The Sforza Hours

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.35.07Imagine how Sir John Robinson from the Victoria and Albert Museum must have felt in 1871. He was in Madrid looking for manuscripts, and had heard of a ‘wonderful Illuminated manuscript.’ A priest was selling it and a price agreed. He put the peseta equivalent of £800 (£66,000 now) into the inside pocket of his brown cloak. Somehow or other though the money was stolen, which was clearly a disaster! However, he found another £800 and managed to secure the manuscript.

This is a page from the book painted by Giovan Pietro Birago showing the penitence of King David. It depicts the king transported to a Renaissance Italian town, and detail that is so typical of this artist. Note particularly the lively modelling of David’s robe highlighted in shell gold (real gold powder in gum Arabic base).

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.33.07However, this wasn’t the only dramatic incident in the manuscript’s history. The book was originally commissioned by Bona Sforza, Duchess of Milan, in the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century from the best artist in the city. As can be seen here, Birago had a wonderful style of painting, very mannered but very precise. Bearing in mind that this manuscript is the size of a pocket book, the detail is amazing.

This image is the text from the Hours of the Cross and the angel at the top holds the crown of thorns and the nails; at the base is a cherub kneeling in adoration of the cross. Note Birago’s style of high cheek bones and wonderfully curling locks. The borders either side are in typical Renaissance style of intertwining foliage, trumpets, and mythical creatures – in this case sirens.

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.33.51It was discovered some time later in a letter written by Birago to ‘Your Excellency’ (un-named) that a visit by Fra Johanne Jacopo to view the manuscript was not without incident. Apparently he stole part of the book! In that same letter Birago explained that ‘The part which your excellency has is worth more than 500 ducats. The other part is with the Duchess …’. So just a part of the book was worth five times more than Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’, valued at the time at 100 ducats.

In this image the Holy Spirit is descending in the form of a dove on to the disciples. Note St Peter with his keys, the very lively robes, and the wonderful curls of the men.

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.27The story of the book continues. It was not finished, but on the Duchess’s death passed to her nephew, Philibert II of Savoy. The manuscript wasn’t long with him because he died a year later and it then went to his widow, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. She went there taking the book with her, and after ten years asked Etienne de Lale to finish the text in a style that is rather inferior to that in the rest of the book. This page is by the original scribe in a strong Gothic Rotunda, a style used in Italy and Spain, much less compressed than the Gothic Textura of northern Europe.

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.32.03Margaret also asked the court painter Gerard Horenbout to add more illuminations. His style and that of Birago are totally different but both are supreme artists in miniature. Look at the detail here, how finely the figures are painted, although the sunny, hilly exteriors, and the light interiors of Italy painted by Birago have been replaced by Horenbout to dark rooms and the rather dreary, in comparison, backgrounds of northern Europe. The challenge of depicting haloes is well shown here. There’s not such a problem when the figures are full face and not looking down too much, but when shown as here it’s difficult not to see them as golden plates on their heads.

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.48Admitting the huge skill of Horenbout, my preference very much is the style of Birago. Here are some more miniatures in the Sforza hours. Now there’s curly hair and there’s curly hair! Admittedly Mary Magdalene was known for her hair when anointing the feet of Christ … but! It was said that she was a hermit in the desert and didn’t eat or drink but was sustained by God. She is supported by angels rising to heaven to receive that sustenance.

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.18Never has there been a group of more high cheek-boned, curly haired men than here in this image of the Last Supper. Even the servants ladling soup and pouring and serving wine are depicted in the same way. And for itinerant travellers, the disciples are certainly robed luxuriously.

There’s more to be seen on the British Library’s website here, and although there are only few pages of this manuscript remaining, each of the images is a real gem.

A Scribe and Illuminator’s Workroom

IMG_3268Having just finished twenty-one new pieces for my forthcoming British Library book (this post is written in July 2023), I decided to re-cover my sloping board – something I do once about every 3-4 years, depending on how dirty it is. As it was so lovely and clean I felt that it might be interesting to show the board and the rest of my workroom. This is the view from the door, and although it looks big, it’s about 2 metres by 3·5 metres. However, don’t think that I’m complaining that it’s small! I know how very lucky I am to have a dedicated workroom when most people have to share their working space within another room, as I did for very many years. My chair in front of the board is padded with two flat cushions and stools are to hand on the right to put completed work or a computer, or texts just written. Note also how close my chair is to the sink on the left.

IMG_3297So, the room tour. Directly to the left of the door are large cardboard tubes. Most of these are from vellum skins sent from William Cowley, but the large one at the back right is from work I did for the Damian Hirst ‘s exhibition held in Venice – ‘Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. To the immediate left are red tubes of tracing paper for large projects. The tubes are useful not only for storing large sheets of paper but also for sending large artworks to those who have commissioned pieces. Now, however, I work mostly on vellum, and so large pieces are stretched over board requiring a different delivery system, and so these tubes are a bit redundant, somehow, though, I can’t bring myself to throw them away!

