Author Archives: Patricia

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

IMG_1609The Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Book of Durrow, the Alfred Jewel, the Vespasian Psalter, Beowulf, items from the Staffordshire Hoard, the Domesday Book, these and many other gems are all there in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, from October 2018 to February 2019. It is an astonishing array of manuscripts and artefacts, and some, like the great bible that Abbot Ceolfrid at Monkwearmouth (Sunderland) had loaded on to his boat by two men to take to present to the pope on 16th June 716, have not been on show in the UK for centuries (and in the case of the Ceolfrid Bible – not since 716!).

 

IMG_1626The accompanying catalogue (see above) is packed with details of each exhibit, every one of which is photographed beautifully, and there is also fascinating background information in a series of essays, which include Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent (Joanna Story), Language, Learning and Literature (Andy Orchard), Interactions with Ireland (Bernard Meehan), The Emergence of a Kingdom of England (Simon Keynes) and Conquests and Continuities (Julia Crick). Each of these essays is lavishly illustrated with many full-page illustrations of manuscripts, including that of the comet drawn at the bottom of the page of the Eadwine Psalter shown here, heralding, according to many at the time, impending significant events – as in the conquest of England.

IMG_1628An early manuscript in the exhibition is the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict. Made in England around 700 AD it shows a very ‘pure’ (in my opinion) form of Uncial script with larger initials written in red, outlined in black and with a black horizontal ornamental line, and surrounded by red dots made with a quill. This form of Uncial incorporates many pen nib angle changes and so would have been slow to write. For the letter N, for example, the pen nib angle is changed to 90° to the horizontal guideline for the first vertical stroke, the base triangular serif is then constructed with the left-hand corner of the nib, a change of pen nib angle to 0° for the narrow top serif and that thicker diagonal stroke, and then back to 90° for the second vertical stroke and again a constructed serif. Try it yourself and see how much longer this is than when you write a simple majuscule N!

IMG_1631And what real gems there are here! This magnificent page from the Harley Golden Gospels, so well named, is a riot of gold, pattern and colour. There is, as would be expected in a manuscript of this period (first quarter of the ninth century), interlace, but also a type of Greek key design, an intriguing pattern of semi-circles and white dots in triangles, but what caught my eye was the pattern half way down the right and left borders. This angular design, outlined in white, shows an understanding of perspective not always evident at this time. The two doe-eyed golden lions on a rich blue background, have their feet trapped in interlace – no wonder their tongues are sticking out in frustration!

 

Screen-Shot-2017-02-15-at-16.56.19-e1487178017944Having copied out the David as Psalmist page from the Vespasian Psalter, the horns blown by the musicians to the sides of the main image are fascinating, not least because only one of the four looks happy in playing their music!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1632How amazing, though, that an example of those very instruments, the River Erne Horn, is on display as part of this exhibition. The wooden horn was made by splitting the yew wood into two, hollowing out the middle, and then sticking it back together again, reinforcing the join with bronze hoops. There is also a bronze mouthpiece, with the metal bent back to make a rim for the player’s mouth.

IMG_1633

The Tiberius Psalter was made in Winchester in the second or third quarter of the 11th century, and has a series of prefatory drawings in the typical lively outline and coloured wash of that time. The incredible imagination of the artist is shown in this enlargement of St Michael (in this instance) and the dragon. The saint is poking his spear at a rather benign animal sitting on his haunches with a wonderfully curling tail, a slight snort coming from his nostrils, and a cheeky little animal representing his tongue, also about to attack the saint, and also with another tongue poking out of his mouth.

 

IMG_1634There are so many wonderful examples of manuscript illumination and scripts which are such a delight to the eye and a joy to the soul. But, of course, a favourite must be Eadui Basan, shown here in a Charter for King Cnut granting land at Ticehurst in Sussex to Ælfstan, archbishop of Canterbury. His identifiable writing includes an idiosyncratic construction of the letter d. For more information about this, please see The Art and History of Calligraphy

This exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see in one place a whole range of significant manuscripts and artefacts. It really is a ‘must-see’, but if that isn’t possible, then the exhibition catalogue, with its essays, fabulous images and detailed information about each exhibit comes a good second.

