Rachel and I had a fantastic time on the Study Day at the Royal Manuscripts Exhibition at the British Library. What a place! I cant believe I have never been here before, it is brimming with richness and is a monument to communication – I could happily live here!
The Study Day was organized by the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society and was attended by 200 people, many of them amateur calligraphers and members of the society.
There was a fantastic talk by Alixe Bovey, an art historian from the University of Canterbury, who was one of the researchers for the exhibition. She talked passionately about her research of the Smithfield Decretals, a medieval law manuscript and she showed some of the illustrations and graphically explained the stories they represent.
This was followed by a talk about the practicalities of illumination, how to make a quill, the derivation of pigments and a demonstration of guilding by Patricia Lovett. It was great to see the hands on business of how these manuscripts were actually made. I also learned some word derivation, for instance that that the word “miniature” comes from “minim”, which was a pigment used to outline the designs, originally it did not mean small, indeed some of these manuscripts are very large, and that “pen knife” is simply a knife that was designed to cut quills to make pens! It is great to find these tracks to the past in our everyday lives.
Kathleen Doyle, one of the curators of the exhibition talked about the practicalities of mounting the exhibition, how they went about configuring the enormity of the space to showcase these manuscripts in the best possible way, and how they designed the exhibition and organized the exhibits in the space. It gave us an insight into the behind-the-scenes work that goes on to mount an exhibition like this.
Then we had an exclusive viewing of the manuscripts. For me the sheer amount of work in the exhibition was overwhelming – so many fantastic manuscripts and so much detail in each one. I was very glad we came here after completing the work on the Conwy windows or I fear it would have been even harder to know when to stop!
The colours are fantastically preserved because, unlike paintings on wood or canvas, they have been protected in books and rarely exposed to light or pollution. It was stunning, and the amount of human endeavour in each piece was mind-blowing. If I thought we were doing detailed work, here was a different kind of effort all together.
Of course these manuscripts are very privileged documents, they were created in an age where most people were illiterate, they were made by artisans for the personal and political use of monarchs, and have been kept in royal libraries ever since. Somehow they have been virtually ignored by art historians, maybe because they were housed in libraries rather than galleries or churches. I can’t believe that I had not even really looked at a manuscript until I started this project six months ago! It is certainly something precious that I take from the experience of the Conwy project, and the moments I spent looking directly at the Alphonso Psalter yesterday will stay with me forever.
As soon as the exclusive viewing hour was up, the exhibition became packed with visitors and has been incredibly popular. When we live in a culture where we are constantly bombarded with imagery that we do not need to actually look at to read, there appears to be a noticeable appetite for real looking, This is something I have witnesses in all the shows I have seen this week, the Golden Spider Cape, the Grayson Perry and the Royal Manuscripts.
Having spent the past six months pouring over manuscript images in books and on the internet, seeing the real thing was an emotional experience. There is something so intimate and human about a manuscript, the fact that really only one person can look at it at a time, it is an intense experience, and there is a definite feeling that you are looking across the centuries and having a moment of communication with a medieval artist. This is the same feeling I had when I discovered the Llangwstennin glass in Llandudno Museum, the feeling which inspired the Conwy windows, for me it is living history, communication and connectedness, and that is very satisfying on some deep level.