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Sheila Waters


In Memoriam

13 March 1929 – 18 March 2022

Born in England in 1929, Sheila Waters was a world-renowned calligraphic artist, author, and teacher whose seventy-year career has been devoted to commissions for royalty, museums, libraries, corporations, maps for publishers and art works for collectors. From the age of 16, she studied a wide variety of art subjects for the National Diploma in Design at the Medway College of Art. 1951 was a pivotal year: she would earn her Master’s degree from the Royal College of Art, after studying calligraphy and lettering under Dorothy Mahoney (one of Edward Johnston’s premiere students), and graphic design and typography; and she was awarded Fellowship into the Society of Scribes & Illuminators, London. Her Fellowship was lauded on its 70th anniversary in 2021, in tandem with the SSI’s centennial (a special anniversary issue of the SSI journal features an illustrated article by Sheila, with her iconic Roundel of the Seasons on its cover).

In 1953 Sheila married fellow RCA student, designer-bookbinder Peter Waters. Peter partnered with Roger Powell, his RCA tutor, from 1956 to 1971, with Sheila assisting the partnership with design and illustration for many of their acclaimed commissioned bindings. Between 1951 and 1971 in England, Sheila also fulfilled a constant flow of commissions of maps for publishers, awards, certificates, and calligraphic pieces whilst raising three sons.

The great flood of 1966 in Florence, Italy changed and redirected their lives. Because of Peter’s pioneering work for the National Library of Florence in 1967, he was offered the post of Chief of Conservation at the Library of Congress; so, in 1971 the family immigrated to the US. In 1972 Sheila began a program of classes in calligraphy for the Smithsonian Associates. In the following years she offered hundreds of workshops across North America and abroad, her own regular classes at home, then week-long residential masterclasses. Sheila and several of her students founded the Washington DC Calligraphers Guild in 1976, and she served as president twice. She was its first Honorary Member, inducted in 1981.

In the US, Sheila designed major exhibition pieces, notably for the faculty shows of many of the annual calligraphy conferences that began in 1981. She taught and lectured at most of them. Concurrently, she was busy with many commissions for organizations and private clients. In 1978 she completed her well-known illustrated manuscript of Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood, commissioned (when in England) by Edward Hornby and now owned by Sir Paul Getty’s Wormsley Library, UK. A full-color reproduction of the book was published by International Letter Arts Network in 1989. Her best-known illuminated piece on vellum is the Roundel of the Seasons wall panel. Her classic textbook Foundations of Calligraphy was first published by John Neal Bookseller in 2006 and is now in its 4th edition; and her award-winning book Waters Rising: Letters from Florence was published by The Legacy Press in 2016.


In 2009 Julian Waters edited and designed a special issue of Scripsit, Sheila at 80: A Retrospective (Vol. 31, No.2&3, Fall 2009/Winter 2010), a comprehensive 52-page retrospective of Sheila’s work over 70 years, reissuing it in 2012 with translucent fly leaves and a different cover. After Sheila's passing, Julian edited and designed Scripsit Vol. 44, No.1 (2022), Sheila Waters: Her Golden Thread 1929–2022.

Predeceased by her husband Peter and her son Chris, Sheila is survived by her son Julian and his wife Cathy; her son Michael; her brother Stuart; several nieces and nephews; her grandchildren: Madeline, Tasha, Carly, and Tim; and her extensive, spirited legacy of instruction and global family of students, followers, and fellow lovers of letters.

Sheila Waters on the importance of passing on the ‘great legacy’ of calligraphy

Panel presentation at Legacies, July 2005: “Where’s the beef?” by Sheila Waters

My pet passion is training, a useful subject to address as the average age in the calligraphic community seems to be getting older. Are teachers of my generation dying off, retiring or are just plain tired? Is there a strong middle generation, able and willing to take our place and is there a young generation interested and eager to follow on? And what is good training anyway?

Do we still feel that we have a great legacy we should be passing on, so that the inner core of calligraphy, the engine so to speak, doesn't die too? Related to this, I've been reading lately that there is a malaise in the western world about intellectual pursuits, particularly in America, that there is a 'dumbing down' generally. One journalist commented that he was surprised to find, when looking through women's magazines of the sixties, that many articles were of an intellectual caliber that one simply wouldn't find in them today. Maybe there was more sense of purpose then and life seemed simpler than the present with all its uncertainties.

