Hieroglyphs and Contemporary Art With Seb Lester

The lettering and calligraphy artist explains the enduring impact of Ancient Egyptian script

By Google Arts & Culture

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

The formal writing system of hieroglyphs used in Ancient Egypt is still a source of inspiration for artists today. English lettering artist, type designer and calligrapher Seb Lester explains his process and findings.  

Hieroglyphs and reed pens on papyrus by Seb Lester

Which hieroglyphs did you focus on and how do they relate to similar concepts we’re familiar with today? 

Faience wedjat eye amuletBritish Museum

The Eye of Horus is said to be a symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. The Ankh is a symbol said to represent life itself. The Heron symbol, one of my favourites, often represents the Bennu, an ancient Egyptian deity linked with the sun, creation, and rebirth.

Calligrapher Seb Lester with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

Ankh hieroglyph by Seb Lester

We do have symbols in the West that denote some of these things, shields can represent protection, royalty can be represented by crowns, swords can represent power, and so on, but we don’t really have many universally recognised symbols for bigger concepts like creation, and life itself.

The Eye of Horus hieroglyph on papyrus by Seb Lester

Which glyph was your favorite to draw?

Calligrapher Seb Lester drawing the Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus. It is such an iconic symbol, it is immediately so evocative of ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs. I like the fact that it’s a symbol of protection and good health. And it is imbued with layers of meaning. Horus was a sky god and usually depicted as a falcon, so the markings around the eye in the symbol mirror those often seen in actual falcons. That’s magical to me.  

Statue of the scribe Dersenedj (5th Dynasty, 2504–2347 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

As a lettering artist in modern times, how does this make you feel that ancient scribes were given the power to write and record history?  

That would have been a tremendous responsibility, completely alien today. Calligraphy is no longer about disseminating information in the same way, we have typefaces to do that via print and the internet.    

Calligrapher Seb Lester drawing the Ankh Symbol

Calligraphy today is multi-faceted and occupies this wonderful space in art and design. It can be about artistic self expression, or it can be applied in a design context to engage and please the eye. I strongly associate calligraphy today with visual poetry, it’s music for the eyes.

A poem on papyrus (-1200/-1194)British Museum

Beyond the formal hieroglyphic text, Ancient Egyptians used other types of scripts, including hieratic, a cursive writing system often used for religious text and literature. How does the hieratic style remind you of your own calligraphy?  

I certainly love the look of hieratic script. It is cursive, which means it is joined up, and has other features like ligatures, which are familiar to me as a Western calligrapher. But it is logographic which means symbols represent entire words, whereas Latin is alphabetic. So it’s visually more similar, but still very different. 

Reed pen on papyrus by Seb Lester

How is your own art affected by any restrictions, if at all? What’s most important to you in the ways you express yourself through your art?

Heron hieroglyph close up by Seb Lester

I’ve always placed a lot of emphasis on fun in my own work. So my approach is very informal, often playful and irreverent. I like self deprecation, I hardly ever draw guidelines and favour tools that can be used casually in cafes over more traditional dip pens. 

The internet has played a wonderful role in the renaissance calligraphy is enjoying at the moment. It’s wonderful how naturally the ancient art of calligraphy translates to the internet, it is testament to the power of words and ancient symbols.  

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

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