Monday, 27 February 2012

Corot: Peasants under the Trees at Dawn National Gallery Art through Words

Corot’s landscape ‘Peasants under the Trees at Dawn’ was the February painting to be discussed at the Saturday morning Art through Words event and which was attended by about 20 people.  Viyki Turnbull was our describer with Caroline Smith guiding us to the painting in the gallery.  There are usually 2 or 3 people to advise on various topics in the art world and, as I commented on the guest post by Linda Bolton of the National Gallery, directions are given to “point” in the next direction.  This is something which seems to be built into the DNA of the National Gallery. 
If you are on your own, the staff are very helpful. I am beginning to recognise some of the regulars at this event and the minutes spent at the Sainsbury Wing waiting area is a good chance to exchange information on many activities for the visually impaired including practical transport tips.  A couple from Wolverhampton were there again as was the usual North London contingent including me.  We even had a few from South of the River Thames, though no one admitted to coming from Croydon.

Corot painted this landscape between 1840 and 1845.  The setting is near Lormes in the Morvan district to the west of Dijon in France and the landscape illustrates a rather poor agricultural area with an almost limestone dry soil and trees with very gnarled trunks and roots. I am familiar with some of the countryside around Dijon and Beaune having enjoyed the company of Meursault and Volnay among others.  The peasants seem to be coppicing wood and Viyki mentioned that Corot used to buy charcoal in the area. 

The timing of the painting was before the revolutionary period of 1848 which struck many parts of mainland Europe.  (One of the visitors mentioned that many French painters and even authors had gone into exile in Italy during times of political upheaval and turmoil in France and that artists such as Claude Lorrain were at their most prolific in exile.) 

I had taken my guide to the Hockney ‘A Bigger Picture’ on show at the Royal Academy.  Given that the Hockney landscapes are huge, these paintings by Corot are quite small.  The Peasants under the Trees at Dawn is about A3 in real life so the copy we had was life size.  Another comment was made about government or state approval in France for large paintings being required or commissioned so that many artists had to sell into the growing middle class market. 

One could even describe this market as Pret a Porter. Corot had a reasonable income from his parents.  His father was a wig maker and his mother a milliner.  The family went into the hat trade.  In this background Corot had financial security and did not have to live on the bread line. Corot was prolific with 3000 works.  Coincidentally the Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting Ernani by Verdi which was premiered in 1844 and was based on a play by Victor Hugo, himself no stranger to political exile. 

Having introduced the painting Viyki set the main points of the painting before working on the geometry.  Many of us have very poor vision with limited shape and colour definition.  The geometry helps us to understand where an object is and how it (and its shadow) are drawn.  The painting is set at dawn and Viyki explained ‘raking light’ and ‘contr-jour’  The rising sun casts very long shadows and this has strange effects on the painting.  For example there is a large dark area in the painting which is the shadow of a goose which is almost a fraction of the shadow and is itself quite light and bright.  Other objects which seemed to be illuminated by the sun were a horse and some boulders.  We were not sure about the horse.  Was it a mane or a tail that was bright and how was the horse drinking from the trough. 

Some of us could not see the horse and I agreed with one other who had in fact thought that the boulders were sheep.  The peasant couple stand by a tree which is an inverted triangle covering a large area above the horizon and a smaller reflected triangle showing a root system.  There are buildings which appear in subdued mauve colours and have the odd spot of direct light, often in a stunning lead white or even a golden colour which could be a thatched roof someone thought.   The couple is shown with the woman standing on the right of the off centre tree.  The man is sitting.  There is a red piece of colour on the woman’s hat and someone commented that Constable used this technique.

Viyki described the colours and they are mainly green for the land and foliage and a chrome green was popular.  Dark greens are not my strong point and as the greenery was described Viyki dropped a bombshell: Corot painted in the sky after he had drawn and painted in the trees with foliage.  The sky is a mix of cobalt blue and lead white.  We wondered about the practicalities of painting the sky around the greenery when to us it would have been easier to paint the sky and then put the trees on top.    We still had a mystery to solve.  There is a rather smart woman lurking at dawn and what was she up to?  Viyki explained this woman as a bit of “staffage”.  

