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Esther Inglis: Virtuosic calligraphy

From the late 1500s until her death in 1624, calligrapher Esther Inglis created more than 50 beautifully crafted manuscript books, including this collection of poems.

These verses from the 1607 manuscript copy of the Octonaries of Antoine de la Roche Chandieu showcase the talents of calligrapher Esther Inglis. The English translation of the French poems may have been provided by her husband, Bartholomew Kello, an impoverished Presbyterian cleric who sometimes acted as an overseas agent for the Scottish and English governments.

From the late 1500s until her death in 1624, Inglis created more than 50 beautifully crafted manuscript books, which she presented to patrons in England, Scotland, and France, probably with the hope of receiving a “gift” or fee in return. Among the recipients were Elizabeth I, Elizabeth’s ministers, and the family of Elizabeth’s successor, James I. The daughter of French Huguenot refugees who settled in Edinburgh, Inglis often worked with texts important to Protestants. Today her elegant writing in a great variety of hands, often executed on a very small scale, is still praised for its precision and control.

While calligraphy was an accepted pastime for ladies of culture, the degree to which Inglis pursued it professionally was somewhat unusual for a woman—and was probably at least in part the result of economic necessity. Only one of her manuscript books predates her marriage to Kello, with whom she had six children. Kello contributed Latin verses in his wife’s praise to several of her bound manuscripts and probably delivered some of them to French Protestant patrons during his missions abroad. (Inglis kept her maiden name in her signed works, apparently following the Scottish legal custom of the day.)

In this manuscript, dedicated to the couple’s “freinde and landlord” William Jefferai, Inglis ornamented all but two of the poems with a hand-painted floral design. As in most of her works, the style of writing changes with each poem in what can only be called a virtuosic display. 

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