Paul Antonio

Interview by
Charlie Porter
Photography by
Andreas Larsson


A practitioner of the most faggy job in the universe, Paul Antonio is a scribe, which is like a calligrapher, but better. Paul’s hand-writing is both academic and fabulous: he is an expert in 15th-century gilding and often finds himself writing names such as ‘Mr David Furnish’, ‘Lulu’ and ‘The Duchess of Cambridge’ on fancy invitations as part of his flourishing calligraphy enter-prise. Paul hails from Trinidad, lives in London, and his hands are enormous.

Paul: Ginger Snap?
Charlie: Thank you. Why are your biscuits kept in baby milk powder tins?
One of my friends had a baby and the tins are great! They’re brilliant! They come in two sizes, and they’re airtight. This here is a Japanese tin that has cake in it made by my partner, Alistair. He bakes amazing cakes. He made Parkin a few days ago.
What is that?
It’s a Yorkshire ginger cake that has to be left for four days and it becomes really sticky. I brought it into the studio and it was decimated.
And what’s this opera you’re listening to?
It’s just music on iTunes. It’s from Il Trovatore. We usually listen to opera in the studio, except on Fridays, when we listen to some ABBA. Maybe Kylie. Maybe Madonna. It’s funny, music really does influence the rate at which you write and the delicacy and consistency of the script, because of course the speed of the music affects the rhythm of the writing, and then that affects the accuracy of the script.
You call yourself a scribe rather than a calligrapher?
Most calligraphers only do two or three scripts accurately. Anybody doing more than five or six is regarded as a scribe. My specialism is historical materials and techniques, which already gives me the leanings of a traditional scribe. I trained in the tradition of monks – working on vellum, using manuscript illumination, 15th-century gilding, grinding my own pigments to make ink and color. I also work with Egyptian hieroglyphs, but I work with a very specific form: the cursive hieroglyphs, which is the script of the Book of the Dead. I really am more of a historical scribe than a modern day calligrapher.
When did you first start calligraphy?
My brother and I used to trace typefaces, and one day he’d traced an old English font. We used to trace the outline and then fill it in, and he showed me this thing and I’d never seen anything so amazing. I said, ‘How did you do that?’ He said he’d traced it and filled it in. But I could see that if you had a fatter pen, you could write it. I knew the tool had to be bigger, but I didn’t realize it needed to be flatter. This was me at 12. And one of my friends said to me, ‘I have this set my mother gave to me and I know you like writing, would you like to try it?’ He said it was this thing called a calligraphy set. I saw it, and I was, like: ‘Oh My God! A big pen!’ And I immediately knew what it was.
This was the sort of set that kids are given and they just put it on a shelf and forget about it.
Yes. And a weekend later of constant writing and with my mother going, ‘Please eat something,’ I just fell in love with it.
Did you know you were gay by that point?
Yeah. I think particularly as a child you tend to have a better sense of the fact that your creativity stems from something else, because you have friends who are not gay, and their creativity is different.
How do you mean?
My straight male friends produce work that is very much bolder than mine, and my straight female friends produce work that is light and delicate and airy. And my work is a combination of both. It’s sort of masculine but delicate. I sit in the middle. The decoration I use is spaced enough so it has enough room to be masculine but also enough flourishes to be feminine. When I was a child, the way I started to look at drawing, the way I started to draw, the way I looked at the world around me, made me realize that something was different. But I never really thought I was different; I just knew I was different. Different in different degrees.
So you were never a conflicted gay?
I was really, really lucky as a child. I had an absolutely awful father – he really was terrible. He used to beat the crap out of us, but my mother was the complete opposite. She was phenomenally supportive and generous, and she just gave me this ability to accept things.
And this was in Trinidad.
In Trinidad. Trinidad is not as unaccepting about gay life as most of the West Indies. It’s quite a different society. It has money; people travel and are more open-minded.
When did you come to England?
I came here in 1998. But I’d been working as a calligrapher in Trinidad since I was 17. When you’re good at something in a developing country, you’re not just good at it; you’re the best at it, because chances are you’re the only person doing it. So when I came here, I knew I could earn a living.
Presumably you have to be really neat.
I teach every now and then, and I was teaching a workshop on copperplate script, which is a really fussy, difficult script to do. I told the class to paperclip two sheets of paper together. As I looked around the class, I said, ‘Stop stop stop stop. That’s not how you paperclip two sheets together. What you need is to get two paperclips of the same shape, color and size.’ And this woman looked at me and said, ‘I thought I had OCD, but there are obviously varying degrees of it and you’re obviously right at the top.’ I just said, ‘There’s a reason for this,’ explaining why having two paperclips of the same shape, color and size actually clips the sheets of paper in the right place.
Because it distracts your eyes. And then she said, ‘The fact that you can explain it makes it even worse.’
So you’re beyond neat.
The thing about being so fussy is that it works brilliantly for my job, because my work is very clean. I never have bits of dirt on my envelopes or anything because I am so fastidious with washing my hands, making sure the surface I’m working on is wiped. It really does require a specific sort of mind to be a scribe.
Does it involve a mental process to be able to do it?
