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‘Shakespearean Insults’ by Barbara Jupe (Oxford Scribes Twelfth Night exhibition)

“People just don’t write”

From 10th December-21st January the Oxford Scribes bring work inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the John Radcliffe Hospital; Sam Bennett finds out more
Cynthia Harper

"We just thought it would be nice to go to the hospital"

In the same week Verdi’s Macbeth played at the New Theatre, I conducted the final interview of OX’s year-long celebration of Shakespeare.


It was an appointment that took me to the West Oxford home of Cynthia Harper, a house she suggests may be too big for her, “but where else could I go that’s as nice as around here?” she says.

“Well, you don’t have to move, do you?” I ask.

“No…I don’t.”

‘Cakes and Ale’ by Barbara Jupe (Oxford Scribes Twelfth Night exhibition)


Cynthia is exhibitions organiser for the Oxford Scribes, a calligraphy society set up over 30 years ago, “roundabout the time computers were becoming much more important,” she says. “Everybody could produce a nice poster at home and print it, because the computer let them do it.”

Decades on and she believes “there are real problems with people not holding pens anymore and not finding writing easy – because you can do it all on a computer, or tablet, or phone. People just don’t write.”

Some do. Oxford Scribes boasts “almost 90 members, of whom probably a third to a half are active members.” The group hold two or three one day workshops each term – about nine a year.

“We are always delighted to welcome new members,” Cynthia states. “Even if they have no skill at all it doesn’t matter. They don’t even have to come to workshops.” At the same time “people can apply to join workshops even if they’re not members, if they just want to see what it’s like.”

Every year the society, originally founded by Isabelle Spencer, aims to put on an exhibition, and from 10th December to 21st January they bring work inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the John Radcliffe Hospital.

“We just thought it would be nice to go to the hospital,” Cynthia says, “because people who would probably never go to an exhibition do go down the Main Corridor of the JR, and maybe somebody will see the exhibition and think ‘that’s something I’d like to do.’

“Because of the Shakespeare commemoration it seemed obvious to choose him as the subject. And then because it’s over Christmas we thought of Twelfth Night because it’s a title that suggests Christmas time.”

Those exhibiting “can do what they like within the confines of that play. Most people will take a few words or maybe a verse of a song, or something like that, rather than write out loads and loads – because that’s boring.”

I discuss with Cynthia, whose own contribution to this “contemporary lettering” display is based on Feste’s song ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’, what the society hope to achieve with the exhibition.

“It’s always nice if we sell something,” she says. “It gives you a bit of a boost if somebody likes your work enough to buy it, especially if it’s somebody you don’t know; if your friends and relations buy your stuff you think they’re just being kind but when it’s somebody you don’t know it’s really nice.”

Gaining publicity is the “other big aim. We’re a group of people looking for people to join us, and the JR is an ideal venue for capturing a new audience, I hope.” While people there will likely have more pressing matters than Shakespeare and calligraphy on their minds, “they are often hanging about, so it seems like a good place to go.”

And with Shakespeare being, as theatre director Nick Green put it to us earlier this year, “all over the place” anyway, be it in the music of the Arctic Monkeys or in the words your average person speaks every single day, he may as well be on the walls of a Headington hospital. He’s not going anywhere. To that end, I don’t see why Cynthia should either.


Oxford Scribes presents Twelfth Night at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Main Corridor, Level 2 from 10th December-21st January. For more on Oxford Scribes visit oxfordscribes.co.uk.

- Sam Bennett


Related Articles: The Shakespeare Legacy