Of all the things we think of as luxuries, books generally aren’t one of them. We are so lucky to live in a time where books are affordable and widely available, when for so many centuries they and the knowledge they represent were a precious commodity, carefully hand-copied by generations of scribes and monks, and decorated with a painstaking attention that befitted their status. When Soane co-founder Lulu Lytle brought in fine artist Sophie Coryndon to collaborate on a collection of fabrics and wallpapers, their shared appreciation of illuminated manuscripts was one of the elements that came to underpin the collection’s aesthetic.
Illuminated manuscripts – some with rich detailing in gold or silver leaf, some with huge illustrations that sprawl over pages, others with jewel-like initials or minuscule marginalia- appeared in the early days of the Middle Ages, and only grew in complexity and beauty over the following centuries until the desire for them came to an end with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The most elaborate illuminations were largely reserved for religious books – altar bibles, or the private prayer books of the very rich, known as books of hours. Depicting scenes from the texts they described, along with wildly fanciful patterns of flowers and leaves, perhaps with wildlife (real or imagined) peering in, the illustrations are only limited by what their creator could envision.
Particularly inspirational for the Sophie Coryndon for Soane Britain collection are the deep, intense colours of these illuminations: ultramarine blue made from Afghan lapis lazuli, the red pigment minium, created by baking white lead, which gives miniatures their name; and jewel-like greens derived from malachite and verdigris. The colours and intricate patterns of illustrated manuscripts cross-pollinated with other artworks of their time, including, for example, the fourteenth-century Wilton Diptych showing Richard II being presented to Christ and the Virgin Mary. The diptych’s artist, who may also have worked on manuscripts, created a fine background of trelliswork picked out in gold for the scene, and this was the inspiration for Soane’s new ‘Wilton Vine’ wallpaper.
From second gallery left to right: “Pentateuch (the ‘Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch’) with Targum Onkelos” (Germany 14th Century): London, British Library, Add MS 15282, f.179v; Boccaccio and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus in “Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes” (Netherlands 15th Century): London, British Library, Add MS 11696 f.102v; Miniature of Margaret of York before the Resurrected Christ in “Dialogue de la duchesse de Bourgogne a Jesus Christ” (Netherlands 15th Century): London, British Library, Add MS 7970; The Evangelist, Luke, seated, writing in a book in “The Four Gospels (the Préaux Gospels) preceded by the Prologues of Jerome and Pseudo-Jerome, Eusebius, Epistle to Carpianus and the Eusebian Canon tables” (France 11th Century): London, British Library, Add 11850, f.91v; Genealogical Tree of the Kings of Aragon in “Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the ‘Portuguese Genealogy’)” (Portugal and Netherlands 16th Century): London, British Library, Add MS 12531, f.5; Appearance of Christ in a cloud in “Commentary on the Apocalypse (The ‘Silos Apocalypse’; ‘Silos Beatus’) (New Testament, Bible)” (Spain 10th Century): London, British Library, Add MS 11695, f.21
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