A stunning Renaissance manuscript

BL, Add ms 19553

BL, Add ms 19553

The British Library has a stunning array of manuscripts and one that has been recently digitised caught my eye because of its lively and idiosyncratic lettering; the shelf reference is BL, Add ms 19553. The page shown has typical Renaissance decoration – the manuscript is dated to c.1505 – with a rather restrained red, blue and green decoration on shell gold (powdered gold in gum Arabic base).

 

 

 

 

'que'It is the lively lettering, though, not the decoration, that caught my eye, particularly the exuberently free curved stroke on the letter q in the middle of the second line. This is an abbreviation and indicates that this word should be tibisque. There is wonderful control of the pen as the pen moves from the right to the left, and, with again great control, moves to the left with a slight hesitation at the finish of the stroke adding a hint of a thickening at the very end. Note also the letter g with the exaggerated lower bowl, and no little ‘ear’ to the right of the upper bowl. This scribe is really enjoying making these strokes!

xAnother beautiful stroke is the one from top right to bottom left in this letter x; it is rather more successful that the slightly more wobbly stroke from top left to bottom right. Notice also the very flat pen nib angle to the strokes. Usually the nib angle for this writing style, Humanistic Minuscule, is about 30°. The flatter nib angle gives a more chunky feel to the lettering.

a:eWhen the letters a and e are combined as a ligature it can be a rather clumsy form. Here, though, the scribe has sloped the usual upright of the letter a and the e nestles in neatly, sharing the same stroke. Extending the ‘crossbar’ of the e and just pushing it up slightly at the end, which thickens the stroke, gives a very elegant letter-form overall. Note, too, the second thoughts the scribe has had with the long s and t in posteritate . The long s started just above the line for x-height, and the letter t was written normally. Then the decision was made to extend both strokes and join them together. It’s great when watery ink like this is used as these sorts of things can be detected.

& and extended fThe ampersand (et = and) is very graceful here, with the smaller bowl written as a complete letter o, and the lower stroke travelling to the right has a real swoosh to it. Note, too, the additional extension to the letter f written after the letter had been completed.

 

 

 

yAnd lastly another wonderful stroke on this letter y, where the slight thickening at the end of the stroke bottom left not only collides with the letters o and n on the lines below, but the pen has also caught a little on the surface so it looks a bit messy.

And if you want to see more of this intriguing manuscript and spot fabulous letters yourself, then click here.

 

Recreating the ‘Beatus’ page from the Eadui Psalter

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

As part of the Polonsky project for the British Library and the Bibliotèque Nationale I was asked to show how mediæval manuscripts were made to create a series of short informative films. To show the process of completing a miniature we selected the ‘Beatus’ page from the Eadui Psalter, (although, to be honest, I immediately regretted it because it was so complicated!). We agreed that for filming, because of time and logistics, I would concentrate only on the central letter B, but aim to complete it after the filming.

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The first stage was to trace the outline from a print out of the original. It was such a complicated image that the tracing alone took 5 hours. The tracing needed then to be transferred to vellum. I used my own Armenian bole paper as ‘carbon’ paper; doing this took another 5 hours.Then the outline was reinforced in red, which is the traditional colour; this process took 6·5 hours.

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The next step was to lay the gesso with a quill. Gesso is the plaster-based cushion that raises the leaf gold from the surface, and the slight rounding of the cushion, once the gold leaf is attached, really catches the light so it looks as if light is coming from the book itself – truly illuminated. I had made a batch of good gesso and was filmed laying this on the letter B. The interlace at the head and foot of the minim was very complicated and it took a while to work out the pattern and lay the gesso according to the original. I had one day in between the schedule before the next filming session to lay, scrape and prepare the gesso. However, there was so much to be gilded that I ran out of gesso halfway round the border. I made another batch but didn’t have time to test it, and found out as I was laying it that it was rather bubbly. Laying, preparing and scraping the gesso took over 12 hours.