IMG_3296On the work surface to the right of the tubes are swans’ and Canadian goose feathers ready to be cut into quills. It may look like quite a lot for one scribe but most are waiting for workshops I teach on ‘Quills and Calligraphy’. I also don’t cure feathers with heat – sand or a Dutching tool and an iron. I find that feathers cure themselves by just being left to dry naturally as I’m sure happened in mediæval and Renaissance times. It was only with the rise of literacy and growth of empires and the need for records that more and more pens were needed and the curing process had to be speeded up that heat was needed.

 

IMG_3270Above that are cupboards of books and supplies. This is the first cupboard. At the bottom left is a small folder bursting with papers. These are quotations, poems and prose that I’ve collected over many years and which I write out to give to friends or for my own use. Occasionally someone will ask me if I’ve got something suitable for an occasion and it may be in here or in one of the books to the right which focus on important stages in life – birth, marriage and death mainly. Above that are various books by other calligraphers – it’s always useful to see what the competition is up to. And above that books on Latin, Chaucer, and various reference books to use in my work.

 

IMG_3298Under that cupboard is a new piece on vellum waiting to be sent to the person who commissioned it. I hope to be able to do a blogpost about this in the future as it was a really interesting artwork to do. Behind that is a strip of lead to be made into lead points to show to classes and for them to use. And at the back, to the right is oak gall ink getting nicely black. Oh and more books!

 

IMG_3300Below that, all along the work surface are even more books! Book shelves in the house are completely full, so are the cupboards here. I also have my own books here which I also use for reference – not everything stays in mind and so it’s helpful to look things up. In front of the books is a new box of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to use in photographs for the new book. They really are the best paints to use for writing and for painting. There’s more about them and mixing colours from the two reds, two blues, and two yellows here.

IMG_3292There’s a small sink just behind where I sit, completely reachable by simply swivelling round in my seat. I cleaned it up specially for this photo! It’s usually covered with ink and colour and not a pretty sight. To the right of the sink is a pot with old toothbrushes in it ready to brush the nibs clean. To the side and behind the sink are clean little jars up-ended and ready to fill with water for washing brushes when painting or to add to gouache to dilute it for writing and painting. It isn’t shown here but the tap is this side of the sink just to the left again for ease of use.

 

IMG_3272On to the window sill there’s clean paper towels for wiping nibs and reservoirs dry so they don’t rust, and tubes of Schmincke gouache ready to use. There are too many tubes to store neatly but I know where each tube is in that pile and usually just need to reach my hand out to grab the one I want.

 

 

IMG_3288Further along the window sill is a pot of quills already cut just waiting to be used. The nibs of all of these will have separated into two halves. This is not a disaster! The strength of a feather is when it is complete, cutting into it weakens it. However, popping the quill into a jar of water for an hour or so brings the two tines together ready for use and doesn’t soften the nib.

 

 

 

IMG_3275Below the window sill and just to the left of the seat is a trolley of already mixed (but now dried) small palettes and crucibles of paint, jars of black ink, and ink droppers to add water to paint (never use a brush dipped in clean water as the quantity can’t be controlled). Good quality gouache will last in this dry state with water added when it needs to be used. At the front right are pen holders, the green one in the shape of a dragon, and an Arkansas stone to sharpen nibs. As a right-hander, everything is to my left so that I can easily fill pens with ink and paint with my left hand, and then not take a fully charged pen over where I’ve just written. I did think to clean this up a little before this post, but it’s how I work and so I left it!

IMG_3276Then, proud moment here, my clean new board. This is flat whereas it would usually be at a slope of about 45°. It’s a large board with its own stand with a sloping rule, ideal for drawing the many lines calligraphers need to do. A pad of white paper completely covers the board, and then a fold of paper (fold at the top) goes right across bottom part of the board held at a slight tension, so that the writing paper can go to the right and left, and up and down, and doesn’t slip. The writing paper or vellum isn’t attached anywhere because it needs to be at a comfortable writing level which is usually when the hand is about the same level as the shoulder. The shadow is a large light fitted with daylight bulbs so it gives the truest light. The window, which is another source of light, is of course, for a right-hander on my left so that my hand doesn’t create a shadow where I’m writing and painting.

