As 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.
The 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.
I 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.
They 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!)
There 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.
I 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.
I 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.