At this time it was the moment to go and view the painting which is in a room about as far as it is possible to go in the National Gallery.  This is the moment which, for me is the best part.  We stroll in groups and those on their own can tag on or borrow an arm or stay within sound by talking.  I strolled with Viyki and by the time we got to the gallery, Caroline was standing in the group and one of the visitors was discussing glaciation and its effect on the landscape especially in the shape of valleys and boulders or erratics. 

As I write this up, with no notes or recording, Ernani is finishing and BBCRadio4 is doing an Archive Hour on ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger in 1972.  The National Gallery are keen to ask what we see and at no time is there an “imposed” interpretation.  With contemporary art there has to be some impression of how the background of the artist and specific context can influence what is seen.  I have learned from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery that many of those attending the talks have a hinterland which they can share. 

There are a few scientists who go to the art talks.  Over the talk we had discussed Louis Philippe, patronage of the arts, agriculture pigments and art in Europe.  We were quite a large group in a small room with a few other Corots on show.  I had first come across Corot in Paris in 1975 when the Orangerie of the Tuileries by the Louvre had a major exhibition of landscapes on show.  I had been delighted by these paintings and this was at a time when one raced through a major art gallery in an hour.  That exhibition of Corot has remained with me and though I can’t make much of the print I can still envisage the landscape as some of the detail is imprinted in my mind.  The names of the colours and pigments tune in with my background and I mentioned to Viyki that I had bought a small painting directly from an artist on the strength of the answer to the question “What colour would you call that? The answer came back Alizarin”.  I bought it on hearing the name of an organic pigment which is often known as red madder.  (The Arts sector has absorbed quite a lot of chemical techniques and even embraced spectrometry in checking dates, authenticity and preservation.)

In the guest blogpost of Linda Bolton, Linda mentioned the poster which we take away from Art through Words  as a souvenir or a relic from a pilgrimage.  Thus when I got some postcards in the shop the assistant who helped me find the Corot postcards suggested that as my hands were full with crutch and cane I could do with a smart NG paper carrier bag with string handles to loop round the crutch grip.  That is observation, kindness and attention. (Physiotherapists take note!)

Thanks as always to the National Gallery.

PS The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796-1975
Landscape at Arleux-du-Nord, 1871-4 by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796-1975

An exhbition has just opened at the National Gallery titled "Turner Inspired in the light of Claude" and runs from 14 March to 5 June.  More information is available at:

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A touch tour of a touch piece at the Wellcome Collection: scrofula and tuberculosis

There are several events held at the Wellcome Library and as they tend to be booked out early you have to plan ahead to get a booking in a narrow window.  In a previous blog post I mentioned how much I had enjoyed my afternoon in the Wellcome Collection.  In the series of talks, an experiment has been undertaken in allowing the visually impaired to have a “sneak peek” at a mystery object which had been chosen with a speaker in mind.  The broadcaster Quentin Cooper from BBC Radio4 Material World conducts the gradual revelation with an expert on the subject.  In this case Dr Helen Bynum was scheduled to talk about Scrofula and a mystery object with Royal connections.  ( )

An hour before the talk we gathered at the desk in the foyer.  There is an accessible lift from the street level and given my crutch and cane combo, I took advantage of it.  Gemma and Catherine were there to show us around.  I had met Catherine twice before when she spoke to our local VI Group and I had turned up one day.  We had a tour of the library and the collection.  I had raved before about the life mask of Henry Wellcome (check post on Lord Kitchener and moustaches) and Henry was introduced to another visitor. 

The mystery object was there for us in the Welcome Library reading room and though it could not be touched directly, it was enclosed in a small protective case allowing it to be viewed.  I could make something of it. It is about the size of a £1 coin.  It is a Touch Piece and the rest of the story can be heard on a podcast which was made.  (I don’t think the podcast has been loaded yet, but no doubt it will be available soon! )

Queen Anne touch piece
(courtesy Wellcome Collection)

If you are accustomed to the style of Quentin Cooper he is notorious for dreadful puns to the extent that complaints have been made to BBCRadio4 Feedback.  I recently defended Material World over Home Planet in a Twitter forum discussing the demise of the latter.  It sounded that all the puns, including TB or not TB, were made. That is apart from “Consumption not be done with these dreadful puns.”

