‘The Book in the Cathedral: the Last Relic of Thomas Becket’

IMG_0803This year, 2020, marks the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29th December, 1170 and the 800th anniversary of his shrine built in the cathedral itself. A large exhibition bringing together manuscripts and artefacts related to the saint was planned at the British Museum, and this little book from the great Christopher de Hamel was due to be part of that. Due to Covid-19 restrictions the exhibition did not take place, but the publication of the book did, and despite its small size, it is a really wonderful book.

 

 

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 18.24.35Any book by Christopher de Hamel is worth reading and this one is no exception. Initially Christopher considers the meaning of relics in mediæval life. This beautiful 12th-century casket, for example, with Limoges enamel decoration was made for the relics of Becket. This side shows the murder of the holy man (note the sword being drawn), his burial (above) and to the right above his soul being taken to heaven. This particular casket is in the V&A Museum in London and is the most elaborate and largest of the Becket Caskets in existence now, and is the earliest being dated to 1180–90, within just a decade or two of the martyrdom.

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 18.21.07And whilst pieces of his body, hair, blood and clothing were considered to be worthwhile relics, why weren’t any of his books? Christopher focuses not just on the books owned, or thought to have been owned by Thomas Becket, as they would have given an insight to his thinking, but also concentrates on the psalter, Ms 411, now at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge . Christopher was for many years the welcoming Fellow Librarian of this most amazing library, most of the books donated by Archbishop Matthew Parker who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during Elizabeth I’s reign. Ms 411 has an intriguing frontispiece – an elaborate interlace border, complicated in pattern and in colour, surrounds a rather wraith-like figure holding a book drawn in a brown-black ink and of a later date than the border. Who is he?

 

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 18.21.42The psalter starts, obviously, with the letters of Psalm I, ‘Beatus Vir’ (Blessed is the man …) enlarged and in gold and colours. The text of the Psalms is then written in an engaging and regular Caroline Minuscule with letters very well formed making the text clear and easy to read.

 

 

 

 

 

Screenshot 2020-09-14 at 18.22.33On the following pages the verses start with a pale turquoise or dark brownish-red uncial initial letter followed by the same regular text script. It is possible that the pale green is malachite. This is pigment made from grinding down the semi-precious stone used in jewellery and for boxes and vases. Unground it is the most glorious emerald, but when ground it gradually loses its vibrant colour. If ground too much it forms a very pale insipid green, and so is used in a fairly granular state. Initially the adhesive is sufficient to keep the irregular grains of pigment on to the surface of the skin, but over time the granular nature of the colour gradually rubs off leaving only the paler powder remaining on the page. The red, too, is possibly vermilion, which over time has deteriorated and the surface has gone black or silver. Imagine this page with brilliant emerald green and startling red initial letters – it would have sung!

Christopher covers in this book the importance of martyrdom and the fact that killing the archbishop resulted in Canterbury being the most important place for pilgrimage for centuries with 100,000 pilgrims attending at important festivals. He also considers what books an archbishop would have in his collection at this time, or, perhaps more significantly, what books would Thomas Becket have needed bearing in mind he wasn’t even a priest when he was made archbishop. Becket’s exiles in France are investigated and the books that he acquired while he was there. It is interesting that, after his death, Becket’s books were just left on the open shelves of the slype, which exists even today and is used as a store.

So this particular manuscript – what is its connection with Thomas Becket? Did it have significance for him? Who owned it before him? And how does pigment from Egypt come into it? This blog is not a spoiler – you will need to read the book yourself and it really is well worth finding out the answers to those questions. The psalter could, just, have been such an amazingly significant little book.

‘The Ins and Outs of Public Lettering’

IMG_0802This delightful little book ‘The Ins and Outs of Public Lettering: Kindersley Inscriptions in the Open’ by Marcus Waithe, Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley and Thomas Sherwood does exactly what it says. Following their books on the workshop itself, letter cutting, sundials, apprentices, cut letters in gardens and much else, this book focuses on examples of lettering from the workshop which all can see.

Amazingly, the workshop is now in its ninth decade, with David Kindersley having started his training with Eric Gill in 1934, and, after setting up on his own in 1936 he settled in the Cambridge workshop in 1946. This is now run by his gifted letter-cutter widow Lida and there are still apprentices and journeymen learning the skills of letter-form and letter cutting in the workshop.