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And then for the gold. The stickiness in the gesso is reactivate by moisture in the breath and the leaf gold (23·5 carat) attached immediately. Once secure, the gold is polished to a high shine with a stone burnisher (just visible on the left). Building up layers of gold improves the depth of burnish.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The gold leaf can attach to the surface of the vellum as well, especially after a hard burnish. It was particularly difficult to remove the excess in the gold interlace area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Well-burnished gold really does catch the light.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Applying the gold, burnishing it and cleaning it up took 14 hours, but the end result was worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

It was a difficult to decide what to do about the colours. Although contained within a book, pigments still deteriorate over time; some of the colours had changed even in adjacent areas. So should this copy of the manuscript page be exactly the same as the original that has deteriorated, or should I try to recreate the page as it was? I decided to plump for trying to paint it as it was. Matching the colours was a bit of a challenge!

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Painting mediæval manuscripts is a little like painting by numbers sometimes. Each colour is done completely and separately. Here the blue has been done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And now the magenta red, no doubt it’s madder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The basic colours have now been completed. At this point, I often feel that any artistic skills I may well have had have disappeared because it all looks so flat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

However, adding tones and shades starts to lift the image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The white highlights improve the image even more and it starts to take shape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The black outline makes all the difference, separating the gold from colour and colour from colour, also emphasising what look like folds on draped cloth. Notice the difference between the letter B which has been outlined in black and the rest of the border where there is no black.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And the final result again.

If you would like to recreate your own mediæval image, then my book and DVD on Illumination: Gold and Colour have clear instructions on making and using gesso, cutting quills, treating vellum for painting (and writing), and the process of creating a mediæval miniature shown step-by-step. See here.

The Church of Saints Michael and Gaetano, Florence

IMG_1319It’s not often that you see a view or a vista that absolutely takes your breath away but this happened when we visited Florence and went into the church of Saints Michael and Gaetano in the Piazza Antinori. Hanging from the arches, stretched along horizontal borders, and placed over shaped inserts in the walls were exquisitely embroidered panels, each one tailored specifically to the spaces.

 

IMG_1322The effect was unbelievable as the flowered borders stretched high along the church and hung under the arches.

 

 

 

 

IMG_1325The sacristan was in the church and I managed to find out about the embroideries. They were apparently made in the early eighteenth century, and it is only recently that they were re-discovered folded up carefully in a store room. This is a close up of the hanging in front of the pulpit.

 

 

IMG_1324It took them quite a while to work out what went where as there were no instructions! However, everything was very carefully made so that it fitted exactly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1353This can be seen from the side view of the pulpit hanging here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1354Imagine trying to work out what went where with the set of embroidered hangings in this area of the church!

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1320The hangings around the altar are particularly fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1334Here in close up it’s possible to see the exquisite craftsmanship that went into their construction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1332But also to note that they are in dire need of conservation. The weft threads are almost completely worn through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1331There are lots of examples of gold thread work as here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1343Every area seems to have a specially shaped and fitted embroidery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1342We were told that it takes three whole days for the hangings to be fixed around the church and three days again for them to be taken down.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1335Apparently they put the hangings up for the first week of July for special church celebrations and then take them down a week or so later. We were just so fortunate to have stumbled on the church and this most amazing spectacle, when we did.

 

 

 

 

IMG_1348If you’re in Florence at that time, do make sure that you call in and have your eyes delighted by this stunning work!

‘Magic in Medieval Manuscripts’ by Sophie Page

IMG_1284This delightful little pocket sized book by Sophie Page, published by the British Library, is lavishly illustrated by many mediæval manuscripts and explains the conundrum in the Middle Ages of angels and devils, magicians, magic spells and charms. The conundrum was that from the mid-thirteenth century there was a backlash against magic yet the church still wanted their followers to believe in the good and evil of angels and demons, but not of magicians and sorcerers.