I hope we can still find a sense of purpose in what we do, but there are certainly signs that the focus of calligraphy has changed from a burning desire to master the craft before venturing into the art, to the other way round; that we are trying to prove ourselves worthy of being taken seriously in the fine arts world and that attention to perfecting the letterforms we use seems less important, that their quality won't be noticed in a sea of color washes and collage. This kind of thinking will inevitably lead to decay and a new calligraphic dark age. When 'anything goes' nothing goes.

So what is this legacy we have inherited and should keep alive? Medieval scribes, in scriptoria and later in ateliers, handed down their heritage by carefully training their novices and apprentices in their techniques, materials and writing skills. Western alphabet styles evolved and changed slowly, from century to century, not year by year, and scribes were probably unaware of previous styles in bygone centuries. Today the situation is entirely different because we have been exposed to the whole family tree of western writing, and its influence on type design, through being able to examine actual historical manuscripts, or their reproduction through the technological advances of  fine printing. The handing down process now is still personally, through our teachers in classes and workshops, though usually in a fragmented way, with knowledge gained piecemeal here and there, and/or from the huge variety of books now available on every conceivable aspect, most of them now in splendid color, guaranteed to woo us away from dry old black and white alphabet exemplars. No, I'm not knocking the books - I seem to buy most of them - but I am anxious that we don't risk losing the baby with the bath water.

These historical styles are the root of what we do now, however freely we depart from them, and certain basic principles of alphabetic harmony run like a golden thread through all of them. Edward Johnston, and many great teachers since, have shown how important the understanding of this alphabetic harmony is. Johnston called it 'family likeness.' Call it what you will, it is what differentiates one style from another, creating diversity and allowing the broad pen to express emotion and atmosphere and reflect an author's meaning in greater depth of expression than is possible with type.

Is knowledge of this historical legacy likely to harm and stifle creativity? I say, of course not. Shakespeare wisely said "A little learning is a dangerous thing," not a lot of learning.... So what is my concern that I feel passionate about? It is that the teaching of basic principles is getting watered down; that many teachers and students are becoming less concerned with fundamentals of good lettering from which to grow, and are focusing more on attractive peripheral tangents of our subject too early. There seems to be a lack of willingness to put in the years of hard work it takes to develop skills of craftsmanship and design to ensure a strong foundation on which to build personal expression. In other words, many try to fly before they can even walk.

But there is also a brighter side, as a lot of very fine and exciting experimental work is being done by artists who are truly seeking to find their own voice and in their work the underlying knowledge of sound structure and good design is always apparent, however free and gestural the work may be. Possession of this knowledge will always show, and so will the lack of it. Neither can be hidden.

I want to tell you of the experience of one such artist which may surprise you, although she is not alone. Most of you know who Rose Folsom is - editor of Letter Arts Review, author of The Calligrapher's Dictionary, and a fine calligraphic artist who has many successful personal shows to her credit. Her work is always evolving and much of it now would be termed non-verbal and gestural. I asked her to write a paragraph for me about her development as an artist. This is what she wrote:

“I began studying calligraphy in the early '70s. In the early '80s, after I married a painter, and after more and more calligraphers were doing painterly things with their work, I felt left behind and 'out of it' because what really still interested me was black calligraphy on white paper. I was 13 years into my study of classical calligraphy before I felt drawn to take the traditional work in a more contemporary direction. Even today, my best gestural work is done after 'warming up' with pen and ink on paper to get the solid, classical lettershapes and rhythms into my hand before doing the looser writing. If I don't warm up with traditional letters, my gestural marks can look flabby and unconvincing.”

I've known Rose as a good friend for over thirty years and know something of her struggles. Her words ring a bell for me and probably for some of you. After 58 years in calligraphy I still find letting go, and making gestural marks that I am happy with, so very difficult. She tells me to stick to what I do best!

But to continue with the 'forward to basics' theme: fortunately there is a strong body of opinion that the discipline of understanding and making good letterforms is still important. This is why last year's small Black and White conference was thought to be necessary and was so successful that another one will be held in June of next year. Being on the west coast it is hoped that it will not reduce enrollment in the far larger conference of Letterforum in Virginia.

In closing, in any other field of endeavor, from mastering a musical instrument, excelling in a sport, or becoming highly skilled in a craft, it is recognized that long years of hard work are needed to achieve excellence. Mastering the complexities in the craft and art of calligraphy is no different. We have to take care of the core of the art form we love so much and hand it on unspoiled to the next generation.

Sheila Waters teaching 2005 workshop.jpg

Also read the lecture Calligraphy in the Pursuit of Excellence by Sheila Waters on the opening evening of the Letterforum Conference of the Washington Calligraphers Guild, Washington DC, August 6, 1988.

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