Being Scottish I had studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school and there is a reference in the play to the King’s Evil.  Scrofula is a tuberculosis infection which affects bones and skin, though the pulmonary TB is the better known type.  Scrofula has made something of a comeback with cases being reported in Africa and closer to home, sometimes but not always associated with HIV and AIDS. Issues such as Public Health, diseases and cures are part of the Wellcome staples and the areas of interest stretch into health policy, science, social policy and religion and ethics. I particularly enjoy the open minded staff who will take you round items on the collection. 

After the talk I spoke to Helen Bynum who was interested in how we got on in our preview.  The talk had mentioned the kings of France particularly the Capetian line or dynasty and I was back in the British Library exhibitions of illuminated manuscripts.  This exhibition covers English Royalty until the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  Touch Pieces were viewed with dubiety during the reformation period and the practice reached a peak with Henry VII until the restoration and Charles II doled them out.  During the joint reigns of William III and Mary II the practice had fallen out of fashion and was briefly revived during the reign of Queen Anne. The last of the Stuart monarchs though, through Elizabeth Stuart the line continued through the House of Hanover.

Wellcome also has a collection of medical sciences ephemera, books and their  histories.  Catherine is also interested in Ancient Greek and the classics and writers on philosophy.  In addition to meeting Henry Wellcome again, Catherine had taken us to a case with a Touch Piece from the time of Mary Tudor, who was the half sister of Elizabeth.  The Touch Piece of Dr Samuel Johnson is in the British Museum where I had been to the Grayson Perry show that featured quackery in one of the topics.  

At the end of the formal talk questions were asked and it turned out that the person next to me had a talking watch as well.  I had checked the time and she said “I’ve got one of these talking watches too” meanwhile someone just on the other side had mentioned that her husband had contracted Scrofula.  Coincidence or what?

Catherine arranged for me to obtain an image of the touch piece of the time of Queen Anne.  This is the only image used in the actual talk.  I double checked its authenticity.  I could make out the coin shape with a small hole so that the touch piece could be worn round the neck.  I cheekily asked Catherine how many touch pieces Henry Wellcome had collected.  Catherine has found 11 items which the magpie Henry collected, though there may well be more.  Catherine has sent me an image of a touch piece of the reign of King Henry VII.  All of a sudden I have found myself being immersed in medieval, Tudor and Stuart dynasties.  

Henry VII touch piece (high resolution)
(Credit: Science Museum via Wellcome Collection)

Many thanks to Catherine and Gemma for the arrangements.  It was an interesting way to let us have a bit of the jigsaw before the others.  It felt similar to my visit to the National Theatre where the Touch Tour beforehand had given us the opportunity to “see” things on stage which we would not have picked up in the audience.  It is all about access.   

Crestina Forcina from the Wellcome Trust has very kindly sent me a high resolution image of the Henry VII touch pieces.  For more information on their collection of images you can contact Crestina at the following addresses:

Crestina Forcina
Picture Researcher
Wellcome Trust
Euston Road
London NW1 2BE, UK

T +44 (0)20 7611 8598
F +44 (0)20 7611 8577

For my type of sight loss, I can make out more detail having these images on a laptop.  The size of the Queen Anne object is only about the size of a one pound coin, and being able to magnify the touch piece allows those with some vision to appreciate the object itself.

A calendar of events at the Wellcome can be found on: 
Note:  Dr Bynum has published numerous articles and books.  One related to this talk is:,amajnls&page=2

Also, an example of the Wellcome's Object of the Month series from the past can be found on their site on .  This was a Queen Anne loadstone, if you are curious!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Royal Academy In Touch: David Hockney Tour of ‘A Bigger Picture’ and Workshop

This post covers my second visit to the Royal Academy current exhibition of David Hockney ‘A Bigger Picture’ and the work shop which followed.  ( occasion the RA arranged for an early viewing of the collection in the company of our describer Bridget.  (My first visit to the exhibition is described in )On

We gathered in the foyer and were taken to the Reynolds room and fortified with coffee (it was a 9AM start) we entered the galleries.  I had arranged for my friend Stephen who took me to the Gerhard Richter exhibition, to accompany me and take some notes.   Apart from some maintenance crew and staff setting up for the public opening, our group of about 25 people, had the Academy to ourselves. 