 

 

IMG_1289Despite the book’s small size there is a huge amount of information, presented in a very readable way. The five chapters of The Medieval Magician, Natural Magic, The Power of the Image, The Magical Universe, and Necromancy and Sorcery cover the topic comprehensively. Magicians and saints possessed special powers but the latter were not always the victors. Here Saints Simon and Jude, who were murdered by the crowd after they drew forth demons from statues of pagan gods but refused to sacrifice to the sun, meet up with three magicians shown wearing exotic hats.

 

IMG_1290Alexander the Great’s father, the exiled Egyptian king Nectanebus, was a magician, and he used to sink ships by creating images of them and pushing them under the surface of water in a basin, as shown here. And he appeared to influence the English court in 1376, when Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers was said to have acquired her powers over the king due to a Dominican friar who used spells from ‘the Egyptian necromancer’ Nectanebus.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Animals and plants were also believed to have magical powers, or at least powers that couldn’t be easily explained. A mandrake plant killed the person who pulled it up, but a dog pulling out the plant would take the curse. The mandrake was valued because it was believed to cure epilepsy, snake bites, gout, baldness and afflictions of the eyes and ears. The blood, feathers and heart of the exotic hoopoe, shown here, was used in necromantic rituals, and the heart, marinated in honey and put under the tongue would then ensure that that person could understand the language of birds.

 

IMG_1292Sorcery was often personified by an old woman. Here she has a severed hand and uses her stick to poke at a pilgrim. In her baskets she has ‘Many knyves and hoodys ek,/ Dyvers wrytes and ymages, / Oynementys and herbages’. The cut off hand indicates that she can tell fortunes from palms.

 

 

 

 

This is an interesting and informative book and is ideal for those who loved images from mediæval manuscripts, learning more about what they represent and finding out about the fascinating spells, potions, magic and beliefs of the period. This is highly recommended.

 

 

Illuminating a miniature

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Another group of lovely people started the day early at the end of May 2018 to spend three days learning the traditional skills and techniques of the mediæval illuminator. Usually the group is limited to eight, but someone was coming from the Middle East and so the group was actually nine – it still allowed for intensive personal tuition.

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Everything is supplied and work stations are set up for each individual.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

We focused on gesso first, gilding gesso which had already been laid for practice of the techniques, then making gesso and considering the role of each constituent ingredient. Gesso had already been made for the each person to use straightaway, so at the end of the course participants had a good amount of gesso to take home with them to do more miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Gesso is best laid with a quill, so next, the group cut their own quills from swan feathers. Everyone did very well with sharp quill knives cutting good quills which they took home with them after laying their gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Then it was on to laying gesso on vellum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

The next morning, gold leaf was laid on the carefully prepared gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

This is highly skilled and takes some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Before painting the ‘best’ piece, another miniature was gilded and painted as a practice piece. This meant that the final miniature was as good as it could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Adding colour to the gold really brings the image alive.

Everyone went home with two miniatures on vellum, the practice one and the carefully gilded and painted best piece.

Comments from the group:

It has been the best course I have been on so far, not only for the quality of the course but for your immense kindness and generosity.

You are a very generous teacher. I feel that I have learnt a lot. Everything was very clear and to the point, and you were very kind to answer all the questions with more detail than I expected.

IMG_0991I am very pleased that I could come on this course and would love to follow it up with another!

Excellent! Would do it all over again without a second thought! Natural talent in teaching! Thank you so much.

An amazing experience – moments to cherish. Left feeling very motivated and very relaxed after 3 days of total absorption in another world.

Detailed, clear and very supportive teaching. Fantastic to hear so much of the background without it being a lecture.

SUPERB! The best possible introduction to these arts – miniatures and gilding – and the practical support makes this course EXCEPTIONAL!