IMG_3299To the right of the board are all the tools I need for painting and writing. At the back on the left is a long metal straight edge for cutting paper and skin of large pieces, and to the left, in the front, are erasers in a little muller, behind that a tiny jar of pounce, and behind that little bags of sandarac in a shallow pot. Magic tape, used pretty much all the time to attach lines on roughs and best pieces is to the left of a hygrometer which indicates the humidity for illumination. And behind that are scissors, dividers, pens, brushes, paste and wash brushes etc. To the right of the storage pots are large knives for cutting vellum.

 

 

IMG_3284 2At the back of the table to the right is a plastic folder which holds set squares. One side of all of these has a metal edge for cutting (don’t cut using a set square without a metal edge as the knife is bound to cut into the plastic and ruin the straight edge). It is easy to stand up from my board and simply reach over for these. In front of them is a magnifying glass on its own stand for working on tiny paintings.

 

IMG_3285All sit on a variety of sizes of cutting mats. Of course, everything has to be moved off if I want to use the larger one, so I must admit that I usually use the medium sized one and just slide the paper/skin along. This isn’t the best or most efficient and it really would be more sensible simply to move stuff off!

 

 

IMG_3286 2A relatively new addition, recommended by my son-in-law who is an excellent photographer, is this flat table and two powerful lights (not the the Anglepoise to the right which has a different purpose) to take good quality photographs of my work, and the camera I use (far too old but I don’t know what new one to get – I’m far from an expert!) is at the back. On the table is a card with gesso at various mixes, and an experiment of shell gold on vellum written with a quill just to make sure that the treatment I was going to give for the actual skin produced the best result.

 

 

IMG_3287 2The last of the ‘tour’ are rolls of vellum (and one of paper to the left). It is better to take the relatively tightly rolled skins out of the tube they are sent in so that the roll is much looser; this then makes it easier to cut large and small pieces from the skin. In front of the rolls are smaller pieces of vellum in a clear plastic folder, some far too small to use but somehow I think they may be handy for something. I used to make vellum size from them for making gesso but now I use fish glue (Seccotine). This is a bit of a dark corner so the Anglepoise lamp is there to add light when selecting the skins.

 

 

IMG_3283And a last tantalising look at how the sloping board is at the moment (July 2023). These are the twenty-one new pieces of artwork with stage-by-stage of how they were done for the ‘Art of the Scribe’ book to be published Spring 2024 by the British Library. It is an information book about seven selected writing styles – the ones most commonly used by calligraphers –and also a practical section for each script of three graded pieces with detailed instructions on how to do them. You’ll have to wait until the book is published to see what’s in those folders!

The Glitterati of 2023

Layout 1What a wonderful group of eight budding illuminators-to-be there was for this year’s intensive Tools, Techniques and Materials of Mediæval Manuscripts three-day course in May. It is always interesting to see how eight different people, complete strangers, from different parts of the UK and the world will react when spending three days together. I have been so lucky in that everyone who comes on my courses has been really nice – and so it proved to be this time!

 

 

 

IMG_2930It takes quite a long time to get the rooms ready. The furniture has to be arranged, and then all the tools and equipment set out for each individual – well over 30 individual pieces of equipment. No-one has to bring anything with them – it’s all provided. I do this for three main reasons. It is very expensive buying vellum, books of gold leaf, sets of paints, and fine kolinsky sable brushes. If someone is doing this only once, it is a lot of cost, which could be seriously off-putting! Then, for those coming long distances and even from overseas, buying all the correct stuff is not easy and carrying it long distances on public transport is also a challenge. Lastly, and this is from experience of many, many years, it is so important to have the right tools and materials – too low a gold level in leaf gold means that it will not stick to itself, a old burnisher that someone has found in a drawer may be scratched and ruin the gold, and new scissors bought cheaply will make the gold leaf tear. It really is a case of, quite rightly ,a workman blaming his tools when things don’t go well!

But the results were amazing as you can see. Gesso well laid, gold attached and burnished to a bright shine, and miniatures painted well.

IMG_2945Here are the results and comments from those on the course, although comments are not necessarily next to the image completed (by the way, the images may be a bit skewwhiff because I wanted to make sure the brilliance of the gold was captured).

Amazed at what I’d learnt on the first day. I thought we had a lot to do, and we did, but Patricia had timings meticulously planned, and we finished. it was extremely good value for such an in depth course (and most memorable).

 

IMG_2934Your help and advice at all stages have been very welcome; thank you for your encouraging words throughout the course. So glad to have attended. I have learned a great deal and particularly enjoyed using gesso. Absolutely fantastic. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2935Superb! I’ve learned so much and will definitely experiment with techniques in the future, Unique and top quality training with plenty of inspiration for future explorations. Very clear, easy to follow and clearly based on practical experience. Brilliantly pitched.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2937I just want to say what a wonderful experience this has been – absolutely perfect for me! Thank you so much for your wonderful warmth and hospitality (well beyond what the course would require to be a success).