We spent some time on the Thixendale series in the four seasons showing three trees.  While the same trees are painted Hockney has shifted his standing area and subtle changes occur in the perspective lines which he drew.  The seasons have also altered the appearance of the foliage on the trees, the flowers in the fields, farming changes to the landscape as well as weather conditions.  When I viewed these paintings on a Friday evening I noted that the winter and autumn (fall) scenes worked best for me.  A second viewing and a Monday morning shifted my opinion considerably.  I found myself liking the paintings of summer and spring.  This had something to do with the lighting, it was daylight lit for a start. 

There was space to view the painting from afar, without other visitors getting in the way.  It was also much quieter and so we only could hear Bridget’s opinion.  Bridget had explained her role in giving a description of some art work.  It is difficult in describing some concepts as being totally objective.  Bridget had a novel way, to me, of explaining the dimensions of a very large painting; to walk from one end of the painting so that those with no sight could hear the voice shift and were thus able to triangulate the size in their minds.  Bridget explained the flora in all the paintings and the seasonal coming of cow parsley was noted.  I had not been able to notice the state of the ploughed and planted fields and the perspective lines in the summer and spring paintings were different in the autumn painting. 

Salts Mill (Catalogue no. 19)

Johnathon Silver , a friend of Hockney, had bought the old mill in Saltaire near Bradford for conversion to a gallery space for Hockney.  (see ) This painting very much resembles a stylised setting of a Northern Town in England.  There are some very strange effects on the eyes as we had noted on the first viewing.  (The Escher Effect) There is apparently a red diesel train in front of the mill with an impossible route to join the tracks in the bottom left hand corner.  There is also a canal (with canal boat my accompanying friend, Stephen,  whispered)  

There are rows of mill workers’ cottages on the right side and the mill building glows with the reflected sunlight. This is not  the bleak ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake with Dvorak 9th Symphony in the background.  Having admired Hockney’s American paintings it was good to stroll past them again en route to Salt’s Mill.

Hawthorn Blossom (Catalogue no. 81)

Caterpillars and snails were not far of the mark.  Bridget described the hawthorn blossom as having a maggot like appearance with thick applied coats and blobs of paint.  The “snail” was in fact the shadow of a tree which in turn was described by another as a rabbit.  Someone else named the snail as Brian and we all thought of the Magic Roundabout and there was something in that (Dvorak 9th morphed into signature tune of The Magic Roundabout).  Bridget also described the sky as being Van Gogh like.  Stephen thought the painting was an “exercise in flat pattern.”

On moving along the galleries the ‘Kitchener Hand’ (Winter Timber, Catalogue no. 105) beckoned and I noted that this time it did not dominate the view.  Perhaps its height above the “people” line on the Friday evening gave it a dominant position which was absent on the Monday morning.  It may also have had something to do with the lighting.  I stopped with other visually impaired visitors and they could detect the pointing (many fingered) hand. In the next room is

Woldgate 2011 (Catalogue no. 71)

Bridget again walked this painting. (The day before I had found a tapestry Map of Truths and Beliefs’ by Grayson Perry , British Museum, to be too big and I did get lost in it)  Bridget could only walk the painting in an empty gallery.  This painting has many skeletal trees giving vertical and leaves apparently floating.  It could almost appear to be a theatre back drop with a veil of leaves attached to gauze as if for a start of some opera or ballet scene.  Stephen thought this was “another exercise in flat pattern save for the graphic perspective of the path.”

We moved through the rooms devoted to the Sermon on the Mount interpretations of Hockney. 


We returned to the Reynolds and were given a handling talk about paints, pigments., brushes and rollers used by Hockney.  Harry Baxter led the session opening with an iPad demonstration of a Brushes app.  It had been reset before it came to my turn to use the touchscreen.  Given my track record at Westfield the system crashed! 

