Unusual micro-calligraphy of the 19C

Can you please help me in researching these images? I am not sure whether they classify as micro calligraphy, micro-text, micro writing, micro engraving, or some other description?

The four miniature images have been sitting in a bottom drawer for about ten years without being researched. When purchased at auction I thought they were originals, but after the auction changed my mind to thinking they were engravings and, in disappointment, consigned them to the bottom drawer. Engravings seem more likely, as at the bottom can be see a little extra line of writing which is original and has bled a little into the paper.

From the frames, I think they date to the early or mid 19C. I have never seen any other examples and am now displaying them here in the hope that a kind visitor may have seen something similar and know the artist or more about the technique involved? If you can help identify them, please click on my profile for my email address and send me any information you have that may help throw a light on the subject.

If you click on any of the images you should a larger version and be able to see that each picture is made up of tiny dark or light writing, on varying angles to give the effect of shading. A partial and enhanced close up is included to help show the nature of the shading.

The right facing miniature portrait is 25mm high and the left facing portrait is 35mm high. The writing is very hard to read, but I wonder if one of them is intended to be Plato.

The two scenes are 60mm high. After a search based upon a small selection of words, it was found that the writing on these two is a transcription of writings of Oliver Goldsmith (1739-1774).

Slightly right and below the centre of the close-up image is written "a boy who happens to say a sprightly thing". This link should take you to the source of that quote, The miscellaneous works of Oliver Goldsmith

Goldsmith was an Irish writer, poet and physician known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his pastoral poem The Deserted Village (1770) (written in memory of his brother), and his plays.

Goldsmith wrote The Good-Natur'd Man in 1768 and She Stoops to Conquer, which was first performed in 1773. He also wrote An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. He is thought to have written the classic children's tale The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, the source of the phrase "goody two-shoes". 129, 130, 131, 132.

Later - a kind visitor who made some earlier helpful comments has now written to say,
In the midst of some research I came across two artists that have an association with Goldsmith having done illustrations for one his books, The Vicar of Wakefield:
1.       Thomas Stothard
2.       John Romney
 Both were engravers and Romney had created some etchings of buildings as you will see here:


  1. I wish I had found this page sooner. I have some knowledge of the field of micro writing and I am assuming that to date you have not received any other feedback. Firstly it's a 9th Century artform and was first used I believe by the Hebrew religion and judging from your comments you probably were aware of that.

    My experience relates mainly to the use of this technology in Intelligence organisations. It was and very probably still is, used as a covert method of communication. From simply writing messages in micro letters to skillfully hiding that form of writing for example as a message written on the back of a postage stamp or even on the face of the stamp. Such writing could also be encoded with the code forming a part of a written paragraph. Agents would use perhaps every other letter on every other word as part of their coded message. It's not beyond the bounds of possibilities that your examples could have been used in that way.

    Another way of using micro writing was for messages sent by carrier pigeons were large amopunts of information could be transcribed onto a small, light weight piece of paper and then put in a capsule.

    A very special way used by British intelligence was to write a set of code letters in normal sized writing and then place other code letters and numbers within each letter.

    From the dimensions you have supplied I am assuming that the height of the letters is between .3mm and .5mm. The lower being close to the limit of unaided writing, below that it needs a magnifying glass and a very special type of pencil or, as was used in the earlier days. a camel hair.

    Whatever the origin is, these are magnificent pieces of very fine work. I would surprised if there were no other examples around. Having said that I have not seen anything like this before.

    I hope this short note has been of some interest and help for you.
    Very Best Regards

  2. Gordon, many thanks for your comments. As mentioned the size of the larger images is 60mm high. I have not tried to count the number of lines in that, but your estimation of .3mm to .5mm looks to be correct. To date I have had no other feedback, but agree there must be more examples out there somewhere.

  3. Don,
    I have emailed separately and provided some additional information which may help track this work down based on the style of buildings.

    Whoever did this amazing work was extraordinarily skilled in my view. The additonal writing on the sky above the buildings shows letters that fall below .3 mm and possibly down to .2mm. It is getting close to being created by a pantagraph or similar. Some additonal background information can be had if you follow up on Google for James W. Zaharee, a master of this craft who once wrote Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on a 3 inch strand of human hair, I understand it was blonde but the relevance escapes me.

    Did you notice the pale writing around the upper part of the rim? Hard to see at first but it does seem to be present. FYI, when I examine any exmaples or suspected examples of micro writing, I use a small digital camera at Macro setting at 1 cm. Lighting can be an issue as you are probably aware. If you have any advice to offer on the subject it would be gratefully accepted.

    I will keep pursuing this with your permission as it is a subject of great interest for me.

    Best Regards


  4. Gordon,
    Again many thanks - as mentioned in my email you are very welcome to pass the images around, and to encourage anyone to leave comments, although I tend to have some doubts that the origin of the buildings themselves will help very much in determining where they were made. I have not tried to read all the writing as it is very hard to read, just enough to be able to find a suitable quote to Google for a literary source.

    I suspect the overall images as drawn were copied from early/mid 19C engravings, which could well depict mid European buildings as you suggest. However, as the writing itself is in English and the papier machie frames are typical of those used in Britain in the early 19C, I would expect that the actual writing was done in Britain.

    Given the fineness of the work, I had initially expected that the writing must have been engraved into a steel plate and then the image printed, as ordinary writing in ink would bleed into the paper, as can be seen at the bottom of the images.

    However a complication with engraving is that the printed image would then normally have been reversed from the engraved image, unless the engraver had the ability to write backwards, like da Vinci. I therefore am quite uncertain how else the writing would have been engraved to read the correct way.

    Thus still a puzzle, but many thanks for your interest and comments.

  5. Some further thoughts regarding how the work may have been done. Your comment on the way that writing tends to bleed into surrounding paper are absolutely correct. I have done some micro calligraphy work and the main issues are the type of ink, the type of paper and of course the nib being used.

    What I have found is that translucent paper effectively blocks the bleed effect, tracing paper does this quite well and i believe it was available at the appropriate time. It could be that an etching or engraving was used to 'shape' the image and then written over via the translucent paper. From that point I would imagine that it would be resonably straghtforward to transfer the image to another medium but not having tried that approach it is very much a best guess.

    Best Regards