Quills and Calligraphy

IMG_1961Sixteen eager students were ready to start a day of learning and practising calligraphy as part of the events associated with the fantastic Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms 2018-2019 exhibition at the British Library. We were focusing on the Angled-Pen Uncials as in the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, a very pleasing writing style, and which has only majuscules, or capital letters.

 

IMG_1947Everything was set out before the students arrived with a sloping board, pen and nib, ink, etc and sets of A3 information and exemplar sheets so that no ruling lines was necessary while learning.

 

 

 

IMG_1952The morning was spent learning and practising the letters and then the afternoon focused on quill cutting and preparing and writing on vellum. Cutting quills was a lot tougher than it looked – the barrels of swans’ feather are really strong!

 

 

 

IMG_1954It does take some preparation, but once the steps are clearly explained and reinforced to everyone as they cut the feathers, really good quills resulted.

 

 

 

IMG_1958Then it was on to preparing the vellum, practising writing names using the quill and then, with a deep breath, writing on the vellum itself. I suggested using Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache in vermilion as a contrast for the initial letter and this worked really well. The results needed to be admired even halfway through the writing!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1956And the concentration here was intense!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1961But the results were very much worthwhile! Congratulations to all students for such a successful day – and for being such a lovely group to worth with.

Plaxtol Roll of Honour

IMG_1110The vast number of people involved in the First World War is being highlighted during these centenary years. This huge number is perhaps particularly exemplified  in the small Kentish village of Plaxtol. Over 150 men, all former pupils of the local village school, went to the front, as well as four members of staff. I was asked recently to prepare a Roll of Honour on vellum recording the names of these men.

CIMG2464I was given a typed list and the requirement that there would be a decorated border of cob nuts and hops, as these were local to the area, and so set about designing the panel. I experimented with the styles and sizes of text, spacing between the lines, placing of the blocks of text and so on.

CIMG2468I decided on Edward Johnston’s Foundational Hand for the text, as it was this style, and Roman Capitals, again championed by Johnston, that MacDonald (Max) Gill used as his lettering design for all the First World War Memorials; Max being a student of Johnston. As always, everything was written out in rough first, and then positioned where it was to go. In the typewritten version the letters ‘RIP’ were written without fullstops, which I copied for two of the columns, and then inserted the fullstops for the other two – we all agreed that the latter looked better. I also used the traditional colour scheme for such panels of red and black.
IMG_1108Then it was deep breath time, the vellum was prepared, ruling up done, and I had to start the writing. I tacked the four columns of names first to get the body of the panel done, writing all the names and then returning with the same size nib and red paint to insert the words ‘Wounded’, or ‘R.I.P’ where appropriate. However, I used a compressed Roman form for ‘Wounded’ so that the columns weren’t too wide.

CIMG2630I left painting the border until last. My original design had the hops and cob nuts entwined but this was not was wanted. The suggestion of having separate blocks of the two plants would have made this part of the panel very disjointed, so I drew a long wavy line along the whole border, with the cob nuts growing up from the ‘valley’ and the hops hanging down from the ‘hills’. The width of border was about an inch (2–3 cm) high. The hops are about 1–2 mm each in size and each have about 5 different colours on them.

CIMG2617The panel was too large for me to stretch the vellum first around a board as I couldn’t then reach the top of it, so I had to do this after it was all done. The need for stretching is obvious from the way in which the skin is bumpy in the picture on the right.

It was a huge job and difficult to cost at the beginning – I spent far more time on it than I charged for, and now it hangs in Plaxtol Village Memorial Hall. It would be nice if more people knew about it and were able to see it.