IMG_0811The workshop has many important and significant commissions under its belt, such as the lettering on the gates of the British Library as shown on the cover of the book, but it does not omit the more seemingly straightforward perhaps and more discrete examples of public lettering such as this memorial in a graveyard. It seems to simple yet note how the word ‘Remember’ is carefully placed on the rather narrow, rugged stone, and that to fit in the larger letters, the first ‘M’ and ‘E’ share a stroke, and the second ‘M’ and ‘B’ do too. And note the three different forms of the letter ‘E’. All add variety, catch the eye, show what good design is all about, but need inspiration, careful thought and great cutting to execute.

 

IMG_0806Perhaps more easily seen and certainly more complicated is the memorial to Francis Crick at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. His work on the double helix structure of DNA won him a Nobel Prize. Cut in green slate and Caithness stone, the DNA structure forms the pattern for the memorial and can be seen from outside the college from the Senate House entrance opposite St Mary’s Church.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0804Another complicated piece for the workshop was the design for the Garden Building at King’s College also in Cambridge. Twenty seven slates from the roof of the college were used – not that easy as they had little depth for cutting and the edges were friable – to mark the benefactor, and tie in the name of the building and the life of the benefactor’s late brother with flowers from English gardens of particular resonance to the family.

IMG_0805Everyone in the workshop was involved in painting the flowers on the slate tiles.

 

 

 

IMG_0808Benefactors to Cambridge colleges and Nobel Prize winning scientists are one thing, those who gave their lives saving others at sea are another, but those unsung heroes are nevertheless recorded and remembered on this slate which is now on the Old Coastguard Rescue Station at Shingle Street.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0810Almost missed perhaps on the building itself, but appreciated by anyone who walks by and notices the many ways in which extraordinary people can be remembered in stone.

This little book has so many examples and is certainly worth buying to look through and appreciate the many ways in which letter cutting can bring buildings to life and record the lives of those of note.

The Wait

Cricket poem.PL 2020All those who love sport have been frustrated at either not being able to play it, or not being able to watch it, or both, during the spring and summer of this Covid-19 pandemic. Jimmy Lee from the England and Wales Cricket Board wrote a really poignant poem about this waiting, and the fact that in cricket this is what often happens. But, as he says, waiting isn’t time wasted, and we are a nation that queues. His words are really well chosen and they were read out by Stephen Fry in a wonderful film about the ways in which those who love this sport are just waiting for the game to begin, but that they are also contributing and helping those who are NHS and other Heroes on the front line during these challenging times. Watch the film here and have tissues ready!

 

CIMG3185So as some of you who are now familiar with how to tackle any text, poetry or prose will know, the first thing to do was to write it out. This artwork was to go on the wall so it couldn’t be written too small. And with quite a few lines too, there needed to be adequate space between them so that it was easy to read. I used my favourite green paint at the moment (Schmincke oxide of chromium – it really is wonderfully smooth for writing – mix with water to the consistency of thin, runny cream as always!) and a size 4 Mitchell/Manuscript nib and wrote the lines straight out just as they were.

CIMG3192I then photocopied this and cut the lines into strips to experiment with the best distance between lines. I also wanted to break up some of the lines and emphasise others by writing some of the text in small capitals. So I laid the lines out on to paper and played around with them a little and attached them with magic tape. I had the idea of writing out the title with a lot of space between the letters so that the letters themselves looked as if they were waiting, and when I’d done that I thought that red circles between the letters (a bit larger than just dots) could look as if they represented cricket balls.

 

 

Version 2I also wanted to add an illustration of a cricket bat resting on the stumps waiting – my first sketch in pencil is on the rough of the lines above. I searched for a long time to get an image of a bat at the right angle looking as if it could balance on stumps, and stumps too at the best angle, and made a number of drawings with the bat in different positions and the ball in various places. In the end I had what I thought looked best. The crease of the cricket pitch is usually cut very short, but all cricket lovers were waiting, and so I painted the grass longer than it would be in most matches. I also found an image of a bat with a red and black handle and this added a little bit of red to that part of the painting, thus slightly linking it to the red cricket balls in the title and the one by the stumps.

Cricket poem.PL 2020And so the piece was complete. It is so satisfying to write out words that have real meaning and to have a challenge in painting cricket stumps, bat and ball with an aim to get the proportions right and for them to fit in the best way.

