Sunday, 18 December 2011

Wallace Museum: illuminated medieval manuscripts and workshop

Update  14 March 2012

A copy of the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscript Cuttings by J.J.G.Alexander (1980) has been found and this gives some idea of how much a visually impaired person can be informed by a description and discussion of the manuscripts in a group.  Combined with the images sent to me by the Wallace they provide a good starting point for more enjoyable study.  While the 1980 catalogue was written some 30 years ago, the descriptive terms are as imaginable as if someone was in the room. There is not an adjective wasted or thrown away and this style may be out of fashion with some advocates of “creative writing”.
I have quoted the descriptive parts of the catalogue which had a few colour plates but relied on black and white photographs on cost grounds. The catalogue also has academic references and is overall written in a formal fashion.  It may be that colour printing now means much visual description of objects relies more on the viewer’s interpretation.  The descriptions are presented in the order in which the manuscripts are discussed in the blogpost and are identified as Manuscript 1,2,3  and 4.

Manuscript 1

The Adoration of the Magi

"On the right the Virgin in white seated on the ground holding the naked Child on her lap with St Joseph standing behind. Two Magi drcssed in white and green stand on the left and the eldest Magus with a gold robe over white kneels with hands clasped in prayer in front. The stable shed with ox and ass is shown behind. There is no text.

The borders in typical Ghent/Bruges style have acanthus scroll in gold and blue and in grey/blue on green with naturalistic details, flowers, a butterfly, a dragonfly and a peacock, and two grotesques, a pig playing the bagpipes and a monkey packman.”

Manuscript 2

Initial ‘D’ with the Entry into Jerusalem   Lombard c1500

"Christ, dressed in red with a blue cloak lined in green, rides on the ass into Jerusalem towards the right with the Apostles behind Him. Two boys climb trees to strew branches, and two others spread their cloaks on the ground. Further behind to the right are a group of men at the city gate. Mountains are visible in the distance on the left.

The initial is in violet with blue and green foliage and is set on a gold ground. A small portion of text with musical staves   is visible to the right of the initial.”

Manuscripts 3 and 4

The two Boethius Plates
French c.1460—70

Miniatures from Boethius, ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’

Manuscript 3

"Frontispiece to Book II of the so-called ‘second French prose and verse translation’ of Boethius’. The round-topped miniature has a rich foliage border in which are birds and butterflies. On the left, inside a room, Boethius in a pink robe and red cap is seated listening to the instruction of Philosophy who stands dressed in blue and holding a book and a rod. The walls of the room are painted red with green foliage ornament as if covered with tapestry hangings, and two windows open on to a distant view of a town. To the right, outside, Fortune in red and green turns a wheel on which are four figures, the one enthroned above a King with a crown, a second at the bottom falling down, and the third and fourth at the sides ascending and descending. On the wall of the building which is painted blue is written in gold se jai bien entendu. On the grey pavement below is written in gold O tu home pourquoi te plain to de moi." 

Manuscript 4
"Frontispiece to Book III. Boethius, in the same robe, on the left at the door of the house addressing Philosophy who is accompanied by the female personifications of the Seven Liberal Arts: Grammar in white with open book; Dialectic in blue inscribed on the sleeve Ergo, Ergo; Rhetoric in red writing with a quill; Music in a pink dress and blue surcoat with an open book with musical notation; Geometry in gold holding a set square; Arithmetic in green holding a scroll with numbers, and Astronomy behind pointing up at the moon and stars. On Boethius’ shoulder are the words in gold O souverain confort."

see also blog post on the British Library's exhibition on illuminated manuscripts on:

** end of update

Update: 19th December, 2011

I wanted to post this describing my memories and own mental image making at the time of the manuscripts discussed in the event of 14th December at the Wallace Collection.  Catherine from the Wallace Collection has arranged for me to post images of these manuscripts. 

These images can be expanded and I’ve been able to make out more detail on my laptop with manuscripts 2,3 and 4.  There’s little on file regarding the manuscripts other than the Wallace Museum’s own reference as indicated by the link, as it was featured as a Treasure of the Month in August 2005. 

This may also give a reader of this blog an idea of how useful these audio descriptions are, though whether my memory is up to the reality of the picture remains to be uncovered.  My notes on the manuscripts remain unaltered.

Many thanks to the Wallace Museum for sharing these images.  I found it a great privilege to share in some pieces of history which are neglected by many yet can be uncovered in such a collection as the Wallace, with a bit of imagination on the part of all the participants.  This is a theme to which I shall return in another update on the blog. 

** end of update

I described my visit to the Wallace Museum in a previous post.  I had walked in more or less “off the street” and enjoyed an afternoon wandering around the galleries and talking to the attendants. The Wallace also arranges special events for the visually impaired and a recent afternoon event caught my attention.  I’m on the Wallace’s mailing list and their quarterly “What’s On” was lying around and a friend noticed that there was an ‘Access Event’ for the visually impaired.  I contacted the Wallace and had some email exchanges and a chat with Catherine from the relevant department.   (  020 7563 9577) 

The subject for the December event was titled “Sensation! Medieval Manuscripts” and billed as an event to “Examine beautiful and intricate illuminated manuscripts, listen to picture descriptions and take inspiration from the manuscripts to create your own printed work on acetate that that can be illuminated from behind.”  (

My friend thought this would: a) keep me out of trouble for one afternoon; and b) was interested in how the visually impaired could relate to a medieval manuscript which couldn’t be touched for obvious reasons. 