Harry was on safer ground passing round brushes made of hogs hair bristle.  Colours and pigments were discussed and Harry passed round tubes of different colours.  The heaviness of the Cadmium Yellow was noticeable.  Harry discussed different whites and we were told that stocks of Lead White were limited.  The quality of a Lead White was compared with those of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.  The full list of colours which Harry placed on the palette are as follows:

Lead White
Cadmium Lemon
Cadmium Golden Yellow
Cadmium Orange
Bright Violet
Ultramarine Violet
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Blue
Viridian Green
Phthalo Green
Emerald Green
Green Lake

Next, Harry passed round two canvasses which he had painted and we could feel the different texture of the lines and blobs of paint and discussed the way that Hockney had assembled 36 panels in a huge hangar and worked on the painting in one piece.  (I did discuss whether it would have been easier to get a bigger panel in the first place and then cut it up with my neighbour, but we didn’t say this too loudly.)  If three paintings together is a triptych, what is 36?

We discussed canvas materials.  I had treated myself to some small linen canvases in a sale and was going to try them out.  I discussed mixing of paints telling my story at the Wallace where I had mixed my own green.  Harry then passed round a palette with a range of colours including several greens.  Artists prefer to use oil paints of a particular green as some simple blue and yellow mixes are grainy.  Disposable palette covers served as keeping a record of the colours used. I could not detect any distinction with some violets, blues and dark greens.  It could have been a change of lighting. 

Harry also passed round a sample of damar varnish by Robertsons.  Damar is a resin and has a smell which is not unpleasant.  He then passed round some crystals of the damar resin which has the feel of frankincense and it is sourced from India.  It was first used by Titian who had access to it as a result of the Venetian trade with Asia.  Next, a sample of turpentine was passed round.  This was certainly not sweet smelling.

It was now our turn to make a collage using varying papers, texturised coatings and colours to make a collage.  With Thixendale fresh in mind I tried to cut out shapes in order to give an impression of Autumn in Thixendale.  My other project was lead by David who I had met at Tate Modern.  We had an empty beer bottle, some clay, wooden base and that’s it.  Some in an earlier session had stuck their beer bottle in a horizontal position and having agreed with David that it may rolloff I arranged to have my bottle stuck upright in a top right space. I put some clay on the sides of the bottle and some in the mouth.  I pretended that it was a Mexican Beer Bottle (Dos Equis) and that I was driving in a right handed car in Arizona. 

The team of describers with Bridget gave in turn their description of the collages and bottle/clay combo.  Harry then gave a critique.  We applauded each other and felt it had been a wonderful morning.  We had been busy from 9AM to almost 1.30PM.

Many thanks to Kate, her team and the Royal Academy.


I asked for suitable titles for my collage and the sculpture.  It may have been a mistake to tweet out that the “works” had been created by me in the same room in which Charles Darwin presented his “Origin of the Species” lecture to the Linnaean Society in 1858.  The first tweet yielded mixed results and the 2nd round got a bit more serious with Dawkins cropping up as well.  Any suggestions for my collage shown at the top are welcome.  This painting (this work of art) currently hangs in my flat!

Royal Academy related posts:

My post on the RA Summer Exhibition 2012 can be found on:

My post on the Zoffany exhibition at the RA can be found on:

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Grayson Perry British Museum ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ 18th February 2012

The British Museum ran an exhibition in which works which had beencrafted by Grayson Perry and inspired by many of the collection were displayed side by side.  Grayson Perry is well known for ceramics and many of his pots were on display but Perry works in many materials and there are examples of objects such as tapestries, sculpture and drawing which have been assembled.  Much is left to the imagination and at one point I thought I had “seen” this stuff before, I was told that I had; one of the pieces from the Wellcome Collection is on display.  Themes of pilgrimage, religion, politics and memorials are often sensed and there is a warning that some of the objects are (You know “of a sexual nature” shock horror)

The exhibition or show has attracted many plaudits and indeed Linda Bolton had encouraged me to make sure to go.  (See guest blog)

The show had been extended for a week and it was possible to book a time slot for a Sunday which can be busy.  We got to the BM early and I enquired about other facilities at the Help Desk.  The staff are always helpful and if there is nothing to hand they are resourceful to ensure that a suitable alternative or suggestion was made available. I mentioned that I was going to go to the Hajj exhibition and the staff brought me some advice from the Hajj information desk in the
Great Court
.  We had some time to get some photos and make a start to a recording outside the show on an upper floor of the old reading room.  There are lifts and toilets and the round stairway can be avoided.  There is a motorbike outside the exhibition on view and my photograph was taken admiring the bike.  Perry is often photographed with his teddy bear, Alan Measles and his teddy bear features in many of his artworks.  