 

Designing a vellum panel – the Kellogg College Grace

1Creating a suitable design for writing out the Grace of Kellogg College in Oxford on stretched calfskin vellum created an interesting set of challenges. Unlike all other Oxford colleges, the Grace is in Welsh rather than Latin (or even English?) and I was asked to include a translation as well. The college has a close association with the Kellogg Company incorporating an ear of wheat in its coat of arms so I thought it would be appropriate to use this in some way in the panel. And being an Oxford College not only did it have its own coat of arms, but it seemed sensible to include that of Oxford University as well.

 

 

IMG_2138So I knew from the start that the two shields would be there in the design and that the text in one language would be in a different style from that in the other language. I experimented with different sizes of nib and writing styles, and also sizes and placement of shields, and made a rough paste-up. This is a very first draft, it became more refined as I went on, but this is where I started.

 

 

 

Version 2Starting from the top. The size of the shields needed to be large enough to be significant and be seen, but not so large that they dominated the piece – it was to show the text of the Grace after all, and wasn’t an heraldic panel! Then to join the shields at the top or the bottom, or to have them side by side or even one above the other? As the college is part of Oxford University it seemed best to have them joined in some way and I thought that facing outwards (independent but linked) and joined by the corners touching rather than the shields facing inwards and joining at the curved sides worked best. I decided early on that I wanted to have just a little bit of bling in the panel so used gold for everywhere it would seen sensible to use gold – and even where perhaps it wasn’t! So the Oxford University shield had gold crowns and gold clasps on the open book, and Kellogg College had a gold ear of wheat. I had to check to see whether the number of grains was in the blazon (it isn’t), but did find that the indented vertical line (per pale) had a specific number of complete white ‘peaks’ which represented the eleven founders.

Version 3And then on to the heading. I had experimented with capitals for ‘Kellogg College’ and Italic for ‘Grace’ but this meant that there was very much then an hourglass effect in the design. I also wanted to make a little bit more of ‘Kellogg College’ so I re-wrote it in different sizes of nib until I had the one that looked right and also experimented with flourishes. I thought that there was need for some degree of restraint here as it is a Grace after all, so flourishing just the second letter ‘l’ in each word seemed to work best. I also added three gold diamonds made with the pen on the initials ‘K’ and the ‘C’ and used a pencil burnisher to make sure that they shined. Then on to the tricky ‘Grace’ word – there are only five letters and it brought the whole piece to a very narrow place visually. Writing them in capital letters allowed me to space them out without losing the cohesion of the word, and I then used the pen to make a red diamond between each letter, and added a small circle of gold in the centre of each which I burnished using a pencil burnisher so that they shone. This brought the gold and red colours from the shields down into the piece as well. And I wanted to use those wheat ears which I really enjoyed painting, so popped two in before the letter ‘K’ and two into the bowl of the ‘C’.

Version 4When there are translations like these it is a choice whether to use two colours (I did experiment with alternate red and green texts to represent Wales, but realised that it was a bit garish and actually this college was in England!) or two styles of writing, and tried also the Welsh in capitals and the English in Italic. As the Grace is said in Welsh, it seemed best to make this more dominant than the English translation, and, conveniently, the top line had quite a few letters ‘d’ which lent themselves to flourishing. Notice that only the first and last of the letters ‘d’ have been flourished in ‘dedwydd’ – more flourishes on the other letters ‘d’ would have upset the rhythm of those flourishes and drawn the eye particularly to that word. I also picked up the wheat ear theme again and painted a couple of very small little gold wheat ears at the top and bottom of the Grace itself.

Version 5One of the things that I always suggest to clients who are kind enough to commission such pieces is to say who gave it and whether this was for a particular reason. This is especially relevant when a piece is commissioned for a special birthday or an anniversary, otherwise it could look as if it was just bought off the shelf and not made explicitly for the occasion. It doesn’t need to be big or intrusive – here just a line of small capitals explains who gave this and when and it also neatly finishes the panel as well, bringing it to a conclusion.

Version 6And to bring the whole piece together, a single ear of corn wasn’t substantial enough at the bottom, so here there is a sheaf of golden wheat held together by twine. On the same lines of who commissioned the piece and for whom, I am always interested in who has done the work. We expect paintings and drawings to be signed, and the names of authors of books are on the cover and inside, but for some reason calligraphy is rarely ‘signed’. I now always try to ensure that my work is signed inobtrusively s possible either by using just my initials in a cipher (PL) or my whole name. In this instance, the width of the sheaf of wheat determined that I would be able to write only my initial and surname.

 

1Designing the whole piece created a series of challenges which shows the value of trying things out before committing to the final piece, which of course we all know!

