Sometimes 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.
The 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.
A 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.
The 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.
As 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!
This 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.
The 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.
That 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.
The 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).
And 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.
The gold tooled cover is just magnificent – produced by Douglas Cockerell, probably the most famous bookbinder of his time, and brother of Sydney.
In 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.
At 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.