While I could make out the pots, which are huge, it was not possible to make out much of the detail on them.  As so much is left to the imagination one has to rely on the companion’s sense of both taste and description terms.  With some friends a shorthand of description is sufficient to describe an item and I knew it would only be a matter of time before a “Carry on” film was made.  This turned out to be about forgeries of antiquities especially of Roman helmets (Carry on Behind) and sure enough there were iron helmets and fake antiquities which had inspired Perry. Whether he had cited these “Carry on” films is unclear. In the case of a West African Chief’s headware there is also an early 20th century motorbike helmet and a Grayson Perry Bouncer helmet made of polycarbonate.

Perry makes much of the distinction drawn between art and craftsmanship and the somewhat arbitrary nature of taste.  Pilgrimage is currently a big “mot du jour” Many describe any journey as a pilgrimage and the term s often overused.  Pilgrimage has always been about travel, accommodation, ritual and souvenir/tack/ephemera.  Perry alludes to this.  I particularly enjoyed his map of Truths and Beliefs.  This is a huge tapestry which was designed by Perry and woven in wool and cotton by Flanders Tapestries using files prepared by Forum Arte.  (I bought a large postcard of this in the souvenir/gift shop. This was probably the most accessible object for me though I did recognise Perry’s Herms, Batiks, jackets, reliquary, shrine, boats and the objects from the museum such as maps, stellae, amphora, icons, flags, carvings and prints.  Much was made of the British Museum 100 objects which was made with the BBC for radio.  This series was thoroughly accessible in audio format and the descriptions with the captions read out are a standard for any audio component for the visually impaired.  If you enjoyed the Radio series thenyou may enjoy this exhibition.  For the visually impaired community the British Museum arranged for a talk with Grayson Perry and a handling session.  This is not available during the show and much of what you experience is through the eyes of several people.  There are so many objects to enjoy and it may be that some overload of topic, history, form and medium could result in this show being a hard “ask” of a describer.  Visits to exhibitions such as this do, however, offer the chance to admire parts of the British Museum collection.  If you find something of interest the help desk can be asked for more information and it may even be possible for you to make contact with the curatorial staff and arrange an access visit.

A few years ago Neil MacGregor gave a talk about the Enlightenment Galleries at the BM and having enjoyed the exhibitions on The Persians and seeing the Cyrus Cylinder it was a pleasant surprise to hear the director of British Museum give a TED Talk and I could listen to it having found the talk on a British Museum tweet on twitter.  I have often commented how important Serendipity is for the visually impaired.  Your chances of finding something interesting on the web or an event locally are greater if you can work out, with your own software, how Twitter works.

The British Museum is running an exhibition on The Hajj.  This is one of the pillars of Islam.  There were quite a lot of visitors to this exhibition and the reviews which have heard have been quite positive.  (For the benefit of those using a screenreader, Jaws 13 with American accent seems to have given the best rendering of Haj.  It is not Hoj or Hach)  I have heard of reviews from some Muslims on the radio though I have not met the acquaintance of a visually impaired Muslim who has been to Makkah during Hajj.


After coffee and a cake I bumped into the very large print by Durer on the way to the bookshop.  On sale at the British Museum are a series of books.  I bought one on Medieval love poetry with illustrations on courtly love and chivalry (that is what I have been told) The other is a introduction to the drawings of Durer’s prints and drawings.  Sometimes the museums offer a pleasant book which one can give as a present. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Genius of Illumination Exhibition British Library - Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Update 4/4/2012

I've just finished reading talking book no TB005110 (RNIB Catalogue) titled year of Three Kings - 1483 by Giles St Aubyn.  While dealing extensively with Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III this book also covers  Henry VI and Henry VII .  It lasts about 8 hours and is well read and though a concentrated 'read', explains much about the interpretation of some of the characters in the 15th century.  St Aubyn refers to both the Cotton collection and the Harley collection of manuscripts in the British Library. 

