Tag Archives: manuscripts

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.

 

‘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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medieval and Renaissance Interiors

IMG_2879 2Medieval and Renaissance Interiors is a brilliantly colourful book published by the British Library and is generously illustrated with many high quality manuscript images. Eva Oledzka, the author, takes us beyond what we usually see – the figures – to the room that the people are in, their surroundings, the furniture, walls, ceilings, windows, and the glimpses we sometimes get to rooms beyond.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2875 2The book is comprehensive in that it covers the context of architecture and interiors, doors, stairs and windows, floors, ceilings and walls, furniture, heating, lighting and hygiene, and displays of wealth. This calendar page for February, painted by the Limbourg brothers for Jean, Duc de Berry, shows a peasant’s cottage with a family warming themselves by the open fire. The author notes the rod attached to the wall to hang clothes and the mattress or bed in the background, probably for the whole family. This is the earliest depiction of a snowy landscape in the history of art.

 

 

IMG_2876 2One of my favourite manuscripts is the Sforza Hours, particularly the pages painted by the court painter Giovan Pietra Birago; the book was made for Bona Savoy, Duchess of Milan. In this miniature the author notes not only the paintings on the wall – spalliera – typically Italian – showing St Peter and St John looking for the house where the Passover is going to be celebrated, but also the plate on the table and the glass tumblers being filled with wine by the two boys in the foreground.

 

 

IMG_2877 2The scribe Mark is shown here with his lion very conveniently peeping over the scribe’s sloping board with a pen case and inkwell in his mouth (as lions are known to do!). However it is the washing facilities in the foreground that are noted. There is a wash stand on a beautifully carved pedestal, a jug of water above it, and tucked into this, a towel. How often when I have inky fingers would I appreciate such a convenient way of washing my hands!

 

 

 

IMG_2878 2And here is King Henry VIII praying in his bedroom, with a painting of a very elaborately carved four poster bed draped with ultramarine blue cloth decorated with gold – how fitting for a king! Notice too the patterned colourful tiles on the floor, and the view through the open door to a garden and buildings beyond.

 

 

 

 

This book is a treasure-trove of image and information – sumptuously illustrated with a readable and informative text. If you enjoy manuscripts and want to know how people lived, you will love this!

Art and History of Calligraphy

IMG_2440The Art and History of Calligraphy, published May 2017 by the British Library, does pretty much what it says on the tin! It covers writing from what is thought to be the earliest known writing by a woman in Britain in the first century, to the present day (as much as a book published in 2017 can do that!). Here is a sneaky peak inside the book.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 8What I love about the design is that images of manuscripts are large and so it’s possible to get up close and personal to the letters. Here a page from the Luttrell Psalter has been spread over two pages at the beginning of the book. I chose this page for its wonderful trumpeter – his instrument long enough almost to extend right across the whole column of text!

 

FullSizeRender 7The first chapter is called, surprisingly enough, the Art and History of Calligraphy, and, after defining the way in which calligraphy is going to be regarded in the book, traces writing through the ages. A number of manuscripts will be familiar, but there are some new ones here, including this lettering by Bembo and a delight of chrysography on dyed black vellum.

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 6Then a chapter is devoted to how the manuscripts were actually made, including quills, vellum brushes, pigments and gold.

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 5This is followed by a section on Writing the Letters, based on Edward Johnston’s 7-point analysis.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 4And then there are full page double spreads of over 70 manuscripts from the second century AD to right up to the present day. In many cases, as here, there is an enlargement of a couple of lines to show the lettering really closely. The Bosworth Psalter is on the right.

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 3Here is the Lacock Cartulary with wonderfully flourished letters.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender 2And this is one of the first times that Edward Johnston’s Scribe, given to Dorothy Mahoney, has been shown this size in full colour.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderAnd the book is brought as far up to the present day as a publishing schedule will allow. A stunning piece by Stephen Raw of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy is shown on the right.

 

 

 

I really enjoyed writing the book, sharing information that I have learned from others and researching the manuscripts, and I do hope that others will enjoy reading it. It’s available from the British Library Bookshop, and I am also selling it through my website. If you order a copy from me here then I shall happily write a name in the book calligraphically to make it really special.

 

 

 

 

The Lindisfarne Gospels

6a00d8341c464853ef01a73dbed759970d-580wiThe Lindisfarne Gospels are, in the opinion of many (including me!) the greatest treasure we have. This manuscript had, of course, to be featured in my book The Art and History of Calligraphy, published by the British Library in May 2017. The Lindisfarne Gospels were written before 720 and the scribe and artist was Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, according to Aldred who added a colophon (scribe’s note) at the back of the book in the tenth century. You can see Aldred’s dancing Insular Minuscule gloss between the lines on the right; he added this lettering during the 100 years or so when the monks were at Chester-le-Street. However, what is far more eye-catching are the wonderful colourful and decorated letters. The patterns range from interlace, to geometric red dots, to birds with necks and legs intertwined in the first and last strokes of the enlarged letter N at the start. And it is the invention of letter-forms and their placement that is so delighted. Look at the letter U sitting comfortably within what actually is a V but looks like a U on the top line – NOVUM. Note, too, the four birds’ heads hanging off the top serifs and springing up from the bottom ones on the squared-off letter O on the next line.

pod85Opposite this page is one of the famous cross-carpet pages, called this because they are densely decorated and patterned like a Persian carpet, but are also in the shape of a cross. On the right is the cross carpet page opposite the incipit, the beginning, of Mark.