These events are very unpredictable and depend very much on the visually impaired people attending, with input from their sighted companions and, of course, the facilitators. I think it's fascinating that we were able to share in some treasures in the collection which are probably seldom uncovered, let alone have the light put on them even by the sighted casual visitor.  This event, therefore, has an in-built measure of serendipity as each manuscript has to be located, uncovered and a time switch put on and inspected by those with some vision.  The Wallace laid on a variety of magnifiers and even a torch was allowed, just in case those with some central vision could make out just a little of the detail on a viewing basis. 

We gathered at 12:30 in the entrance area and went to the Workshop Room one level below the courtyard restaurant.  We passed by many treasures on the way and on asking ‘What is this piece of sculpture?’ I was told it’s a Canova.  Just like that! 

The event was led by Catherine, assisted by Rebecca and Jocelyn, who remembered me from a talk she had led at the National Gallery on a Hogarth painting.  (I had mentioned some chemical properties of mercury, i.e. quicksilver, compounds in the treatment of syphilis.)    There were about twelve people attending in total including carers and companions. 

An introduction to the Wallace Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts was made together with some interesting discussions about the survival of many of these illuminated manuscripts from their original bindings and the damage inflicted by vandalism of various sorts through the turmoil of the Reformation, dissolution of the monasteries and political troubles.  Many books have been pillaged for a frontispiece and according to one of the attendees, a process known as Grangerism.  This attendee obviously had some connection with fine art! 

In the 1970s I had bought some prints of maps which had been cut out of some map books at which time print dealers could make a considerable profit cutting up old books for their coloured plates and prints.  The Grangerism concept was new to me and another amazing insight to the art trade which would normally have passed one by. 

With some background knowledge of the manuscripts, we went to the gallery upstairs and gathered around the showcase with our copies of the manuscripts. 

At these events it's also always difficult to predict when the 'image' is fixed in the mind.  I could make little out of the manuscripts, so I followed the descriptions on the copies which the Wallace had made available for us to follow and to keep.  These are high quality reproductions.  Also, with the help of Jocelyn and remarks by Rebecca and other attendees gathered quite a lot of the jigsaw of the manuscripts themselves.  Catherine was describing the geometry, layout, figures, colours and we were free to ask questions and discuss topics which were being depicted.  When I was able to look at the reproduction under different lighting conditions during the workshop, I could make out more.  It was interesting that Rebecca took the time to take me through the appreciation form. 

The manuscripts are all taken from Book of Hours and have sources in Flanders, Bruges or Ghent, Lombardy and the Master of Coetivy.  There is little documentation.

Manuscript 1: a Flemish manuscript showing the Magi or three wise men.  The wise men, Mary and the child can be made out as, except for the child, they are all dressed in white.  I could just about make out a Joseph in the background.  There are paintings of leaves and flowers surrounding the scene.

Manuscript 2: This is a Palm Sunday scene showing Christ dressed in a red tunic and a blue cloak and mounted on a horse.  In the background is the city of Jerusalem.  The painting is enclosed with an oval shape and is surrounded by foliage.  Apparently this is a letter D shape.

© By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London

Manuscript 3:  This is a picture of Boethius sitting contemplating while a woman with an enormous white hat is standing near him.  The scene looks as if it is in the courtyard of a house.  To the right of the woman there is a representation of the Wheel of Fortune.

© By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London
Manuscript 4: Another Boethius and Philosophy discussion, with the subjects of Philosophy such as Rhetoric and Astronomy depicted by women studying and writing texts. 

© By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London
Manuscripts 3 and 4 have some writing in Renaissance French and we were lucky that one of the attendees could read out the French and give us a translation.  Rebecca discussed marginalia which are “scribbles, comments, and illuminations in the margins of a book.” (  Thinking about it, the marginalia which Rebecca explained in the gallery could be represented in the 21st century by Twitter feed tagged on to an image of the 'Book of Hours' as an example. 

After viewing the manuscripts we returned to our room for the rest of the workshop, when Jocelyn taught us printing techniques using some ivy leaves to form an image of the delicate leaf structure by mixing some paint, rolling it with the leaf and then pressing the leaf on to an acetate sheet.  The yellow tinged acetate sheet had a white card behind and the leaf structure and outline could be made.  Jocelyn also taught me a technique using acrylic paint on an acetate sheet.
I do some painting on a Friday afternoons and so when offered green, I've been trained by my tutor, Val Fox, to mix my own colours from the primaries, though of course I have no idea how they end up!  Jocelyn gave me an idea, though when Rebecca asked me what I was contemplating, I couldn't express it at the time.  I used this technique to roll out my mixed green on an acetate sheet and then put some swirls in with the sharp end of a paint brush.

Once it had dried and I took it home, it was scanned both shiny side and matt side, and the matt side is different from the shiny side, which shows some unmixed blue.  I mention this because this technique reproduces the filigree metal work and even wallpaper I had seen in Scotland when visiting such places as New Hailes and Arniston House.  It is also tactile inasmuch as the pattern can be traced by the finger as the acrylic paint leaves a ridge, rather like a contour.

I really came for the manuscripts, but I did enjoy the workshop session as well.  Thanks to Jocelyn and Rebecca at the workshop and to Catherine for organising the event.  Many thanks to the Wallace Museum for a commitment to give access to groups such as ourselves, but for also being very accessible on an impromptu visit should you decide to try it out on your own. 

These events prove that the visually impaired community can discuss adult themes such as grangerism in the fine arts and illustrates how an enlightened museum can bring inspiration, entertainment and some broadening of lifelong learning.