How Mediæval Manuscripts were Made

fcdcf8be-d41f-4954-b06e-603091f607c1It really was a great joy and privilege to be part of the great Polonsky Project, which was a joint venture between the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale in Paris to digitise manuscripts which from before the year 1100. They were keen to show how those manuscripts were made, and so it was on two very hot days in the summer of 2017 that Dr Alison Ray, filmer Jan and I spent many hours recording those processes. The films are now on the British Library’s and the Bibliotèque nationale’s websites (the latter being dubbed into French) and sections of the films were also used in the fantastic 2017–2018 Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 18.53.31The first film features the pen used for the writing, which, of course, was usually a quill cut from the feather of a large bird. I always use penknives which have curved blades as the curve rolls over the slight curve in the barrel of a feather to cut the nib tip, whereas a straight blade tends to squash the feather. Indeed, penknives today (the clue is in the name!) still always have a curved blade. Here’s the link. There’s more on quill knives and how to cut a quill on my website on this link.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.05.35Ink was usually made from oak galls, although in fact peach, cherry and apricot stones can also be used but give a less dense colour. It’s the tannic acid from the galls reacting to copperas (iron sulphate) that creates a dark liquid, and which needs an adhesive, in this case gum Arabic, to ensure that it adheres to the writing surface. To see the process, click here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.07.32The writing surface was vellum or parchment – calfskin, sheepskin, goatskin or ever deer on occasion. In this clip I explain about the differences between the hair and flesh sides of vellum and also the qualities of other types of skin. More here.

 

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.10.21Having cut pieces of skin to size for writing, the page needed to be set out, and often dividers – similar to sets of compasses, but with a point at the end of each leg – were used as it was easier to mark the exact positions of the guidelines in this way. On occasion, the lines would be set out using a ruler and lead point (or similar) and then the positions marked using the tip of a knife (perhaps a penknife). Here the ‘point’ would actually be a triangle shape and this can be seen in some manuscripts. There’s more on setting out a manuscript page here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.17.54Pigments used in illuminations came from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. Perhaps the most famous is ultramarine, as Cennini Cennino called it ‘perfect, beyond all other colours’. A very similar blue, but much cheaper was citramarine. Woad and indigo are from vegetable sources along with madder. And Tyrian purple and carmine came from animals. There’s more on this link, including dragon’s blood!

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.22.01 1These pigments have no natural adhesive (apart from saffron interestingly!) and so this needs to be added. Traditional either glair, the egg white or the egg yolk was added. This film clip explains the process, including the equivalent of a hole in one! It can be tricky removing the egg yolk from the egg sac, but when this was being filmed, it worked with the very first egg! Here it is with the knife being withdrawn and the yolk falling out at the bottom. See the whole thing and more here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.26.13And having got everything ready, it was then only the setting out the illumination, laying the gesso, applying gold and then painting bringing everything to life and with wonderful colour. Watch the process here.

It is hoped that these short films will add to the knowledge and understanding of these historical craft processes and ensure that more people understand and appreciate the skills that went in to creating the wonderful manuscripts now in great collections such as those at the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale.

How do you Want to be Remembered?

IMG_1739 3Thirty years ago Harriet Frazer MBE set up Memorials by Artists – now the Lettering Arts Trust, of which I am a proud patron. Harriet had had problems finding just the right headstone for her step-daughter who had died young. Not wanting the usual impersonal polished granite, with machine-made letters, Harriet found it difficult to locate someone who could produce what she wanted. To help others who might be having similar problems, Harriet decided to set up the charity, putting those wanting a memorial in touch with the best craftsperson who could fulfil that.

 

 

IMG_1744But first, she needed to have some sort of identification – a branding or logo. Here are various lettering artists’ interpretations of the first name for the charity. On the top right, and what was chosen, is a wood engraving by Michael Renton, and below that the outline design by Tom Perkins. Nicholas Sloan’s design, bottom left, was lozenge-shaped, and Madeleine Dinkel’s design has exuberant flourishes and incorporates the dove of peace.

 

IMG_1745The potential individuality of each design, as opposed to a standard headstone, is shown here in this stone for Cynthia Felgate who was the co-originator of BBC’s Playschool and was one of the leading authorities on children’s television. Richard Kinderley’s design delightfully has two children playing hide-and-seek around the stone.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1750The charity doesn’t just focus on individual memorials as is shown by the Bali Bomb Memorial at the foot of the Clive Steps in Horseguards Road in London. Gary Breeze and Martin Cook both worked on this inspired design which consists of a large stone globe carved with 202 doves, each one different, representing the individuality of each person killed in the incident.

 

 

IMG_1751Names were carved into a curved wall, with stone seats.

 

 

IMG_1753And to show what a difference lettering style, shapes and decoration can make, Nicholas Sloan carved three different memorials for his mother. Each one reflects a different aspect of her character, a formal design cut into slate, then one which is more casual with an uneven edge, and lastly one which shows the interest in gardening and bee keeping.

The 30th Anniversary is being marked by an exhibition that finished this Sunday, and also by a book which can be bought here.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.