Poikilographia: a tale of two Writing Masters

It is a rare occurrence, at MusiCB3, to stumble across a volume which has nothing to do with music, so I was interested to find a 1830s handwriting guide lurking in a box at the Pendlebury this week…

On Writing

The volume is titled ‘Poikilographia, or Various Specimens of Ornamental Penmanship, Comprising Twenty Two Different Alphabets’, and it is by (or at least, appears to be by…) a Mr William Jones, Writing Master, who introduces the work thus:

As there has never been a work of the extent in PENMANSHIP offered to the public, even by the most celebrated Masters: the Author indulges himself with a hope that the generous patrons of art will not consider this as a presumptuous attempt. In this work he has endeavoured to give a general display of Penmanship, Comprehending all those branches of it that are common and most useful as well as those which are curious, ornamental, and novel. He has introduced writings in two and twenty hands specifically different from each other, And as a key to the knowledge of those various writings, he has inserted an Alphabet of each hand so as to make this book a complete guide in all kinds of Penmanship.

The Writing Master then presents specimens of twenty two different hands, including chancery, secretary, and a Hebrew alphabet. Whoever owned this volume has tried out various letters on the facing pages in pencil, no doubt trying their best to heed the advice:

To write well copy after the best Masters, learn the true form of each letter, endeavour to observe a due proportion in their sizes and distances apart: and in all your writing and drawing take great care that your pen have a clear split, a sharp point, and that it be free from hairs, or any other encumbrance by which the stroke might be rendered rough or uncouth, and drawing with a pen point take your simple outlines with a pencil […] After scrub out your pencil marks and proceed to fill up your design. Make your strokes exceedingly delicate at first, but afterwards thicken them by degrees till you bring your own shadowing to its full strength. Lay in your lines after the manner of engravers.

I have been able to find out very little about William Jones, but I did find a very suspiciously similar earlier publication on penmanship, by a Rev. Samuel Coate. Coate was a Methodist minister from Canada, whose volume of ‘Poikilographia’ – or variety of different hands – was published in London in 1812. He is described as an eloquent and energetic preacher, an extraordinary person who “swept like a meteor over the land”. He seems to have fallen on hard times, however, by the early 1800s, having put a lot of his funds and energy into the building of a chapel for the Methodists of Montreal. As a way to pay his debts, he turned to his considerable talent for penmanship. The volume he produced consisted of twenty two alphabets, illustrated with Biblical scenes, with drawings of birds and trees “executed in such a way as to consist of one continuous line” which certainly matches with the Pendlebury volume.


Coate died in England in 1813, at the age of 37. Pretty much the entirety of Jones’s later publication was ‘borrowed’ from Coate’s Poikilographia, the only change being that Jones added his own name! Apart from that though, little has been done to conceal the plagiarism of the 1812 publication, with Coate’s own name still appearing in places.




The Hay Bay Guardian, No. 2, June 1994

Fallen Meteor: Rev. Sameul Coate by J. William Lamb (2010)

Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Volume XLVIII, October 1992.



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3 Responses to Poikilographia: a tale of two Writing Masters

  1. littlemissnemo says:

    Hi Kate,
    I subscribe as a musician always on the lookout for the weird and wonderful pearls and curiosities, but I’m responding as a local crafter and designer about to put together an introductory lesson on calligraphy and decorated manuscripts. This book is an extremely timely find, as far as I’m concerned (!), and I wonder if it might be possible to post some more pictures, so that I can show my pupil…?


  2. littlemissnemo says:

    Hi Kate,
    Got the pictures – thank you so much. Wow! The photos are just great, and I’m really looking forward to sharing them with my pupil and telling her where they came from 🙂
    All the very best,


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