The art of illuminating is coincident with the dawn of Christianity, the scribes, or monks, being the first to engage in the writing of missals, or prayer-books, for the wealthier classes of people, who at that time alone could indulge in the luxury of owning books.
The art attained its highest perfection in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and specimens of those periods are now carefully preserved in our museums and libraries. These are the living oracles of bygone ages of romance and chivalry, and the glorious monuments of the artists, known and unknown, who created them.
This interesting and beautiful art has been reviving steadily during the last and present century, and can be adapted to a unique and modern use with most gratifying results. The work provides a most fascinating way of employing one's time, with the additional advantage of being also a remunerative occupation.
The materials necessary are, first, a box of paints - which, to obtain good results, must be of the best quality, as otherwise it is impossible to obtain purity and brilliancy of colour; a set of fine sable brushes; gold paint - either shell gold or gold leaf; a pair of compasses, parallel rule, ruling pen, T-square, set-square, and an agate burnisher for indenting and engraving patterns upon the gold background. To these should be added also a pot of special preparation for raising the centre of letters and ornaments.
Illuminating is not an inexpensive hobby, since both the vellum and parchment used for the work are costly items. Finest prepared vellum skins are supplied in varying sizes - size 28 by 24 costing about 15s. A parchment skin costs considerably less, since one of about the same size may be obtained for from 4s. to 6s. Bristol board also affords a very good surface for illuminating, as do some of Whatman's fine " hot-pressed "papers.
Those who take up this work must possess a knowledge of drawing, and it is useful to have at least a slight knowledge of design. The artist must have a perfectly steady hand, as if outlines and curves are either broken or angular, the whole effect of the work is marred. It would be wise to practise constantly drawing curves and scrolls before embarking upon any particular piece of work, since the more graceful the curves the better the effect of the completed work.
One of the most attractive subjects for illumination work is a book-cover. If the book measures 5 inches by 4 inches, a piece of vellum or parchment should be cut 2 1/2 inches larger each way. Turn the material face downwards on the drawing-board - having previously taken care that the latter is perfectly clean - and damp it all over with a sponge which has been squeezed out of cold water, and therefore is not too wet. Then turn the skin on to the right side, and fasten it securely down to the board with drawing-pins at each corner, and leave to dry. When dry it will be ready to work upon. The exact size of the cover should then be drawn very lightly upon it with the parallel ruler, and the design chosen should be drawn or traced on with a hard pencil or a tracing point. Some of the most beautiful designs extant are in the manuscript room of the British Museum, to which access can be had on a proper recommendation. In this magnificent collection a store will be found sufficient to satisfy every taste. Those who are not so fortunate as to live within easy distance of a museum or collection may perhaps be able occasionally to spend a day or so at one or the other.
Many treasures of this art are to be found in the Vatican, the Royal Library at Paris, and also in the university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge. Failing access to these places, the artist will often find that a few good works on this subject may be had at the local library or museum. Beautiful specimens of old manuscripts, etc., may be seen, also, in the minster libraries of cathedral towns.
For those who are not within easy reach of such places, the ability to originate their own designs is a great gift. With its help and such an occasional study of old manuscripts and missals, etc., as opportunity may provide, one does not perhaps lose; nay, indeed, in some ways one is the gainer, because, if one has beautiful examples continually at hand to copy, one is apt to feel originality presumptuous, and, if one possesses any, it may remain undeveloped.
In Fig. 1 is shown a beautifully illustrated copy of "The Imitation of Christ," by Thomas a Kempis. It is bound in Italian vellum, with a gold cross in the centre, and the borders are from an old missal.
Fig. 2 shows a Holy Communion manual, bound in parchment, with a chalice in the centre, surrounded by scroll work and borders, etc. Both these designs are by Miss Newman, The Common, Southampton.
Something should be said with regard to the making-up of the various articles. The books and blotters can with care and practice be bound by the worker, after the usual manner of covering a book; but a bookseller or bookbinder will get the book bound ready in vellum for painting upon, if desired. Photograph frames and boxes are best not made up by an amateur who has no practical knowledge of such work. A local picture-frame maker or bookbinder will probably be discovered who is capable of doing them satisfactorily.
The design to be selected for a photograph frame offers a wide field for the display of originality on the part of the worker, for if the frame be intended to hold the picture of a well-known man or woman, the details of the design may bear directly on their work or life.
Carried out in soft tints combined with gold, the design contained in allegory references to the life and reign of the late King.
Small pink rosebuds, just opening their petals, signify the commencement of the reign in 1901, while the rose in perfection, but with falling petals, suggests the close of his reign in its , full glory. Other emblems woven into the scheme are the crown and palm, symbolical of kingly majesty and victory, the pomegranate showing hope and immortality, and the lily purity.
The national side of the character and position held by the King were not forgotten: the rose, shamrock, thistle, MM leek. emblems of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, find their place. Typical of England's plenty are bunches of ripe grapes, the whole being surmounted by the letters" E.r. VII in raised gold.
This frame is an excellent example of how a symbolical design should be worked out The finished work was quite in keeping with the style demanded by illumination on vellum.
For it must never fall to the merely " pretty," but be kept on its distinctive lines.
Fig. 2. An altar manual bound in parchment. The design is taken partially from an old Flemish breviary
For the decoration of a box destined to hold laces, handkerchiefs, or other dainty trifles, may be suggested designs adapted from some of the gorgeous specimens of Spanish and Italian art found in volumes in the British and other museums. The peacock, with its spreading tail in lovely colourings, forms a central feature round which conventional floral emblems and trailing branches can be drawn, the background glittering with golden stars or points of light.