I have been a practising professional heraldic artist since leaving art school in 1983. I was fortunate enough to be one of a very few in the world today who received a formal training in designing and painting heraldry and the allied arts of calligraphy and traditional manuscript illumination. Of a class of only five students only two of us are still working full time and of the other students who proceeded or came after me, only three or four that I know of paint heraldry professionally.
If one searches the internet for heraldic art or artists and then clicks images you will see a lot of heraldic art all over various social media platforms. Which tells me that there is a keen interest in this, ‘gentylle scyaunce’. That has to be a good thing, but not necessarily so.
The various heraldic societies, The Heraldry Society and The Heraldry Society of Scotland for example do sterling work in stoking the fires of interest in the subject and have a flourishing membership. This is of course wonderful but what about the art of heraldry? I once had an argument with an Officer of Arms who said Blazon was ultimately more important than the art. I disagreed, yes Blazon is the construct, the skeleton but the art is what puts visual meat on the bones and whilst he, I and others like us might admire and appreciate an elegant blazon the majority really will only truly appreciate it through the art, the pictorial depiction of the blazon. So then from that point of view the art is as important
The advent of computer technology has of course had an incredible impact on contemporary society and for the better in most cases and the fields where it has turned tradition on its head has meant that people have had to adapt to this new way of thinking. Heraldry has not escaped this revolution. The images you find on search engines when entering ‘heraldic’ art are numerous it is true but many of them are digital images and they are not very good.
I can qualify that statement because after thirty six years of practicing professionally and recognised as one of the leading heraldic artists working today, I can say with some certainty that I do know the difference between a good piece of heraldic art and some assemblage put together by someone with little or no understanding of design principles. I suppose it is the curse of the modern age that social media now allows anyone who thinks they have a talent to show their wares and make money from them and I have found this not only in heraldry, but manuscript illumination and calligraphy.
It might be argued that it is a free market economy and everyone has a right to do what they want and people will only ever gravitate to the best work. How I wish that were true. When it comes to a coat of arms it is my impression that people have little or no idea as to what is good or bad. Most probably because they have fallen for the sales speak of the person they are talking to. This can be witnessed by the appalling designs they brandish with pride or maybe they just don’t care. They should, because the more of this garbage, and it is garbage, that is put out there only one thing suffers that is the subject of heraldry increasingly the visual imagery associated with this beautiful subject is looking cheap and tacky to put it bluntly.
A coat of arms is supposed to reflect the bearer and I am sure that many who adopt arms do not really want to display something that looks cheap as a reflection of themselves? I have been attacked regularly by digital hacks and amateurs because I take this attitude, I have been called arrogant and having a superior attitude. Guilty as charged if trying to guarantee standards is considered superior or arrogant. I do however believe in this sublime art form with a passion, it is my life and I have loved it from the age of 14. I hate to see it being reduced to bucket shop glitterati by rank amateurs.
So what can be done? Well people who want coats of arms should ask themselves some simple questions; why do I want a coat of arms? How do I get a coat of arms? What will it cost me? Most adopt arms or have arms granted because they realise it is a way to represent the self symbolically. We live in an ever increasing uniform world and so to stand out in some way is no bad thing. How do you go about getting a coat of arms? If you live in a country that has an heraldic authority, Scotland, England, Spain, Canada and South Africa for example you can for a fee apply for one and in most cases be granted arms. The Officers of Arms who are, after all experts, will design proper arms as are befitting the bearer. The document you receive whilst in some cases not representing the best heraldic art available will be competent and well executed. If you live in countries that have no heraldic authority like the United States of America then you are free to adopt arms within certain guide lines. As a Republic crowns and symbols of higher rank like helmets with bars and supporters should be avoided if at all possible. If you are a citizen of such a country you should find professionals to design your arms and be warned there are many charlatans out there who will be happy to part you from your hard earned cash only to supply you with an absolute mess. Also remember, as anywhere in life you will get what you pay for. You might also want to note that arms designed by a committee of ‘experts’ are probably best avoided.
So how do you avoid the pitfalls? Ask questions. How long have they been doing this work? are they trained? but more importantly can they draw? If they are digital artists check that every component of their work is original. It is a sad truth that many digital artists use other peoples outlines and designs by way of clip art packages or direct theft from the internet. Be very careful, you might find yourself in a copyright lawsuit. I myself have had my designs and ideas stolen on numerous occasions. Having said that there are some excellent digital artists out there who draw and paint with their computers from scratch and these are the people you should use every time if digital is the way you want to go. If you want the traditional hand painted work then you will want to find artists who specialise in this work, some fully trained others not, but again ask the same basic questions as before. You might end up paying more than you would have liked but remember a coat of arms is the public persona of you the individual, so it is up to you how in the end you wish people will perceive you.
When you receive a painted coat of arms it is probably as well to remember that when commissioning the services of a professionally trained artist they bring many years of training, knowledge and know how to the table. You are paying for that experience as well as the actual art. The drawing and design stage, the preparation of vellum if used, the knowledge of how to handle and mix paint properly. The expert use of gold leaf and paint and the totally original and unique piece of art that will be cherished by generations of your family to come.
By following these simple steps you will be safe in the knowledge that you are getting the best work available and just as importantly helping maintain the high standard of this subject which has lasted for a thousand years. Be aware that you are becoming part of glorious tradition so honour it and it will honour you.
In closing heraldry is not an elitist subject. Do not fall for the old maxim that there are those out there who are trying from a high handed point of view to stop others from having armorial bearings. You will be told by many digital hacks that you have as much right to a coat of arms as others and that those who charge more are a, ‘snobbish elite.’ You can have a coat of arms but that doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards and have some second rate amateur design job. I say again, guaranteeing basic standards is not elitism. Ask yourself this; would you go to an amateur dentist to have a tooth filled?, an amateur surgeon for an operation? or fly in a plane commanded by an amateur? of course not and heraldic art is no different.
Remember. Who are they?, how long have they been doing this?, have they had any training?, is their design work completely original? and can they draw?.
Heraldry and it’s art is a beautifully fascinating subject and to be part of it is to belong to something that has it’s roots deep in history and it has adapted and changed but always maintained a standard and by following a few basic guidelines you will play an important part in keeping this noble art form flourishing and alive and hopefully find the whole process of receiving a coat of arms a positive experience.
Andrew Stewart Jamieson