In the early nineteenth century, a master practitioner of the art of paper cutting in the city of Philadelphia made a technically unparalleled series of cutworks set within a rectangular framework incorporating circles and ovals. In each example, the paper was cut with such singular precision that its overall effect is comparable to the finest lacework. As scholar Lisa Minardi has keenly observed, this intricacy “involves not just cutting out designs but also slitting the paper and/or pinpricking to create texture and add to the overall incredibly delicate effect.”
When it comes to bold and vivid graphic design in colonial America, the copybook created by New Jersey schoolmaster Thomas Earl in 1740 and 1741 is without precedent. Earl’s pages are simply brighter and more exuberant than anyone else’s work.
Identifying the schoolmaster and artist who created the Thomas Earl copybooks has proved challenging. Gravestones and newspapers have provided little help.
Thomas Earl’s two handwritten manuscripts are replete with lessons in arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy, which he enriched with calligraphic flourishes and stunning watercolor. The books not only served as essential teaching tools, but the second book in particular is tangible proof of his qualifications to teach.