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Memorial Books

Memorial Books

Gillian Hazeldine is a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators (SSI) and a Full Member of Letter Exchange. In this article, Jilly gives advice and tips on writing names in a memorial book.

Writing names in a memorial book and adding names to certificates are two of the most frequent calls on the calligrapher’s skills.

Memorial books are important as they not only record someone’s birth and death, but it is also a comfort to the bereaved to be able to see their relatives’ names written nicely for posterity.

If you are fortunate enough to be asked to start a memorial book from scratch, then you will need to consider the size of it, the paper you will use to make it, number of folios per section and then the design of title page and of the pages themselves. One of the books I do has several pages for a month; another simply records in chronological order. If you decide on the former, remember that it is a fact that more people die in the winter months than in the summer, so those pages fill up more quickly. If you are starting from scratch, it is a good idea to approach a bookbinder at the beginning and work with them, so that there are no nasty surprises at the handing over of the pages.

Off the shelf Memorial Books

Most memorial books are bought off the shelf by church or parish councils and presented to the calligrapher.  If this is your experience, the first thing you need to do is to go to the back of the book and take a sample of the paper. Slice out a whole page carefully with a scalpel (and a cutting mat underneath the page!), leaving at least 20mm of the page at the spine. If this loose flap bothers you, glue it down with some PVA, with a protective sheet underneath the flap and glueing from the spine out with a brush. Check that there is no excess on the edge, press the flap firmly down, close the book and leave to dry with another piece of protective paper inserted.

Test the paper for ink, paint, how it reacts to a rubber being used on it and very importantly, whether you can erase successfully. Quite often the paper used in these shop bought books is Goatskin parchment, which, although not the nicest paper, is perfectly okay to write on and does allow erasure.


The ink you use is important; shop-bought inks are aniline dyes and are likely to fade with time. You need to be using Chinese ink or Sumi, whichever you prefer. I prefer to grind ink for every job, but you can buy bottled Chinese or Sumi ink. This may need some dilution.

You can use gouache; Lamp Black is a good dense colour and if the paper in the book has a tendency to bleed with ink, then gouache is the answer.

The books I do use black and a colour; red in the case of my local memorial books, green in the case of the one I do for Brantwood, Ruskin’s home. Gouache is the only option for colour in books. Don’t use coloured inks. They are thin, transparent and have a tendency to blob. If there is a call for gold (if you have taken over a book and gold has been used previously) then I would use shell gold, but it is very expensive now and you can buy some good quality gold gouache that will work, but won’t burnish.

Mix your gouache at least 12 hours before you are going to use it and before covering your palette with Clingfilm to keep dust out, add a drop of Gum Arabic. This is absolutely essential for writing in books. Without it gouache will have a tendency to offset (especially if a bookbinder is going to put the book in a press) and there is nothing worse than a ghost of your writing appearing on the facing page. Test that there is enough Gum Arabic in your paint by writing, letting the paint dry and then rubbing over it quite vigorously. Some colour will come off on the rubber, but if the paint doesn’t shift, there is enough. Too much will render the paint difficult to work with. To add just one drop, use the handle of a paintbrush, dip it a fair way into the fluid, extract it and then hold it over your paint so that the gum slides down the handle and you can control one drop into your mixture.

Ruling Up

Ruling up in a made book is quite tricky. You can either make dots either side of the page and join them up or you can use a ruler and set square. If you have several names to enter, double-check that your lines are accurate before you start writing. Lines of writing that slope either up or down are going to be very noticeable. Use a fairly hard, sharp pencil, an H or 2H and don’t press too hard on it so that the lines will erase afterwards. Try also to rule only where your writing will be.

I work on my sloped board with a strip of wood that is almost the width of my board and about 15mm high taped at the bottom so that the book sits on it without sliding around. Writing on the verso (left-hand) pages of a book until you are halfway through it is problematic because of the curve of the pages. I fold a piece of heavy blotting paper round the top of the pages and the front cover to protect them and use a bulldog clip over that so that the pages stay together and reasonably flat. Once more than halfway through the book it is the recto pages that are difficult and the same device works. On a thick book, to avoid putting too much pressure on the spine, you can use a piece of MDF the same width as the spine tucked underneath the cover up to the spine so that you are writing on a flat surface.

If you have started the book from scratch, you will have decided on the size of writing as part of your design. If you have to follow on from someone else, then you will have to match as nearly as possible their writing. If you are presented with a name that is simply too long for one line, take part of it on to the next. Don’t try to compress or change nib size to fit it on (although that was what Edward Johnston did).


Before you start writing, double-check the names and dates. I had a recent experience where my local vicar had copied down the dates wrongly and it was only as I wrote a date and thought ‘how odd, both these people had the same dates’ that I realised the mistake. I had got to the end of the birth in September before stopping and the correct date was May, so I had to do about an hour’s very careful erasing before using sandarac and rewriting.  Even the best erasure is visible, certainly to the trained eye, but better that than there being an inaccuracy.

If you have names and dates, names in black, dates in colour, do all the black writing first, making sure that each entry is absolutely dry before turning pages. Then go back and put in the dates.

When everything is completely dry, rub out your lines. Try not to rub over your writing; if your lines are fine and accurate enough, you can simply remove what shows between the letters with a sharpened ‘Click’ pencil eraser. Do not rub over your gouache as the eraser will burnish the gouache and you will have shiny stripes.

Needless to say, work when you have the time and the space to do the writing without distraction. Mistakes do happen, so you will need to be able to erase well, which needs another article!


Just finally: one of my students recently took on a job for a church to update their book and when the woman brought it to her, it was basically a lined accounts ledger and the previous entries were appallingly badly written. She was asked to follow the ‘style’ with the new entries.  She soldiered on and did a reasonable job and was paid for it. But in my view she should have said no to the work. There is absolutely no point in us as calligraphers striving to do good work if the people we work for have no appreciation whatsoever of the time it takes to become skilled and the time that it takes to enter names and dates in a memorial book. Don’t do work that is not valued.

Visit Gillian Hazeldine’s website to find out more.

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