 

 

 

IMG_2936Perfectly paced and really fun, learned so much, quill making amazing. Patricia you are wonderfully encouraging and positive, Loved the gesso and gilding. Tremendous! Wish I could have stayed for a week.

 

 

 

IMG_2942I was so looking forward to it, but the course was so much more than I could have expected, The learning was wonderful, and I cannot thank you enough for all the effort you put in to make it an amazing experience. Excellent! Repeats, great demonstrations, you are a wonderful teacher! All my thanks.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2939This is famously the best course in the world, which is why we’re all here. No-one was disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IIMG_2940 loved the fact that you walked us through the details of all the supplies we used, where they came from and how they are made. It was an amazing experience, I have learned so much more than I had hoped to. Patricia, you are a very generous teacher and person. I am so glad I signed up for this workshop.

 

 

 

Courses are held in Kent, UK, about 35 minutes by train from London. They are run usually the third weekend (plus the Friday) in May, and details are sent out in my free online monthly newsletter. The courses fill up very quickly, so if you are interested, do book your place as soon as it’s advertised!

‘Hands of Time’

IMG_2913There is now only a handful of watchmakers in the UK which means that it has been in the Critically Endangered category in the Heritage Crafts Red List of Endangered Crafts since the first research was published. Hurray, then, for Craig and Rebecca Struthers who run their company, Struthers Watches, in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. The fact that this is such a rare craft means that Rebecca’s book ‘Hands of Time’ is even more important.

 

 

 

IMG_2919However, do not think that this is yet another book on craft, who does it and how to do it, of which there seem to be quite a few at the moment. This is a fascinating, delightful and well-written book about all aspects of time and the development of measuring time, as the title suggests, No wonder it was chosen to be ‘Book of the Week’ on BBC’s Radio 4 in what seemed like only seconds after it was published! Rebecca is the only person in the UK to have a PhD in horology and her research and depth of knowledge stands her in good stead for this book.

 

IMG_2926All the drawings in the book (here and as above) were done by Rebecca’s husband, Craig, and the care, precision, delight, and execution add immensely to the book. They also show the need for the supreme accuracy that is required for those who work with objects that are often less than a mm in size.

 

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-05-15 at 13.35.39What is particularly interesting about the book is the way in which Rebecca weaves her own story and experiences into the means by which counting and recording time has developed. In the first chapter, for example, it is meeting with friend Jim, whose wife is a shepherdess, who explains the effects of nature and the seasons on the times when ewes get pregnant and then giving birth; this emphasises the way in which the yearly cycle has on all of us, even though it is often not always obvious to city dwellers. This also relates to the 44,000 years old Lebombo bone (see image) which has scratched markings on it that are thought to reflect and represent the days of the lunar month and the monthly cycle – perhaps a degree of sophistication at that time which many hadn’t fully appreciated.

IMG_2920Rebecca considers both the development of watches and a number of special watches such as this lion watch which some believe to have been owned by Mary, Queen of Scots, and was presented  to her by her first husband, Francis II, King of France. This watch was then given to Mary Seton, one of the ‘four Marys’ who accompanied the Queen to France and then back to Scotland. It was said to have been given to Mary Seton on the Queen’s execution, but was this actually the case?

 

IMG_2923Should watchmakers and repairers leave any sign of their work on watches? This is similar to calligraphy which is rarely signed. Decades later it is often difficult to work out who was responsible for great works of art. Rebecca was told never to leave a trace, but this person inadvertently left a finger print here on the back of an enamelled watch. (Can you see it, just under the word ‘Wilson’?) Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who this person was and at what stage they were involved in making the watch?

 

 

IMG_2921One of my favourites, photographed by Andy Pilsbury, as indeed all the photographs are in the book, is this watch which is part of a chatelaine, worn by a housekeeper or someone in charge of a large house. What a lucky housekeeper to have such a wonderful instrument as part of her daily duties to refer to every day.

 

 

 

I have had such pleasure reading this book, and enjoyed every moment as stories both of Rebecca’s own experiences, and the history of watchmaking are revealed, and the art and craft of watchmaking are interleaved with the history and development of watches. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – buy one for yourself and one or two more for those who you may think would also be fascinated, and those really difficult people (uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers) who are difficult to buy for – you won’t regret it!

 

‘The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration’

IMG_2753This new book by Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, on the Lindisfarne Gospels offers a fascinating insight into this magnificent manuscript. The fact that the Gospels are thought to have been created by one man, Eadfrid, Birshop of Lindisfarne, before 720 is quite remarkable. It is also glossed, an Old English translation of every word, not necessarily making complete sense, by Aldred, who describes himself as ‘a miserable priest’ in the colophon (‘peak’ or ‘finishing touch’ from the Greek) which he added at the end of the book, and is the earliest surviving translation of the gospels into English.

