Tag Archives: Christopher de Hamel

‘Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts’ – Christopher de Hamel

img_1771Any book written by Christopher de Hamel is always worth a second glance, but this new book – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts – is one you will find hard to put down again! Christopher has such an easy writing style which, in this book, seems almost as if he is sitting by you as you turn the pages in each of twelve featured major manuscripts, explaining what is on the page, and adding nuggets of information, popping up like jewels of wisdom to make each one even more real. As he explains, manuscripts are a direct link with people in the past – the book is something that they held, owned and looked at. They pose many interesting questions, and Christopher answers a number of them.

 

ccc286-f129vEach of the twelve manuscripts has its own chapter, and the books range from the sixth-century St Augustine’s Gospel to the sixteenth-century Spinola Hours. A unique feature is a photograph of the book itself, showing the front cover, and scaled to the Codex Amiatinus, the largest codex in the book, and shown as large as Christopher’s book will allow; this allows us to see the relative size of each manuscript. The St Augustine’s Gospel is, of course, well known to the book’s author, as this is a manuscript in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, of which Christopher is currently the librarian, although he is due to retire at the end of 2016. The Gospels just c o u l d have been a book brought over by St Augustine himself in 597 or sent by Pope Gregory the Great to help the saint in his mission soon after. You will have to read the book to see whether it was, but also to find out at first hand what it is like to be the person with the responsibility of not only transporting the Gospels when each new Archbishop is enthroned, but being the person carrying the book in the procession.

411101098The Leiden Aratea, can be viewed digitally here, but there is nothing like seeing a manuscript up close and personal. This is what Christopher has done with all twelve manuscripts. The Aratea comes from the name of the astronomer Aratus of Soli, and the book contains thirty-nine full-page illustrations of the constellations. The lettering is in fine Rustics, and the image on the right shows Arcturus major and Arcturus Minor, the bears between a coiling snake, which mark the north pole, and the stars of the constellation are indicated by gold squares. Perhaps we know the constellations better as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor with the north star. The book’s links with its Roman ancestry are pointed out by Christopher and then he explains why it is definitely a Caroline manuscript. All aspects of each book are considered, including the known history of the manuscript, how it came to be where it is now, and also the making of facsimiles.

fkp00024vThe Copenhagen Psalter (book of Psalms) is the sort of illuminated manuscript that anyone who thinks of the same would have in their mind’s eye. It is littered with richly illuminated pictures which tend to have rather bad-tempered figures, as on the right – the Presentation in the Temple (note the two little birds being carried in a basket, and two others being held). The ‘single’ eyebrow, with a slight dip over the nose, is usually the reason for the appearance of crossness. Mary, here, doesn’t look at all happy at what is about to happen. Where the book was written, where it was illustrated, and the fact that it’s not complete, are all included in this chapter.

 

spinoladeathThe Spinola Hours are now in the Getty Museum in California, certainly a place to visit if you have never been, not least for the setting, but also for the wonderful collection of manuscripts, a number of which are usually on display. The Spinola Hours is larger than most books of hours, and lavishly decorated with the most realistic of paintings which, at the start, depict the seasons in the calendar. The scenes are incredibly complex and once described as ‘the most pictorially ambitious and original sixteenth-century Flemish manuscript.’

However, these are only mere flavours of what this book offers the reader. Each chapter describes the library or museum in which the manuscript is currently held, how it got there as well as the book itself. It is eminently readable and is most highly recommended for both those with an interest in manuscripts as well as those without. This book will change the view of the latter in that there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from these wonderful relics of times past. Put this book on your Christmas or birthday list and hope that someone reads your list; you won’t regret it!

An unknown book by Graily Hewitt


CIMG2727
Graily Hewitt was a truly great craftsman. Not only did he write the ‘Illuminating’ section in Edward Johnston’s seminal work ‘Writing & Illuminating, and Lettering’ but his work is astonishingly fine, particularly his gilding on gesso. The gesso is usually laid exquisitely, with spine-tingling serifs, and the burnish of the gold leaf enviable. I have been shown and have been given permission to feature this book which has been previously unknown.

 

 

 

CIMG2734The book is a hand-written copy of the poem ‘John Gilpin’ and was written for the granddaughter of Dr R A Holmes (see right). He was a student of Graily Hewitt and they corresponded until the Dr’s death. Because his granddaughter had shown an interest in what the Dr did as a hobby (although a very competent ‘hobbyist’!) he left his desk and all his tools, materials and equipment to her. During the war, vellum, parchment, gold and pigments were scarce, and the granddaughter was asked if Graily Hewitt could have some of the calligraphy materials that had been left to her. She agreed and this book was sent to her as a thank you.

 

CIMG2735The accompanying letter written by Graily Hewitt is delightful, and starts ‘Dear Little Maid’. It explains that the book is ‘mere writing’ but what ‘your grandfather and I used to love and practice together’. He goes on to say that her grandfather ‘was getting on famously, though his profession kept him too busy to enjoy doing it often’.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2737Graily Hewitt then says that it is in thanks for her ‘unselfishness in parting with all his beautiful parchment and gold and most of his pens, that I, who loved him very much, might have them to continue in the work we both so much cared for … I can hardly get such things nowadays; and I shall be so glad to have them for their reminder of him and the craft he loved, as well as his continued kindness to me’.

 

 

 

CIMG2728 (1)The illumination is just perfect, even looked at under magnification.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2729The poem is written on parchment, not vellum, being Graily Hewitt’s preferred writing surface (for the different between the two see here), and so the writing isn’t always as sparklingly fine as it can be on vellum, but it shows the hand of a great master nevertheless.

 

 

 

CIMG2723The book is bound in fine red leather on raised bands, evident on the spine. The title is gold blocked and there is a simple narrow gold border around the front and back covers.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG2725At the back of the book the name of the binder is recorded as ‘W H Smith’. This is now a newsagents, bookseller and stationers in the UK. It may seem strange to think that they once did such a fine binding. Dr Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge has told me that Douglas Cockerell used to do most of the binding for W H Smith, so perhaps this slim volume has a link with another great man.