Props for film and TV

CIMG2859As a professional scribe and illuminator, I am often asked to make props for film and TV. These have ranged from 19th century petitions of ‘thousands’ of names, Elizabethan maps, writing in ‘invisible ink’ and making it reappear onscreen, any number of documents, poems and letters, and, a few years back, to coincide with a big exhibition in Venice by one of the UK’s most well-known artists, a double spread of a 12th century manuscript written in Greek.

CIMG2811The story was that a freed Roman slave had amassed great wealth such that he was able to buy up great treasures. He wanted a suitable palace to display these and planned to take them on the ‘biggest ship ever made’ – the ‘Unbelievable’ – and then build his palace. Sadly, it was said, on his journey a sea monster caused the ship to wreck and the treasures were lost only to be found again hundreds of years later and brought to the surface in the twenty-first century. I was given a very wide brief and set to creating this double spread, checking the designs as I went along. I researched palaces in mediæval manuscripts, and it was lovely to create my own … in the style of! Of course the palace would have a fountain and fish pond and, as with many pieces I’ve done I enjoyed adding a bit of personal amusement. Each fish, for example, had an extra fin from one to four.

CIMG2809I knew that the spread was going to be aged but selected a piece that had a lot of character to it anyway. There was a fair smattering of brown spots which indicated the hair follicles. In my rough sketch I had planned to have carts with treasures being loaded on to the ship but realised that this would take far too long so in the end settled for wrapped bales on the quay, and a few treasures being shown on the deck of the ship. The freed slave, Amatan, is shown here, again in his fur hat and rich red robes lined with cloth of gold, supervising the loading. At this point I didn’t know what form the treasures would be so I painted in a few objects. To ensure that, mediævally speaking, the ship was in character, as it was meant to be so big, the prow extended well beyond the border.

CIMG2814They did give me a sketch of a mediæval monster from a manuscript as a suggestion but I thought it looked far too benign (a bit like a Tellytubby!) so I asked if I could make mine much more scary, to which they agreed. So here it is with horns – because it was evil – rows of sharp teeth and sharp claws. And because the monster was wrecking the ship by creating a storm, I drew a waterline which wasn’t horizontal to reflect that. (I did try it with a very angled sealine but it just looked weird!)

CIMG2804There are quite a few miniatures of ships in mediæval manuscripts, especially connected with the Jonah and the whale story, and I found a lovely image of a sailor falling overboard, which I copied, painting treasures tossed into the sea by the storm too. Amatan and another sailor are here pointing in horror at the monster, and even the ships’ prow is looking a bit scared! The mast is broken and the sail in tatters.

 

 

CIMG2815I also decided to have the monster coming up the side of the page and towering over the boat to make it seem even more menacing and had his gold tail pointing menacingly towards the crashing ship.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG2863I then wrote the supplied Greek text and worked hard to ensure that it fitted the space exactly, rearranging the line spacing and the length of the lines to ensure that it did. I was also able to pretty much justify the lines so that the right- and left-margins looked neat.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2862I knew that they wanted the page aged, and so, once it was all done, took some sandpaper to the painting and roughed it all up a bit. However, when I saw it being used in the accompanying film about the story of the ‘find’, I saw that they had really roughed it up, with the gold leaf blistered and some of the images almost gone completely. The film of the story and the ‘find’ is available on Netflix if you subscribe. And the artist is still causing controversy about the whole project as here.

 

Dumfries House, Ayrshire, Scotland

‘There’s nothing that isn’t positive that comes out of this place.’

IMG_2850Dumfries House near Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. is a unique place in many ways. The house was designed by Robert, John and James Adam, their first independent commission after the death of their father William. The building of the house was completed on budget and on time in 1759. It contains the most wonderful collection of original Chippendale and other furniture and is an amazing place to visit.

IMG_2849The whole estate and furniture was due to be sold when The Prince of Wales stepped in, reputedly arranging for the lorry carrying the precious furniture to be stopped on its way for the contents to be auctioned in London, and saving this unique house with its associated furniture which has an enviable provenance. However, being The Prince of Wales, this project didn’t end simply with saving a house and its contents. I was there to visit the estate and view the wonderful activities involving the whole community and while I was there I noticed that the stone on side of the house has very intriguing diagonal marks – mason’s marks or part of the design?

IMG_2855At the front of the house is a huge fountain and two formal mazes either side. I tried out the maze and as someone with no sense of direction, I was amazed (!) that I actually got to the middle, marked by a stone obelisk.