I have bought the following books from the internet fairly cheaply.  They provide large illustrations and are useful as they are easier a sighted person to describe than the alternative - reading from a computer screen - :

Illuminated Manuscripts of Germany and Central Europ in the J Paul Getty Museum by Thomas Kren
The Illuminated Manuscript by Janet Backhouse
Illuminated Manuscripts by D.M.Gill
Masterpieces of the J.Paul Getty Museum: Illuminated Manuscripts

** end of update

Update 14/3/2012

Some themes have emerged in following up the exhibition with other illuminated manuscripts.  In this update philosophy is covered in terms of the Wheel of Fortune and some extracts from Boethius.  The quotes are from Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle.  The book / catalogue was published to accompany the British Library’s exhibition of the same title.

Wheel of Fortune

Page 248 – Wheel of Fortune (f 30v)

A common theme is the instruction for a king giving advice that Fortune can be good and bad.  “The emblem of a king poised at the apex of Fortune’s wheel was a traditional reminder of the vagaries of power.”(p249)


“In order to regain God’s favour while Latin learning was at a low ebb, Alfred spearheaded a drive to translate key texts, being personally involved in producing vernacular versions of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms.” (p114)

“The adaptation of the De re militari was work of a different translator, identified by Science (1927) with John Walton, who in 1410 translated into English the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius for Elizabeth Berkeley, Sir Thomas’s daughter.” (p364)

Des Cleres et nobles femmes

(Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris, in an anonymous French translation) Paris c1410

“The present manuscript belongs to a small group containing the oldest redaction of the French translation.  It was made in Paris c1410, and illustrated by an artist active there, now known as the Boethius Master because he illuminated a copy of Boethius dated 1414.  Since there was no established iconographic programme for Des cleres et nobles femmes, he was relatively free from constraints when he designed its 106 miniatures.  Intriguingly, some miniatures contain details that are not included in the accompanying text… It is likely that the Boethius Master … had access to a more accurate copy of the text… It is not necessary to insist on a single source; several could have been employed.” (p242)

Interesting parallels with:

Jean de Courcy, Le Chemin de vaillance (p224) – miniature on page 225

Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes (222) (Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus virorum illustrium, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait)

see also blog post on the Wallace Collection and illuminated manuscripts on:

*** end of update

Exhibition links:

British Library:

I had been wanting to visit this exhibition at the British Library for some time.  This blog had mentioned the exhibition and a TV series with Janina Ramirez.  My blog on the Wallace Collection of illuminated manuscripts covered a description which had been made in conjunction with a workshop.  I was hooked though this exhibition was a big request to make of some friends in explaining some of the many objects. 

(The album is divided into 7 sections.  The links to individual sections are given at the bottom of the post.)
My father had been a bookbinder and several years before he retired he took more of an interest in hand sewn bookbinding and gold lettering which he had learned as an apprentice and  had practised as a craftsman.  As befitting a “shoemaker’s bairn” many of my own books were unbound and I grew up in a house learning the practical way of not knowing a “book by its cover.”  My father bound several copies of my PhD thesis in full leather and with gold lettering. I remember his punching the letters on the leather and applying gold leaf.  When he retired he had been approached to hand bind some old books but he declined with a few exceptions.  The TV series was played to me on my computer and we managed to make a soundtrack of it.  As it was unlikely that I would be able to go in person to the British Library a friend ordered the catalogue for me.  My experience at the Wallace Collection had shown that for my type of blindness (loss of central vision) the printed copy may be a better bet, as many of the originals are displayed in lighting conditions which are not always ideal.  This was described in my post on the Wallace Collection.  I determined that a combination of the catalogue and some images from the British Library site might be a viable alternative considering my reduced mobility. 

After coming out of hospital and being more or less housebound a friend started reading me part of the catalogue of the illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition with some of the essays.  The friend showed interest and offered to take me to the British Library and on February 11th We took a cab to the side entrance of the complex at St Pancras and I hobbled in.   The audio guide was handed out and instructions given.  The guide has about 22 items described with further essays by Scott McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, the curators.  The exhibition has a timed entry so that there are only enough viewers to match the display cases with an apparent time allowed by an average visitor.  Just before entering the exhibition space downstairs there is a handling area of parchment, vellum, quills, velvet and leather in addition to the tools in a display panel.  At this point Jackie started the recorder and we were off on a 3 hour visit which passed by so quickly.  Jackie had a break during the audio entry descriptions and after about 7 items we both realised that no notes were made of these objects.