IMG_0992I loved how any question, even ones with minimal relation to the course content, were welcome and thorough explanations or commentary were given. Support, even if the results were less than what we’d envisioned, was enthusiastic and honest, but left us with hope for future efforts.

FABULOUS COURSE – will highly recommend this to my students.

It has been fantastic to learn so much about the skills needed and how to create illuminated artworks. Would highly recommend courses with Patricia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Graily Hewitt manuscript book

IMG_2632This delightful little book was written by calligrapher and illuminator Graily Hewitt (1864–1952). It’s the text of the Holy Communion written out for Clairice Gabbatt who lived in Petersfield. The book is in Graily Hewitt’s typical lettering style and it’s likely to be on his usual preferred writing surface of parchment, as the leaves are quite thin.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2631The book is bound in a dark leather with a gilded cross, and vine leaves and bunches of grapes in each corner (from ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, John 15:5) and this image also gives an indication of size.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2633Graily Hewitt’s lettering is always very strong, it was said that he was the best calligrapher in the UK after Edward Johnston. Interestingly he almost always chose to write on parchment which is not the most pleasant surface to write on and results in letters that are not as crisp as they can be on well-prepared vellum.The enlarged and gilded letter ‘O’ is delightful and that, and the enlarged ‘A’, are surrounded by fine line decoration similar to that in the De Brailes Hours.

 

 

 

IMG_2634Calligraphers working at the turn of the last century were less concerned about word breaks. Nowadays most scribes wouldn’t break the word ‘Father’ in the first line to ‘Fa’ and ‘ther’ on the second, and again the word ‘Because’ split not just between two lines, but ‘Be’ on one page’ and then ’cause’ on the next.

If you want to see more of Graily Hewitt’s work, then a previous web post is here.

 

 

 

downloadGraily Hewiit was the tutor to a number of students, including Dr R A Holmes (shown on the right) and featured in another post on Graily Hewitt here. This is the background to the book from Jenny who owns it:

My great aunt Clairice Gabbatt and her husband lived in an Arts and Crafts house in Petersfield. They had no children and Clairice was worth a considerable fortune as she was a member of the Hartley’s Jam family. They were religious (and a bit stuffy) and became lavish benefactors of their church, St. Mary’s Liss. Clairice and her friend Lady Maufe (a director of Heals) wife of Sir Edward Maufe the architect who designed Guildford Cathedral  furnished the church with fabrics from Liberty and Heals and bought all the vestments etc. Percy Gabbatt seemed to domineer all the goings on at the church and any renovations etc (which he paid for) so tongue in cheek, the locals referred to the church as St. Gabbatt’s. They donated a wonderful porch statue called Incarnation made by friend Eric Gill and he and Gwen Reveratt and Graily Hewitt, I am led to believe, were all friends.  Graily Hewitt was commissioned to do the Baptismal roll in the church. In a church magazine I have, he was mentioned as living in Petersfield.  However this little Holy Communion book refers to Treyford. Treyford is not far from Petersfield. 

Written on the last page of the Holy Communion book by Graily Hewit  in pencil “Clairice Gabbatt memento Graily Hewitt 1946.”

Many thanks to Jenny for supplying the photographs and the background.

Quills and Quill Knives

Image-1An unusual quill knife in a manuscript image on Twitter made me look again at quill knives. This one had the necessary curved blade (don’t get me started on straight edges for cutting quills!) but a strange curved hook shape which seems to end in a point. I’ve really thought about why this shape of knife was developed and can’t see any real advantages for it over what I would call a ‘normal’ quill knife as below. It would be really difficult to sharpen that inner curved edge, so what would a dull inner curved blade be used for. Has anyone got any suggestions?