 

 

 

IMG_2857And just to prove it, here I am at the centre with the obelisk!

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2860It is well-known that The Prince of Wales loves gardens so as you would expect they are wonderful – a mix of colours and textures and not really done justice by this photograph.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2876As I walked through the gardens close to the house, I was intrigued by this huge tree which looked most impressive against the azure blue sky (yes, this photo was taken on the day I was there; the sky really was this blue).

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2877The bark of this tree was fascinating with its whirls and swirls and I wished I had time to sit and draw it.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2889However, it’s not just the house and formal gardens that are worth seeing. On the estate there are animals kept specifically to show children where their food comes from. And if Dumfries House is a building fit for a prince, the animal houses are certainly beautiful enough for The Prince’s farm animals! But the walled garden really was something else! There was a whole long border of HRH’s favourite flower – delphiniums. Again this photo really doesn’t do it justice.

IMG_2890But true to walled gardens, there were also beds of fruit and vegetables, again used to teach children about food but the produce also used in the café and catering training on the estate, and for the formal dinners given by The Prince of Wales.

 

 

IMG_2893Students from The Prince’s Drawing School were in residence when I was there, using the house and grounds as inspiration for their work. There are also great plans for a development to allow onsite training in building and living crafts. This will add to the training already being done in the Textile Centre. Training is given in sewing and machining skills, not now taught in the textile industry, and I was most impressed by what was produced. Here Ashleigh Douglas, head of the centre, shows a specially designed tartan.

 

 

IMG_2896And, as it’s Scotland, Graeme has been making kilts, and will be creating one of the above tartan after he has finished this one.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2901 2The facilities are most impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2885However, what actually impressed me most of all was, as in the quote at the very top, the comprehensive positivity of Dumfries House and its activities. Every single person I spoke to, from the local taxi driver, to the waitress in the hotel, to those visiting the grounds and house, every single person said how important the estate was to the locality and how impressed they were with what The Prince had done. And in terms of the staff in the house itself, not one wasn’t welcoming, courteous and so kind. It truly felt like a privilege to be wandering through these beautiful grounds and touring a wonderful historical house. If you ever have the chance to visit yourself – do go, make a detour or even a special visit. You won’t regret it.

Even More Glittering Gilders

Layout 1Another group of keen potential gilders met in May 2019 to learn the craft skills of creating mediæval miniatures over three very full days. Their stunning results, albeit some unfinished, are shown here – just look at how shiny that gold is! The brilliance of this shine is really only possible on traditional gesso, as modern adhesives don’t seem to react quite so well with pure gold leaf.

 

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Everything was set out for each participant at their own work station so they needed to bring nothing with them apart from the willingness to learn!

 

 

 

IMG_2691The first day started with trial gilding then making and laying gesso. Then it was on to laying it for real around the mediæval animal image on prepared vellum pieces. Gesso forms the raised base on which the gold adheres. By lifting it from the surface, the shiny gold reflects the light, looking as if it comes from the illumination itself – hence the name.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2704Once the gesso is dry and calm, then the gold is attached, and on gesso it can be polished until it is really shiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2695The brilliance of shine, polished with a burnisher, with this group was quite amazing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2701And on to painting. After a detailed demonstration on paint consistency, mixing paint and using the fine, Kolinsky sable brushes, everyone set to.

 

 

 

IMG_2713The results in terms of the shine of the gold and painting were most impressive.

 

 

 

IMG_2711Here are some comments from the participants:

IMG_2728Patricia, I enjoyed every moment of your course, thanks to your perfect preparation, wonderful teaching and fabulous hospitality. The course was everything I hoped for and more.

 

 

 

I have learned so much, a really great few days. You were clear and concise, very funny and informative. I loved it.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2706Fabulous. Excellent. Pitched at the perfect level with exactly the right amount of repetition/reinforcement. Perfect course numbers to allow 1:1 assistance. A real privilege to participate. 

 

 

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I was so thrilled when I knew I’d be able to come, and the course has been everything I had hoped for and so much more. Thank you Patricia for your patience, expertise and wisdom.

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I loved that everything was explained in a clear, straightforward and good humoured manner. It was everything I had hoped for and so much more. The attention to detail throughout the course was fabulous, from our name cards to the gesso we could take away.

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Thank you for the wonderful course. I learned so much in such a short space of time! And I really appreciated all the care and attention you put into every aspect of our three days.

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.

