Not just for Christmas, of course. It's that time of year again when the galleries are preparing for their pre-Christmas private viewings and smaller paintings which will make good gifts are in high demand. For Norton Way Gallery in Letchworth I have painted a whole range of creatures great and small, including some more in my 'Night in the Garden' series of illuminations on vellum about which I have posted previously. I'm running behind as ever, and there are several starlings, a number of saints and a Nativity illumination unfinished on my desk...
I was so excited to receive a commission to design an illuminated letter B for a Californian boutique wine producer's new range of organic wines. The brief (an angel watering a vineyard) seemed like the perfect marriage of my diverse interests! We agreed the design and just as I started laying in the colour I received word that the company was making a change to its business plans and so my artwork would not be needed after all. Too sad... No doubt the drawing will get recycled somehow - I am posting it here as a little RIP to the project, together with a photograph of a wonderful medieval watering pot which I turned up while I was researching the detail. I want one, any potters out there?
I was hard put to it to decide which beautiful picture to use as an illustration of my recent visit to this exhibition and eventually decided on this page from a Latin Kingdom of Jersusalem sacramentary, dated around 1128. I love it for the east-meets-west style of the icon panel, and the beautiful versal script. I am learning how to write versals at the moment, this is definitely one to add to the study list.
A must-go exhibition for iconographers, illuminators and scribes - on till December, so don't miss. Many of the manuscripts are in cases of course, giving the usual difficulty for close examination, but there are many cuttings framed on the wall which one can eyeball closely. There are also handy reference copies of the £30 exhibition catalogue lying everywhere, which means one can examine photographs and read up on detail without expense. Give yourself a good couple of hours and try to get there early before the usual headphone brigade are there blocking the view!
Many of the manuscripts are from the University collection, but there are also borrowings from the British Library, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Library and elsewhere. The later medieval and early Renaissance period is quite heavily represented, as one might expect. The show's chief focus is on the chemistry and provenance of pigments and materials used in book illumination but technique is also touched on. Iconographers will be interested to study the gradual development of different fleshpainting techniques, from the fully modelled style of the Byzantine period through to western experiments with pointillism, grisaille and tinted drawing.
Other random gleanings that I shall follow up on my next trip:
- Different ways of ruling the page: pricking, hardpoint, silverpoint, plummet. Medieval readers preferred their pages to be ruled and even drew in guidelines to the first printed books because the page looked naked without! So this business in calligraphy class about not showing the lines is a load of rubbish, ha!
- Using black gesso under gilding for special effect. Must try, could look amazingly contemporary.
- Indigo and woad are chemically indistinguishable when used as dyes or pigments. Western artists probably used woad. It will grow in the back garden, and I found someone on line who extracts and sells the pigment.
- The fabled Tyrian purple, so expensive, was extracted from North Atlantic dogwhelks as well as from the Mediterranean murex. The farthest Scottish islands had a trade in it. On the other hand there was a cheap subsitute to be made from the turnsole plant or a variety of lichen, used on some of those glorious purple-dyed manuscripts.
- Some French manuscript fragments c 1250 were described as having a 'stained glass palette', an artistic cross-fertilisation from the contemporaneous technological developments in coloured glass (remember that amazing Chartres Cathedral blue?). One of the pigments used was minium. I have always held off using minium (red lead) on the grounds of it being so toxic, but I suppose that's a bit daft given that I already use vermilion (mercury), white lead (for gesso) and the cadmiums. I am interested in this manuscript school, and up till now have had to guess at what pigments were used to achieve the effect.
This week I was excited to have finished my first sizeable illumination on vellum, and will be sending it off to the US next week. 'Sizeable' in this context is comparative, since the whole piece measures only 8" x 10", but that is pretty large in miniature terms - a lot of eyebending detail and many hours' work. The client wanted the Lord's Prayer, illuminated in the style of a canon table from the exquisite Gladzor Gospel (pictured above). The Gospel book was made around 1300 in one of the monasteries of the vanished medieval university of Gladzor in Armenia, and is now in the Getty Museum in the US. Canon tables were a handy little cross-referencing aid, so that one could compare similar passages across the four synoptic gospels. They were usually decorated to look like a miniature jewelled temple, and the Armenian artists included birds drinking from urns, horns of plenty, fruits and flowers and many symbolic references to the abundance of paradise embodied in the holy Word. I have combined elements from the Gladzor canon table, and others from various works by my much-admired T'oros Roslin who was working a good fifty years before the Gladzor artist. I guessed at the original pigments he used - only four or five, despite the multi-coloured appearance, and tried to match them. I used the beautiful and precious mineral pigments I bought with some of my prize money from Attila at Master Pigments. His lapis lazuli and volkonskoite are intensely coloured and very finely ground: other such pigments I have tried have been much too coarse for illumination work. Vellum is a marvellous thing to work on, and rightfully costly, so much more rewarding than a lifeless bit of paper. As the paint goes on, the moisture causes the collagen in the vellum to swell, making each motif stand very slightly proud like a little jewel on the surface. I'd love some more commissions in a similar vein, so please share with your friends!
It is a typical damp and blowy English bank holiday Monday, so here are some imaginary birds to cheer the scene.
This is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to see illuminated treasures from many centuries and cultures at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Fortunately there is plenty of time, as the exhibition runs from 30 July to December this year. It is entitled Colour: the art and science of illuminated manuscripts, and is part of the university's manuscript research and cataloguing project that has been going on for some years now. Cambridge University as a whole has a magnificent collection of illuminated manuscripts scattered through the college and University libraries, but unless you are a senior university member or can offer bona fides from a serious academic institution elsewhere you are unlikely to get a chance to handle and really be intimate with any of the great treasures. Looking at them dimly lit behind glass is frankly not the same, but is still a wonderful opportunity for study, if only to realise how very tiny much of the work is. Reproductions in books tend to be very much enlarged, and one gets no sense of the absolutely diminutive scale these artists worked on. Either serious myopia was a job requirement and these artists were blind as moles more than six inches from their noses (as I am myself) or else magnifying eyewear was more common in the middle ages than is generally thought. Someone ought to make a study of the role of myopia in art - I'm convinced it must have played a part in Impressionism as well.
I'm not sure I made the right decision with my membership of the Society of Feline Artists. I love cats but the art-buying public seems not to, or at least not so much as they do birds - and one must be just a teeny weeny bit commercial. I had fun getting together my offering for this year's show at Llewellyn Alexander Gallery in London though: it's not till August but it's as well to get ahead. Just sorting out the framing is a mission in itself, especially for the vellum pieces. I am pleased how small I am managing to paint on the vellum. Not up to medieval standards of miniature yet, but getting there. My considerable myopia makes it possible to see in splendid magnification an inch from my nose, but nevertheless every time I see a manuscript illumination I am astonished again at how tiny the detail is. Were all those artists really that shortsighted or were magnifiers more widespread than we think? These daubs of mine are just over three inches square: much smaller and they might not be visible on a wall, I suppose. Ideal for minimalists and owners of the new 'bijoux' style of property!
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.