 

IMG_2755The new book has magnificent images, many of them enlarged so that the innovative and inspirational design and mastery of skill of pen and brush are clearly shown. This is the incipit, the beginning, of Luke, and it shows the innovative design, the intricacies, and the precision of execution. La Tène ornament (the whirls and swirls) contrast with the entwined bodies of birds lower left, and the multitude of red dots, so characteristic of insular manuscripts.

 

 

 

IMG_2756The enlargements emphasise also the accuracy of Eadfrid’s designs and the different colours used and can be studied in great close-up. At the top here is ‘Eusebius’ (note Aldred’s script just above), having a diamond for the middle crossbar of the letter ‘E’, and with its entwined birds, a dog, interlace, and a multitude of red dots; this is the opening to the prefatory text. Below is ‘Generationum’, the beginning of the chapter lists for the Gospel of Matthew, with restrained decoration but again many many red dots. Note the capitals written in Half-Uncial in red at the top ‘Incipit capitula lectio sec mattheum’ indicating what is to follow. The colour red used is beginning to deteriorate at the beginning to a darker red.

 

IMG_2760The book is notable for its cross carpet pages. These are designs that incorporate crosses (in the Lindisfarne Gospels many on one page), and look like the intricate designs in a Middle Eastern carpet. Research by Professor Michelle Brown suggests that carpets were used for prayer on special occasions at the time the book was produced in a similar way to Islamic traditions. Here the cross carpet page for Matthew is a riot of intricate birds and dog-like creatures. But for me, it is those white circles which really catch the eye. Were they left to be illuminated with gold or another colour? With such an eye for effect, it is really interesting that Eadfrid left them blank like this.

IMG_2758The author images are particularly striking, taking up a whole pages and showing the ages of man, writing in books and on scrolls, and three-quarters and full face. This of Luke, with his name and representative animal of a calf, is shown with him sitting on a cushion and bench, his feet on a stool, and writing on his lap. His name is written in Greek but in an angular script that is similar to Runes.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2759

The angle of the face of his calf is very similar to that inscribed in wood on the coffin of St Cuthbert made probably at Lindisfarne at the end of the seventh century. The calf is shown also holding a book between its front legs.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2761The colophon of Aldred is particularly important naming as it does Eadfrid as the scribe, Æthelwold as the person who bound it, and Billfrith who adorned the covers. It must have been truly magnificent and a great asset to the cult of St Cuthbert who was regarded as the greatest saint in England until Thomas Becket at Canterbury.

This new book by Eleanor Jackson brings together the knowledge that we have of this great book and looks anew at the manuscript. It, like the book, is a true treasure trove and anyone who is interested in Lindisfarne the Gospels, St Cuthbert and the history of this area, and wants their eyes to be delighted and their souls to be enriched by the artistry of this amazing manuscript needs this book!

Fear no More the Heat of the Sun

Fear no more‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ is a poem from William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’. It is a poem of reassurance at death – nothing can touch the deceased now, not sun, cold, thunderstorms, whims of monarchs or tyrants, or even ghosts or witches.

I had been wanting to write this out for for time and thought it would be appropriate for my new book ‘The Art of the Scribe’, to be published by the British Library in 2024. It just wasn’t right though and so I went a different route in the end.

 

 

IMG_2745The first rough is here and the script I tried was Caroline Minuscule. This is one of the seven scripts featured in the new book. I had the idea of the sun colours changing from red to yellow through a couple of oranges for each verse, but it really didn’t work. The piece was far to large and it just didn’t hang together in these varied colours. The initial letters for each verse were emphasised here and I left space to write a gold initial for the first verse.

 

 

 

IMG_2634This lay on one side of my work bench for some time, mulling over the design and thinking of ways to improve it, I was spurred on by realising that it was the colours, size and script that were all wrong – not much right then! Quite a change was required. So I mixed one colour – a good orange (see here for colour mixing) using Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache, I cut a small nib on a swan’s quill, about the size of a Mitchell nib size 6, and wrote it out in rough.

I had the idea of a setting sun at the bottom of the piece. This is depicted in some mediæval manuscripts with alternate straight rays and wavy rays which I rather like – good to have that difference. Not being that good at sums, it took me a little while to work out the appropriate angles so that the rays were even, but once this was done and half-circles inscribed with compasses, it was not too difficult to draw and paint them in Schmincke Goldpearl.