Janina Ramirez had made a very interesting series about the history of the manuscripts and the technologies employed in the production of vellum, gesso and pigments.  The library collection was founded by King Edward IV who collected manuscripts, books and early books of knowledge.  The frontispiece of these books is usually the most attractive feature though some other displays of the calligraphy can be noted.  Wars in France had resulted in much of the French Royal Collection being bundled and added to the Royal Collection.  The Battles of Crecy and Agincourt gained much booty and plunder.  The French collection was shipped to England.  In Scotland we were not taught much English history and my school in Edinburgh had a facsimile of the Declaration of Arbroath.  I have visited many world museums and realise the importance of manuscripts and the continued use of vellum in Britain.  The collection covers many topics and several items were a pleasant surprise:the collections of maps written by Matthew Paris in 1255. Paris was a monk at St Albans and produced many books. He drew a series of maps in 8 stages of a journey from London to Jerusalem.  In the exhibition these maps are posted much in the same way as railway timetables are mounted on a carousel in stations.  There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth of England by George Gower and a tapestry as well as some prayer rolls.  I was interested in some of the Psalters and their illuminated paintings of scenes from the Biblical King David in the dress of the Middle Ages.  The family of De Bohun were influential in passing the dynasties and their manuscripts into Royal hands through Henry IV and Henry V.  Books were often venerated and used to legitimate the authority of a royal house at the time.  Following the Wars of the Roses, heraldic devices were used as shorthand confirming the lineage of the occupier of a throne.  In the French collection characters such as Robert of Anjou, the Capetian, Burgundian  and Valois dynasties,  Philip the Fair and Charles the Bold reminded me of a TV series which was shown in the mid 1970s. The series followed the historical novels of Maurice Druon (French Academy) entitled Les Rois Maudits or The Accursed Kings.  This was shown in French with sub titles and when I was in Paris in 1975 I bought the series of 6 books, in French.  I managed to get the English translations of the books in paperback and must find out if they were ever recorded.  ** Update 7/4/12 - Thanks to a friend, I have been able to order the DVDs with about 10 hours worth from the mini series which was made in 1972 - .  I couldn't face listening to JAWS reading me the books in English or in French, so I'm going to have to imagine that I can understand what's going on as I listen to the soundtrack of the DVD.**

Editing of the recording was done at home and we managed to reduce the 3 hour visit down to 90 minutes of Audio CD. It takes up 2 CDs and Jackie and I have managed to match many of the commentaries with both the catalogue and the images which can be found on the British Library site. 

The catalogue is very well produced and will bring much enjoyment.  This exhibition had proved to be of interest and it shows that with a little imagination and a sharing of some knowledge and sight 2 people enjoyed an exhibition which may at first glance appeared to be inaccessible. 
You can listen to Jackie and me discussing the samples of parchment, vellum and quills at the start of the exhibition.  One of these sound files is on Audioboo at .  I’m working on more and if you get yourself on Twitter it is possible to get these sound files as they are sent. It takes some time to match the files with the individual manuscript but this is something that has proved interesting in bringing some history to life.  The British Library is very useful as a start in getting more information.  Being interested in maps I was attracted to the map of Matthew Paris and a quick search in a search produced the link

The catalogue makes a wonderful souvenir:

Royal Manuscripts The Genius of Illumination by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle
(ISBN 978-0-7123-5815-6)

Other books which I found were

The High Middle Ages in Germany Edited by Rolf Toman (ISBN 3-8228-0297-2

Meieval Poetry Edited by John Cherry (ISBN 0-7141-5016-9)

Key words in a search could include:Heraldry, Ritual, Coronation, Philosophy, History, Bible Stories, Knowledge and Power.
Names of monarchs of England, France and nobility such as de Bohun, Arundel, Bedford

Battles such as Crecy and Agincourt

The British Library is raising a campaign for a Gospel of St Cuthbert. I have “cheekily” asked for an audio description to it.

1.                 Christian monarch 700-1400
2.                 The Christian Monarch 1400-1600
3.                 Edward IV – founder of the Royal library
4.                 Instruction: How to be a king
5.                 The World’s Knowledge
7.                 The European Monarch