Roman Capitals

ada9a09acea936d776a6f55c82778c43_LLettering at the base of Trajan’s Column at one end of Trajan’s Forum in Rome is regarded by many as one of the best example of Roman Capitals. These majestical letters, with beautiful proportions, are one of the purest guides for any who want to study the proportions of Roman Capitals. On a recent trip to Rome, I was determined to take the best photograph I could of this block of lettering. For many years this Forum was closed for restoration (it is the other side of the road to the main Forum), but I had read that Trajan’s Forum was now open and so I could stand in front of the column and get a good shot.

 

Lettering at the base of Trajan's ColumnGood fortune was clearly not smiling on me, as when we were there it was closed yet again, with no date for re-opening, and this was the best photograph of the lettering I was able to get – not what I had planned at all, and only from a side angle. The letters are not narrow as they look here, but grand and rounded. Notice also the way in which a later roof for a porch of an access door has been cut into the last line of the lettering. Interestingly, which you may just be able to make out here, the height of the letters on the top line is greater than the next, and so on until the bottom line. This is because the letters were designed to be viewed from the ground, and by having larger letters at the top, they would look all the same.

Triumphal Arch of SeptimiusThere are examples of stunning Roman Capitals all over Rome (including all the modern street names). This is the triumphal Arch of Septimius, just across the road from Trajan’s Forum in the main Forum. It is best viewed, as here, by not going into the Forum itself, but climbing up the path behind the Vittorio Emmanuel monument. The letters were originally bronze and you can make out in close-up the small round darker areas which indicate the attaching pins.

Lettering on one of the tombs in the Via Appia, RomeUndaunted by inaccessibility to Trajan’s Column, I knew that there were really good examples of Roman lettering attached to the tombs along the Via Appia, some way out of the city centre and a long walk, but certainly worth a visit. This is just one example. The letters are beautifully cut in marble, and generally their proportions are good – although the letter N is rather too wide in most examples. However, spacing is not always as good as the letter-forms, lines 9 and 11 being examples of letters pushed too tightly together. David Kindersley, the great letter-cutter, used to say that a bad space is worse than a bad letter. See my Calligraphy Clips on spacing.

Pantheon, RomeThe Pantheon, the temple to all gods, has some majestical Roman lettering along the top of it. From this you can see how wonderfully clear the letter-forms are. We were standing quite a long way away yet it is clear that Agrippa was involved and it was made (FECIT)!

 

 

Rome street signEven road signs around building sites look good in Rome when Roman Capitals are used, but if we’re also looking at spacing, slightly blur your eyes. The ROM is fine, but perhaps the letter ‘A’ is slightly too far to the right. It is the ‘PIT’, though, in the middle of ‘Capitale’ which really stands out. The letters ‘I’ and ‘T’ need to be further to the right, and join up more with ‘ALE’. But this is being really picky when such a good use is made of this wonderful lettering style.

 

Diagram of Roman CapitalsSo what are the proportions for Roman Capitals shown in all these examples? Allowing for the fact that letters need to breath, and don’t always conform, generally speaking the letters in Roman Capitals are regarded as being based on a circle that can be encased within a square, as shown here. Obviously the letter O is that circle, and Q too with its tail (notice it poking out to the right). The letters C, D, and G are also formed from parts of that circle. You can trace them with your finger over the red lines.

 

Asymmetrical letters, then, are narrower, and the width of half of a square, as shown on the left of the diagram. These are B, E, F, J, K, L, P, R and S.

The odds are the letters I and W. Obviously the letter I is a vertical line. The Romans, very sensibly, had nothing to do with the letter W and it is an awkward letter. Nowadays it is regarded as two very slightly narrower Vs.

HCA Awards logoTo see how Roman Capitals can be made to sing, look at this wonderful example of lettering from Tom Perkins for the Heritage Crafts Awards. THIS is how Roman Capitals should look when they are made into a distinctive personal style.

But lettering should not have a rigid a straight jacket, but room to allow it to breath, so the letter R has a tail that sensibly extends beyond that half a square and the top bowl is larger than that of the letter P, the top and bottom bowls of the letters S and B are not equal in size, and so on. Studying the proportions of Roman Capitals is a good first step, but keeping rigidly to them is not the best second step!

Books you might find useful:

Patricia Lovett, The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry

Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes

Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, The Annotated Capital

Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, Letters Slate Cut

Tom Perkins, The Art of Letter Carving in Stone

Edward M Catich, The Origin of the Serif

L C Evetts, Roman Lettering