 

 

IMG_0101This is a trusty quill knife which I use when being filmed cutting quills. The shape of the handle sits really well in the hand, but for me the blade is rather too long and the lower part of the blade (the bolster or shank) should have been inserted more into the handle for better control. The blade is of steel, but not stainless steel, so there is some rust. Some years ago I was told that it wasn’t possible to get a good sharp edge on stainless steel, but according to Robin Wood MBE, who knows a thing or two about blades, modern stainless steels are much improved and these are what he uses for his tools and axes so they must be good.

IMG_0642So what’s important about a quill knife? First that it has a good handle that sits well and is comfortable in the hand; it is also important that it is substantial. I teach quill cutting as part of some of my Calligraphy courses, and in the three-day Painting a Mediæval Miniature course I run at the end of May each year. For these I use X-Acto knives (see image) which have good solid handles. They are sold with a pointed blade, but I buy curved blades and replace the pointed blade with these. In my opinion it is easier to replace a curved blade when it dulls for quill cutting than sharpening 16 knives! (And the blades aren’t wasted as they are then used for scraping mistakes from vellum, and then for cutting vellum and paper. And at the very end of their life, they’re used to sharpen pencils!). I would never cut quills with scalpels because the barrel of a quill is tough and a scalpel can so easily turn in the hand; having control of a razor sharp blade is paramount in my opinion!

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Then the blade itself. First it needs to be reasonably short. There is strength in a more stubby blade that isn’t there in a longer, perhaps more flexible blade. And because cutting a quill requires only a short section of the blade, a knife with a longer blade where the whole edge slices isn’t necessary.

CIMG2507So how to cut a quill? If you want to see how it’s done then it’s all explained in my Illumination book and associated DVD (see here for details). The feathers used are the first five flight feathers of large birds. The differences between the first five flight feathers are explained in the book and DVD.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0977Once the feather is hardened, it is prepared and the nib then shaped.The first step here is making the long scoop cut.

 

 

 

CIMG0985Then the sides of the nib are shaped.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0991The long tip is trimmed to a manageable length.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG1205And finally the end of the nib is shaped to make a quill that writes.

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

All modern pen knives – and the clue is in the name – have a curved blade. I’m not getting into ‘quill knife wars’, but every part of logic leads to the blade being curved so that it can ‘rock’ over the similarly curved end of the barrel of the feather when trimming the nib tip without splitting it. I do appreciate that there are those who swear by a straight blade, and these are sold on many websites, but it’s a curve for me and my students!

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

The images of historical quill knives have kindly been provided by Alan Cole of the University of London’s Museum of Writing to whom I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chronology of the Penknife (Finlay, 1990)There is an excellent pictorial history of the shapes of pen knives from the early 8th century to 1698 produced by Michael Finlay in ‘Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen’ (Carlisle, UK, Plains Books, 1990) and reproduced here. (Thank you to Alexander Devine of the Parker Library for kindly sending this to me.)

 

 

 

 

So what would an ideal quill knife look like? For me it would have a short, slim, razor-sharp curved blade (the curve being on the outer edge of the blade), the blade should be inserted well into the handle, and that handle have a heft that sits well in the hand. An additional refinement for me would be the insertion somewhere on the handle of a crochet hook, perhaps pulling out in a way similar to a modern pen knife attachment. The crochet hook catches on to the membrane inside the barrel of the feather and is used to pull the membrane out. If the membrane isn’t removed it gets in the way of writing the letter-forms.

IMG_0644Classes of children were often large in the past, and until machine-made pen nibs were adopted in schools in the 19th century, one of the tedious jobs of a school teacher was to cut and trim the quills of the pupils in their classes. With often more than 40 students per class, a great deal of time would be attending to pens. What a boon it must have been when the quill cutter was invented, however, these were used almost invariably to cut a feather tip only into a point for Copperplate-type writing, To write letter-forms shaped by a broad-edged nib, it was back to the quill knife. This is a quill cutter with a curved blade to trim the quill, and then the part that cuts the quill and makes the slit is at the top.

 

Writing with a quill is magical – it is, literally, feather-light – and it becomes almost an extension of the arm. The downside, of course, is that the quill needs to be trimmed about every paragraph, and then recut eventually.