Fear no moreI had done quite a bit of research for the new books into scripts of the Renaissance and decided on a style of Arrighi Italic. I used a lovely piece of prepared vellum (see here, and here). With a left aligned margin and a small quill I wrote out the text in orange gouache, painted the sun at the bottom, with the rays carefully measured out and was able to give the piece to friends. I was sorry in a way to see it go as I rather liked what I had done with it in the end, but pleased, too, that they would be able to enjoy it.

‘Craft Britain – Why Making Matters’

IMG_2489It is not always the case that a new non-fiction book is a page turner, but ‘Craft Britain – Why Making Matters’ by Helen Chislett and David Linley is certainly one such. Page after page of beautiful photographs are surrounded by an informative, fascinating and interesting text. To be fair, craft usually photographs well, but these images are exquisite!

In my view, the book starts not on page one, but with the gloriously marbled blue endpapers by Lucy McGrath, acknowledged in the text – reflecting books in the  nineteenth century when most would have had endpapers like this. It gives the book the quality that continues on the following pages.

IMG_2490Lucy McGrath is marbling paper here by flicking – in a controlled way – colour on to a thickened water base. A piece of suitably sized paper is then floated on the top and when lifted off the marbling has been transferred on to the sheet of paper. The beautifully patterned paper is used not simply for endpapers but for books, book marks, Christmas baubles and much else.

 

IMG_2496From the wonderfully colourful to the monotone, but equally exquisite work of Geoffery Preston MBE. He works in stucco/plaster, moulding by hand the flowers, foliage and flourishes that he designs. This is an overmantel that he’s produced and if you want to see more of his work, save up and go to the bar at the Goring Hotel in London where you’ll be amazed at the sea creatures and his designs that are on the wall leading out to the garden. This craft links to pargetting which is included in the book.

 

IMG_2494Although all craft is beautiful in my eyes, particularly heritage craft (!), it is often, and perhaps usually, useful as well, and none more so than most objects to do with the making of shoes. Steven Lowe owns and runs Crispians which produces lasts for bespoke shoes; lasts are the wooden former, the shape of a person’s foot, around which shoes are made. He also runs Lastmaker House which trains those who wish to learn the craft. When Steven presented at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft a few years ago he explained that the vast majority of those who come on his courses are from abroad; it is a sad situation when this endangered craft cannot recruit those in the UK who could make it viable.

 

IMG_2495Another craft carried out by only a few people is wheelwrighting. Mike Rowland and Son are featured in the book. The skills are being passed on in that they have trained one apprentice already and now have Sam Phillips, shown here, working in the workshop. Self-employed makers and micro businesses like these find the costs of training almost prohibitive. If just one day a week is set aside for passing on the skills, and it is usually much more, then production goes down by 20% and that’s a craftsperson’s profit, so they can afford to live, not enouigh to pay for an apprentice. Government provision for support for apprenticeships in the UK works well for bankers and hairdressers, but is virtually non-existent for these endangered crafts. This is rather ironic because the crafts are where the whole apprenticeship, journeyman and master system was established!

IMG_2498Many do not realise the craft skills that are involved in scientific glass instrument blowing, but they are definitely right at the centre! A lot of scientific and medical experiments and processes could not take place if they did not have the correct glass equipment to do so. This elegant tower of glass could sit under a spotlight on a shelf in an expensive penthouse suite as an ornament, but it is actually a water jacketed oxygenator made by Terri Adams as part of cardiovascular research. Terri is the University of Oxford’s only scientific glassblower, and this is an endangered craft with fewer than fifty of these craftspeople in the UK.

 

 

IMG_2491Nowadays we are used to wallpaper being produced by machine, but this wasn’t always the case. In the past wallpaper was printed from carved wooden blocks, often cherry wood; here Hugh Dunford Wood is carving a pattern in lino bespoke to clients who can choose not only the design but also the colours for the ground and print.

The book is divided into twelve chapters after a foreword by Stephen Bayley and an Introduction. Each chapter is a cornucopia of crafts, with details and photographs of each one. It really is an absolute delight and very highly recommended.

A wonderful Edward Johnston book

IMG_2373Sometimes the most chance encounters bring rich rewards! At a recent Christopher de Hamel lecture at the British Library, I overheard the words ‘Edward Johnston’, and my ears pricked up. It turned out that a church on the south coast had an illuminated book of the Communion Service written by the great calligrapher in 1902. The photos I was shown looked amazing and I arranged to go and see the book as soon as I could. It truly was wonderful and such a thrill to see page after page of Edward Johnston’s writing and illumination.

