communication. “I was on the cusp of ‘old school’ – creating letterforms and type by hand. The first year was fundamental in teaching all the rules, from typographic kerning and balancing spaces between letters to tension on paper.” She spent weeks moving and glueing small black squares onto white sheets to train the eye about space, dynamics and visual calibrations. It may sound like another language, but these skills still resonate with Betty today. “I often speak about noticing the negative space all around, the placement of words and the silence that speaks just as much.”
She was taught traditional calligraphy by Miriam Stribley, a wonderful teacher who encouraged her students to break the rules and nurture their own expressive, modern style. And Betty’s style has been evolving ever since. “We don’t have the same haircut or make-up we had years ago, so why not encourage different ways of writing that reflect who we have become?” she asks. “My handwriting reflects my emotional state of being… there are days when my calligraphy just doesn’t ‘work’. It doesn’t flow or create shapes that I love – sometimes I blame that on the full moon! Right now my style is expansive, full of flourishes – perhaps a reflection of how I see the future unravelling and revealing itself?”
At the age of seven Betty moved to London, but she returned to Florence during the summer months. “It held the most amazing memories of delicious gelato and sun-filled skies, family reunions and friendships rediscovered year after year,” she says. “I met my future husband Matteo there when we were 18 and I always admired how much he knew and loved his own city, showing me hidden treasures and sharing artistic insights.” After having a calligraphy and design business in London for many years, Betty returned to Florence full-time to become a mother. “Shortly afterwards my husband and I opened our shop selling salvaged and antique furniture and objects. Within a few years the furniture was used to furnish our boutique bed and breakfasts nearby, and I design calligraphic objects such as handmade embroidered pillows, plates, coffee cups and stationery for the shop.”
Florence is a wealth of inspiration for Betty. She’s constantly amazed by the impact of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as more unknown characters. “Caterina de’ Medici took her favourite things to the French court in the 1500s – like perfumed gloves, sugared water (which would later become ice cream), forks (until then only spoons had been used at the table) and lots of feminine wisdom. I feel I may be breathing in a little of that incredibly cultural and artistic dust from the past every time I walk somewhere.”
Unique and something we can call our own: that’s the beauty of calligraphy. “We can all write,” reminds Betty. “We just need to develop our awareness of other ways of cultivating, practising and expressing ourselves.” The unpredictability is another side effect of hand lettering, and one which she embraces. “It always wows me when funny little curlicues happen, or an ink splat appears which I love and celebrate – we learn most from our mistakes!”
Calligraphy is on the rise. The hashtag on Instagram has been used 7.4 million times – the social media platform is awash with both professionals and novices turning their hands to the time-honoured tradition and breathing new life into it. “I am a believer in people nourishing their handwriting to become more decorative, but above all widening their horizons in how and where it is applied, no matter the look of it sometimes. Leaving a lipstick note on a mirror, writing a message on a bottle you take to a dinner party, getting kids to draw and write on balloons at a party – bringing writing to life!”
Betty’s top tips
- Look around. Research #calligraphy and #moderncalligraphy on Instagram. Investigate any courses and workshops as that one-to-one teaching is so vital – you can do virtual classes via skillshare.com.
- Approach with an open mind, not judging, and accepting where you’re starting from and not yet knowing where it will take you. It’s a beautiful inksplattered journey of self-revelation and creative adventures.
- Remember to breathe and smile as you write because the pen transmits all of your thoughts and feelings. How amazing… magic is in your hands!
Inkspired by Betty Soldi (£16.99, Kyle Books). Photography by Debi Treloar.