 

The Bury Bible

f956The Bury Bible is a stunner! It is thought that it was made about 1135 at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in the east of England. We even know who did the illuminations and who commissioned the bible (quite unusual for a book of this age). The Gesta Sacrum includes this (in Latin obviously!): ‘This Hervey, brother of Prior Talbot, met all the expenses for his brother the Prior to have a great Bible written, and he had it incomparably illuminated by Master Hugo. Because he could not find calf skins that suited him in our region, he procured parchment in Scotia.’ Although it may seem an obvious translation that the skin came from Scotland, the skins could also have come from Ireland.

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Master Hugo’s talent was certainly as incomparable as his illuminations. Detailed figures with expressive faces react with one another and look out from wide and heavily detailed framed borders. There is not a lot of gold and the adhesive isn’t very raised, but the vibrant colours make up for any lack of it. The figures in many of the larger illustrations are set against a dark green rectangle as here; in many manuscript books this would have been gold leaf, but the detailed drapery (wet-linen-look) and active, realistic figures would have competed against shiny raised gold. (Note the interestingly cut hole in this image so that the text from the previous page shows through. I can’t see any reason why this hole was cut out; it is unlikely that there would have been anything which was later controversial in this picture that then had to be removed, nor is there anything that I could detect on the previous page of text that should be cut out either. Another mystery about the book!).

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Another mystery is that most of the illuminations are on double pieces of skin. A smaller piece of vellum has been pasted on where the images are to the main page. It’s intriguing why this should have been done. I think there are two possibilities. First, there is a lot of paint over the illuminations and it is possible that the water in large areas of paint can relax the structure of the vellum and cause it to cockle and buckle, by having a reinforcing layer underneath this may prevent this. In addition, this density of colour can cause serious show-through to the other side of the skin. By adding an additional layer of skin this will help to prevent this show through. However, it doesn’t look as if the images were produced on separate pieces of skin and these were then pasted in afterwards. As can be seen here, the piece of skin is longer at the bottom, so some of the second line of green lettering is written over the join (look at the letter ‘S’), and the foot, neck and part of the head and ear of the lion on the top right also are painted over the join.

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

This image gives an indication of the detail of the painting. Even in small areas three or four different tones and shades are used to create a three-dimensional effect, a fine white line gives a highlight and a lift, and the areas and shapes are outlined in black. In this small section, there are two bearded men’s heads also squeezed in, and although tiny, they have been painted so carefully that they still look terrified!

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

There are very detailed decorated initial letters too such as this one with two blue and orange winged animals munching on a blue swirl, two bearded men, that same green background, and a narrow double ribbon of gold outlining the letter. The intense blue is ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli from north-west Afghanistan. Interestingly, it is thought that this actual pigment came via the Holy Land as a result of raids by the Crusaders, although tests have shown that much of the blue in manuscripts at this time was foliate.

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The incredibly detailed painting can be seen easily here with just about every hair in the prophet’s white beard and eyebrows painted separately, and the care with which this face and the modelling on the pink (madder) robe have been minutely picked out is also shown. It is thought that the bible took two years to produce; my very rough estimate is that it would have taken this long to do the illuminations alone.

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

There are other enlarged letters too, in red, blue, green and a tan colour. Calligraphically, these are called Versals – letters where the width of the letter is made by repeated strokes. Note here where letters have been placed inside others to save on space. Perhaps the second word on the second line is a little too contracted!

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

That tan colour is most intriguing. The blue is, as indicated above, lapis lazuli which produces ultramarine pigment. The vibrant red is cinnabar (vermilion), and the green, verdigris (‘Greek green’ produced from copper and quite corrosive).But what of that tan? It is certainly very wishy washy and doesn’t stand up at all against the other jewel colours. And it’s not an adhesive for gold as it’s not sticky.  As yet, work has not been done on identifying the pigments used in the bible, but it would be interesting to know what this colour is. Master Hugo and whoever wrote these wonderful letters were experts in colour and balance, surely it was a much stronger colour originally to hold its own against the rest, and has just deteriorated over the years – but what is it?