 

 

IMG_2377The note at the back (see below) explained the production of the book and that the hands and faces in this crucifixion scene were painted by ‘my friend E G Treglown of Birmingham’. Note the border decoration of a waving pattern of vine stems and leaves with bunches of grapes, reflecting John 15 ‘I am the vine: you are the branches’. The gold here is shell gold – gold powder in gum Arabic base – with raised gold leaf grapes.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2400A paragraph in Priscilla Johnston’s book about her father notes that ‘ G B Gabb, a surgeon … accordingly commissioned Johnston to write out the Communion Service. The terms of the agreement were that he was to ‘make the most gorgeous book within his power’ and ask for money whenever he wanted it’. What a commission! The lavish use of gold leaf here and above, (where shell gold as well has been used in the border,) are certainly testament to the gorgeous nature of the book! Johnston used ‘Reeve’s raising agent’ as gesso. I haven’t been able to find out anything about this raising agent and would be grateful if anyone reading this can shed any light on it. It is a much deeper red than the pink colour made by the addition of Armenian bole to gesso today.

 

IMG_2393 IMG_2420The decorated initials are particularly fine as can be seen here. A raised gold leaf initial A with first a background of ultramarine and shell gold applied in straight lines with a ruler, with circles along the lines on the left, and then a similarly raised gold A with an ultramarine background and a swirling foliage pattern in green and red with the addition of white dots.

IMG_2382As would be expected of Johnston the initial letters are particularly fine as here, although the red gold cross behind the raised gold letter A may not be a complete success, but all is forgiven by the surety of the strokes in the versals!

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2406This glorious page of raised gold letters absolutely shone in the light and would lift anyone’s heart and spirit. It really is a tour-de-force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2386The book also contains music for the service as here with an impressive decorated border of raised gold leaves and blue cranesbill. The main wavy line going through the image is drawn with a firmness of the master. I think Johnston would particularly have enjoyed creating the squiggly fine black lines of decoration.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2407That same firmness of line is shown here in this red vermilion decorated chalice; many would envy that sureness of stroke. Interestingly, it looks in places that Johnston may have used a broad edge calligraphy nib for some of the strokes. Note how the furthest left curved line to the base gradually changes from a thicker line to thinner, and also the thin and thicks on the two circles in the oval shape halfway up.

 

 

 

IMG_2375The lettering, as Johnston explains in the note at the back, is based on tenth-century manuscripts. We know that he was introduced to these by Sir Sydney Cockerell, particularly the Ramsey Psalter (BL Harley 2904) which Johnston studied and then developed into his Foundational Hand. The tail of the letter g extending to the right is very much one found in the Psalter. The tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold, written at about the same time and probably at the same location, has a similar style of writing, but here the tail of this letter is dealt with more successfully. Now, dare I say this, pace calligraphers, but Johnston does need to work more on his letters s where almost invariably the top bowl is larger than the bottom (it should be the other way round to prevent the letter looking top heavy).

 

FE3FD8FE-D6DE-4589-915E-A043F639A74E_1_105_c IMG_2432And traditional to the period of study, Johnston used a blind point to rule the lines, where the furrow on one side of the page created a raised line on the other. On the left-hand image there is a faint black baseline where some of the ink on the opposite page has rubbed off on the raised skin.

IMG_2433 copyThe gold tooled cover is just magnificent – produced by Douglas Cockerell, probably the most famous bookbinder of his time, and brother of Sydney.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2442 IMG_2440 IMG_2438 IMG_2439In each corner is a little raised carved ‘button’, not as large as a penny coin, with the symbols of the four evangelists. These are exquisite and the design fits so well in to the circular shape.

 

Matthew – the winged man,

 

 

 

 

Mark – the lion,

 

 

 

 

 

Luke – the bull,

 

 

 

 

 

And John – the eagle.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2413At the back Johnston explains about the book, where his sources for the text come from, and also about the materials used. The skin is ‘Roman vellum’, or lambskin, manufactured at Brentford, no doubt by Bands (since closed), and could explain the difficulty in achieving really fine strokes as this skin is renowned for its greasiness. The blue is ultramarine ash, which I know only as a much paler colour than ultramarine, but here it’s about as strong.

This truly is a remarkable book and it is a privilege to show photographs of it here.

 

‘Words Made Stone’

IMG_2272‘Words Made Stone’ records a ‘conversation’ between Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley MBE, one of the country’s leading letter cutters, and Marcus Waithe, lecturer in English at Magdalene College in Cambridge. The value of this style of gaining information was brought home to me when I interviewed a number of lettering luminaries for Heritage Crafts series of ‘In Conversation With …’. The one with Lida is here, and there are others worth watching on the Heritage Crafts website as well.

 

 

IMG_2274This book provides a fascinating insight into how a modern letter cutting workshop with masters, journeymen and apprentices actually works, and works very successfully indeed. This workshop format allows for exchanges of ideas, creativity, and for skills and techniques to be passed on collaboratively at the same time. Here four people at the workshop are each working on different projects.