For me it does. I have to tidy stuff away, put stuff on shelves, and make surfaces completely clean, because invitations go there on my left, my ink goes there on my right, and the drying rack is there in front of me. I have a little process: you dip the ink here, you take it up with this hand, and you put it there, because if it’s too haphazard, it’s very easy to knock a pot of ink over. And some of the envelopes we work on cost £5 to make.
No way!
We did Marilyn Manson’s wedding, and they were £15 an envelope. They were black envelopes lined with black moiré. The envelopes arrived and I thought, ‘Oh My God, I can’t even make a mistake.’ So when the stationery is that expensive, you have to have a process to make sure you don’t run into problems. Or is that just me trying to justify my OCD?
Not at all. You must have a lot of control.
There’s a lot of mental control. Then there’s the control for the enormous amount of concentration required to sit and address envelopes, to get them right. When I sit and write, my body settles into a very specific position in order to produce that level of work, and the accuracy of producing the same shape constantly requires another enormous amount of control. Even when I do really big, wild work, I have to think about the shape I’m aiming for, what’s going to happen when I put the nib on the paper, and exactly where I’m going to put it. It’s all about control and process. And even when I finish writing a letter, I don’t just flick; I actually stop and lift the pen in and out so the ink drops back into the letter. I can lose control too, you know?
When clients piss me off, I really lose control. I just lose it. I will not take crap from clients just because they feel they can talk to people the way they think they can. If they want to go, then they can go. Invariably they come back.
And you say you’ve got so much busier these past couple of years?
The business has started to grow in a way that I never anticipated. I remember saying to Alistair that all I ever wanted was a little desk somewhere. Now I have a studio on two floors. This year, we worked on some stuff for William and Kate’s wedding. We worked on all of Kate Moss’s wedding. Tiffany is one of our oldest clients. Jo Malone too. One of my friends went into our bathroom at home and he said it was like walking into a Jo Malone shop.
When you have to do something like William and Kate’s wedding, is there secrecy in the studio? Do you have to be on lockdown?
Oh yes. The lists are destroyed really quickly. As soon as they’re finished, everything is deleted and destroyed.
So the list is emailed to you?
Yes, and then we write the addresses on the envelopes, and then we destroy them. We usually have to sign a confidentiality agreement for that kind of thing. We didn’t actually work on the invitations for the wedding itself; we worked on an aspect of the wedding, which I can’t really tell you about, but it was good fun, and then after that we did Kate Moss’s wedding, which was a huge contrast.
I’m really aware, sitting here, that I’m completely slouched but your posture is perfect. Have you always had it?
I did gymnastics for six years, and I did ballet, and I used to sing; that helps in keeping your posture fairly precise, because when you do calligraphy, it’s easy to start slouching, which means your lower lungs get compressed, which means you don’t get oxygen, you get tired… My masseur said to me: ‘The thing about your body is you know it so well, and it’s like a series of rubber bands that you can control so minutely, and you just knit everything together when you’re ready to work and it stays where you want it to stay.’ That’s another type of control.
Do you have to regulate yourself in life too? Can you go out at the weekend and drink?
It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m working, I won’t go out, because it does require such concentration. What I used to do ten years ago, I wouldn’t dream of doing now.
But you can go out sometimes.
Oh, I do go out, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t cane it like I used to. I don’t see the need now. I have a wonderful partner; we stay home and cook – and eat. And eat more. So yeah, it’s great.
Where do you go out?
Alistair and I go to Hard On. That’s where we met. We’ve been together for five years. But before that I used to go out with my friends Doug and David and Robin, and we’d go to Passion and Beyond and…
So proper going out.
Oh yeah. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, crawling home Sunday night. Full weekend going out, sometimes even Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
You were able to do that and still do calligraphy?
Two things happened that changed the way I go out. I remember once I was out and I was completely off my face, and I saw this construction of heraldry and color I’d never been able to conceive of before. I just left the club, literally ran out of the club, and to the studio, because I had to paint. I painted furiously for eight hours, then I slept for two hours, and then I started painting again. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen color like that. It was a fascinating discovery. I was at art school at the time and I remember taking the work in, and my tutor looked at it and said, ‘I see that you’ve discovered acid.’ That was a really interesting experience for me, seeing all this stuff. But that’s not something I tried again because it really does mess with you.
What’s the other time?
This was when I stopped going out. I was clubbing with friends, and just there in the middle of the dance floor, about three o’clock in the morning, I began thinking: ‘I wonder how, with the Sumerians and Babylonians, the stylus was held and applied to the damp clay to produce the wedge-shaped indentations that give cuneiform writing its name?’ And it occurred to me that I had so much to do, and I was just wasting my time, and I just left.
And it’s a lovely thing to realize.
Then you bump into people who haven’t stopped, and they say, ‘Oh, you look great!’ And you think, ‘Oh god, you look terrible.’ But to each, his own.

Originally published in BUTT 29