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.39.56What is intriguing with this cross-carpet is the central part of the design in that the lines are not completely straight; so this circular design looks almost as if it is slightly raised in the centre, a bit like the ‘boss’ on a shield perhaps. Look at the red geometric patterns top and bottom and right and left; notice the way in which the black outlines aren’t exactly perpendicular emphasising this effect.

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 12.39.37Now these patterns didn’t come about by chance when Eadfrith was doodling away one wet afternoon. They were very carefully planned and constructed. This is the back of that page. These are the guidelines made by lead point, the earliest example of it according to the great Michelle Brown. However there are also pin prick marks where a set of dividers has been used to ensure that the distances between the lines on that central ‘boss’ shape are even. Michelle suggests that some sort of back lighting was likely so that Eadfrith could follow his planned design. Read more here about Michelle’s work on the Lindisfarne Gospels.

images-2The intricacy of Eadfrith’s designs are quite amazing when magnified. The is the chi-rho page – the first two letters of the name Christ in Greek (not x and p as some believe!).

 

 

 

 

imagesAnd this is a close up of part of that page. The swirls are very similar to patterns on jewellery and metalwork around this time.

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 21.29.18Red dots feature heavily in this manuscript, in patterns around and between the letters as here.

 

 

 

6a00d8341c464853ef01a73dbed769970d-580wiWhen the patterns are really enlarged the dots each have a dimple. This means that there would have been a dome. So, were these dots done with a pen/quill or a brush? I’ve experimented and am sure that they were done with a quill. There is a fascinating blogpost from the great British Library Typepad where they have enlarged various parts the page at the top of the blogpost, click here for more details.

 

images-3The lettering is in a particularly clear Half-Uncial, and even if you don’t read Latin, you will be able to make out the letters once you have realised that the letter A is a ‘two c’ letter and the rather strange squiggle is a letter G.

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 22.13.21This shows the clear letter-forms. Note the two c letter A at the end of the first line (TERRA), and the Half-Uncial letter G is the third letter from the end of the last line.

 

 

 

 

images-1There are also four author portraits of the Evangelists. This one shows St Matthew writing his Gospel in a book, with his symbol of a winged man blowing a trumpet behind him.

 

 

But you can see all this yourself as the Lindisfarne Gospels have been digitised by the British Library and you can look at page after page of wonderful lettering and glorious patterns, and enlarge them to your heart’s content! Click here for a couple of hours of pure joy!

 

Cotton to Gold Exhibition 31st January–19th April 2015

two-temple-placeTwo Temple Place is a fascinating building – it looks rather like a castle outside, built of Portland stone with a crenellated roof, stone carvings by Nathaniel Hitch, stone windows and a magnificent golden galleon weather vane of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’ ship. The weathervane is significant in that it represents the route of William Waldorf Astor’s ancestor, John Jacob Astor and the links between Europe and the US. The house was built for William Waldorf Astor by John Loughborough Pearson in 1895, and was intended to be used as the Astor Estate Office, with an upper flat for Astor’s own use.

Two Temple PlaceInside there is a stunning Cosmati pavement and fantastic woodwork, as in this wonderful staircase on the right. When the Astor family sold the house it was owned by various businesses and damaged by a bomb in 1944.

The building is now owned by the Bulldog Trust, and in 2011 opened as the first London building specifically to show publicly owned art from the UK regional collections.

 

 

 

Icon of Eleousa, Blackburn Museum and Art GalleryThe exhibition Cotton to Gold, co-curated by Dr Cynthia Johnstone, IES, University of London, and Dr Jack Hartnell, Courtauld Institute, shows the extraordinary collections of the industrial magnates of the north-west of England, the home of cotton manufacture. During the 19th century wealthy cotton mill owners spent their huge wealth on a rather eclectic assortment of items including Roman coins, Tiffany glass, medæval manuscripts, Byzantine icons, ivories and even preserved beetles! Three publicly owned museums in the north-west – Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery (Accrington) and Towneley Hall (Burnley) have joined together to present the best artefacts from these great collections.

BB mss - HART20918, Lombardy Missal, c.1400There will also be mediæval manuscripts on show, mainly Books of Hours. These were manuscript books for the lay person who could then follow the Offices of the Day in their own homes. In Psalms it says ‘seven times a day will I praise the Lord’, and indeed this is what happened in religious foundations, starting with lauds or matins at dawn, prime (6 o’clock), terce (9 o’clock), sext (noon), none (3 o’clock), vespers (sunset) and compline (9 o’clock) followed.