 

 

 

IMG_2277Do view the ‘In Conversation With …’ Lida to see the actual workshop. First of all I couldn’t believe how clean and tidy it was when I was there – and was assured that it wasn’t like this especially for the filming! Tidyness and order matter when in a workshop, whether with one person or several. Time is wasted looking for items of equipment, and putting things away after use is part of good craft practice – a place for everything, and everything in its place.

 

 

 

IMG_2279More collaboration is needed when cutting letters in situ, and not all of them are ideally placed. Each letter cutter here adopts a different position from kneeling, sitting and crouching over, lying prone and lying sideways (Lida at the back – how did that work?).

 

 

 

 

IMG_2275But in addition to that, the book explores how each commission is approached, every one being different. From very first ideas, sketches sometimes being made at or soon after the initial approach, to working out those ideas with more precision, and finally, as here, Lida  completing a precise drawing to scale.

 

 

 

IMG_2276Sometimes ideas pop up at rather inopportune moments. You will need to buy and read the book to find out exactly when Lida and her assistant Fiona came up with the ideas for the fourteen stations of the cross and how coincidental and even dangerous it was! The brief was to incorporate square tiles in the designs. Note the successful nesting of letters to accommodate different lengths of text.

 

 

 

IMG_2278So is this ‘just’ a conversation about workshops and processes? Certainly, not! The book is so much more. There is so much philosophy to the way of working, thinking about each commission, and a sense of, as Lida says, learning by doing, but also perfecting by doing. As she writes ‘We get on with the job, do the best we can and in the process we learn and improve. This is not achieved by sitting in front of a drawing board or easel dreaming of the perfect capital. It is only earned by getting on with it, through craftsmanship’.

There is so much to love in this book – the fascinating and interesting text, of course, beautiful photography, the images of white pencils sharpened to point beyond belief is so intriguing, but the whole design and production is really carefully done. Such thought has been given to the selection of the images illustrating the points being made, and even to the quality and feel of the paper – perhaps regarded as trivial by some, but how wonderful to enjoy the actual touch of fingers on the pages as they are turned. This is a book for anyone and everyone – buy it, enjoy it, read, learn and dream of being able to commission your own cut lettering from this wonderful workshop.

St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth

IMG_1688In the seventh century it must have been amazing for the people at the time living near Monkwearmouth in Northumberland to see this building going up! The craft skills of building in stone were lost when the Romans left Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, and, according to an Anglo-Saxon poem called ‘The Ruin’ it was thought that such buildings were created not by mere mortals but by giants. However, on his five journeys to Rome, Benedict Biscop (c. 628–690) saw magnificent large and sturdy stone buildings and brought back masonsfrom Gaul, as well as glassworkers to create stained glass windows, and, under his direction, they built this church in 674–5 and its sister church of St Paul’s in Jarrow.

 

IMG_1694Only the tower and west wall remain of Benedict’s church now but they are supreme examples of the stone mason’s skills. It is thought that many of the actual stones and some of the masonry came from Roman buildings nearby, and this arch certainly has a Roman feel to it with its carefully dressed stone. Even so, if it was created by the Romans, dismantling and recreating it on this site needed knowledge and techniques.

IMG_1684The massive corner stones give great strength to the building, some of them being about three feet (1 metre) in length as can be seen here. Even the strong Northumberland wind and sometimes inclement weather wouldn’t shift this structure!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1673Even now, the mason’s skill can be seen. There are horizontal striations on the two short pillars supporting the arch in the front of the porch.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1672The barrel vaulting creating the rounded arched roof is truly magnificent, the stones being selected very carefully to be well matched in size and shape. What an entrance to a church!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1683Either side of the arch are two similar smaller arches, with carefully cut stones to create the top curve. Although the wall may look rather higgledy-piggledy, a little like a dry stone wall, the stones are actually carefully selected and neatly placed.

 

 

 

 

IMG_1692There is even some pattern in the seemingly random stones creating here a zig-zag texture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1667The porch was extended upwards by the end of the seventh century when a second floor was added, and this can be seen from inside the church here in a line in the masonry just below the narrow single window above the arched doorway.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1670In the porch are two stone slabs and on one there are incised depictions of a sword, a decorated cross and what could be a bishop’s crook (?).

 

 

 

IMG_1690The tower was extended upwards by the tenth century with other floors added, but the Romanesque style of half-moon arches was still being used in buildings.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1695St Peter’s in Monkwearmouth is just outside Sunderland* and is well worth a visit. I am so very grateful to the vicar and those at the church who kindly stayed on after the Sunday morning service and opened up the porch door so that I could take the photographs used in this post.

Benedict Biscop was given the land to build this church. He was also given land close by – the ‘sunder’ land, hence ‘Sunderland’.