 

 

© The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

There has been some debate as to whether these letters have been painted or made with a pen. This shows clearly that it is a pen that has made repeated strokes to build up the width as some of the verdigris paint has been worn away revealing the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Here the central part of the letter has almost worn away completely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

And what inventiveness, as here various patterns have been etched into the strokes of the letters to add interest – or this may have been done by someone not particularly competent later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

It is thought that the text was written by one person. It is particularly strong and vibrant – and needed to be with such wonderful illuminations; it had to hold its own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

As is typical with manuscripts of this age, there are many abbreviations. The one here indicates that the letters ‘us’ have been omitted (eius), and is usually written as a curving comma just above the letter ‘i’. Here, the scribe has used the left-hand corner of the pen to draw what looks like a bell-shaped flower. In the absence of a more technical term, we decided to call it a ‘bluebell’ abbreviation!

 

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The usual swiftly written abbreviations are taken to another level of careful construction in the Bury Bible. A horizontal bar above letters, again indicating an omission, is written with a thick stroke downwards and slightly to the right (some are almost hooked), and then the second thick stroke is made after a pen lift and with the pen repositioned before making the stroke.

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

It is clearer here where the repositioning of the last, third, stroke is made after a pen lift as a tiny part of the thin horizontal stroke peeps out beyond the second abbreviation.

 

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

And the abbreviation looking like a little ‘2’ shown here on the second line is written by making first a stroke to the left. The pen is then lifted and the curved stroke moving right is made then downwards to the left, and finally a thin stroke to the right. The abbreviation is finished by lifting the pen to make a serif downwards and to the right. This is a tiny curved abbreviation, not even an actual letter, and yet it involves three separate strokes. In this image the surface of the skin can be seen easily, with a wonderful speckling of dark hair follicles.

 

 

 

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

© Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

It’s not known whether the incomparable Master Hugo completed the lettering as well as the illuminations. He certainly was a talented man and could well have done so as it is of such a high standard and the care taken on writing matches that of the illustrations. There’s more information about of the book itself here, and images of each page on the Parker Library website here.

The Man in the Arena

IMG_3638One of the joys of taking commissions is being introduced to text that may not be familiar, and The Man in the Arena was one such. Written by Theodore Roosevelt it notes that it’s not those who criticise, or who stand on the sidelines heckling, but the person actually doing the job who is the one that matters. I really liked the text and may well write it out again. However, it did create a number of interesting challenges. The title was very long, and to write it out in one line resulted in only a few long lines of text below, with the title far too dominant. Splitting the title resulted in two uneven top lines, with the lower line longer, and a rather square block of text which looked rather dull and uninteresting for such inspirational words.

 

 

IMG_3628In the end, I settled for a long and narrow block of text, with the title along the side as shown here. The first phrase determined the width of the piece, there weren’t too many hyphenations or difficulties in the text running on to the following line, and it created an unusual shape which I think invites you to read the text. Of course, all this was decided after I had written out the text in rough and tried the lines in various positions. Here the text roughs are cut into lines of approximately equal length, the credit is the correct size and in position but the title isn’t long enough – it needs to stretch the whole length of the text block.

 

 

IMG_3635It took quite a few tries before the title was the right length.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3624Because there were so many short lines, it would have been easy to get them muddled, so I numbered the lines on the final piece of paper I used in faint pencil, and also numbered the lines in red on the roughs to avoid any errors.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3633Then, again to avoid errors, I placed each line of text above where I was writing. This ensured that not only did I not make any errors in the text, but that the lines ended where they should.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3642I was asked to do two versions of the piece, so I decided to write the title of the second one in red. It’s interesting how simply changing the colour of the title affects the ‘mood’ of the piece.