 

BB mss - HART20884, Book of Hours, Bruges, c.1490Many Books of Hours, as in the two shown here, were beautifully illuminated with rich jewel-like colours and lots of gold.

If you want to know more about how the manuscripts were made, then I am running a hands-on workshop and giving a talk. More details about these and the exhibition here.

 

Exhibition Opening Times: Monday, Thursday–Saturday: 10am–4:30pm Wednesday Late: 10am–9pm, Sunday: 11am–4:30pm, Closed on Tuesday. Admission Free 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memento mori – remember (that you have to ) die

DSCN6043-300x214Children dressing up as skeletons, skulls made out of sweet jelly and white chocolate bones are all part of Hallowe’en, but, as with so many of our customs, these sorts of symbols are not new. It was thought that the veil between heaven and earth was particularly thin on the night before All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day, and so it was then timely for us to remember our own mortality and to consider our life on earth. All Saints’ /Hallows’ Day is, of course, November 1st, and the evening before that All Hallows’ Evening, or Hallowe’en. Nowhere are we encouraged more to think about the afterlife than with memento mori – remember you have to die. And this is particularly true with some tombs such as that for Dean Fotherby at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, erected in the seventeenth century (see right).

TombStJohnsChester_mOn Dean Fotherby’s tomb, the bones are in complete disarray, however on the tomb of Diana Warburton at St John the Baptist Church in Chester, erected also in the seventeenth century, her skeleton is modestly draped revealing only her upper chest and head and then her feet, (although her feet do seem rather large for her body and look a little as if they’re wrapped in bandages).

 

 

 

9900350Mediæval Books of Hours also included a memento mori, as they contained, usually towards the end of the book, the Office of the Dead. This Office was recited before the Requiem or funeral Mass, and is a rather long section. The illustration to this Office in a Book of Hours usually depicted death or burial, with a shrouded corpse, or, as here, a draped coffin. The fact that Books of Hours were for lay people ensured that the owners would be familiar with the words of the Office which encouraged a reflection on mortality.

 

 

allegory_of_the_vanitiesDeath was also featured in some paintings. Dutch artist Harmen Steenwyck painted An Allegory of the Vanties of Human LIfe in about 1640 (now in the National Gallery). It is a very symbolic painting with the shell representing wealth, the musical instruments indicating the pleasures of the senses, books denoting human knowledge, the chronometer and lamp (which has just gone out) showing the frailty of human life, and all being dominated by the large skull in the foreground – a symbol of death. These paintings are called vanitas, after Ecclesiastes (Old Testament) ‘Vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ (‘Vanitas vanitatum … et omnia vantias’).

 

Sand, sanders and writing

sanderWe’ve seen it so many times before. Someone in mediæval or slightly later costume picks up a full feather with a flourish, pretends to write on paper or skin, looks at what’s been written, then picks up something that looks like a salt pot, shakes a powder on the writing, looks at the writing again and then blows the powder away. The result? A wonderfully ‘blotted’ piece of writing.

Oh so wrong! First the idea that full feathers are used. If ever you have a chance, try to write well and quickly with something that is about 40 cm/18 inches long. It gets everywhere and is very difficult to control. Feathers are cut to pen length 22-3 cm/9 inches for ease of use. And the blotting of wet ink, by ‘sand’? The impression is that ‘sand’ is used because the shaker is called a ‘sander’ (see above). ‘Sand’ isn’t used, at least not the type that comes from the beach. Think of it. This sand is crystalline. If it could blot up ink then water from the sea would come on to the shore as a wave and then simply be soaked or blotted up, no water would return. Sand from the shore doesn’t blot.

Tetraclinis_articulataThe ‘sand’ that is used is gum sandarac. The crystals of gum sandarac are called ‘tears’ and they come from the tetraclinis articulata, which is a small tree (see right), similar to a cyprus, found in north-west Africa. The resin is either exuded naturally or, like rubber, is made by cutting the bark of the tree; it hardens on exposure to air.

sandaracThe lumps, or tears, of gum sandarac, are ground to a pale yellow powder usually in a pestle and mortar. Once a powder, either it is used from a shaker (see above), or from a little bag (below) made from a piece of fine cotton usually tied up with string. Traditional shakers had a dished or concave top, so that excess sand could be shaken back into the container.

 

 

 

 

Using sandaracGum sandarac provides a very fine coating on paper or skin. This coating acts as a resist and so either the strokes of the letters are very fine, as on vellum, or it seals the surface of the sheet of paper. Hand-made paper in historical times was surface sized (nowadays paper is tub- or vat-sized – see the blog about paper). It was not always thoroughly done. If paper isn’t properly sized, ink will blot and strokes will have lots of little ‘bleeds’ like spiders’ legs. Gum sandarac prevented this and so it was and is always used before writing and not afterwards.

The last two photographs of gum sandarac and how to use it are from my new Illumination book. It looks like the log jam has at last been shifted and it may even go to the printers this year!

sandarac