A couple of months ago I was pottering around the Chelsea Book Fair and came across a signed copy of Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting’. There it was right in front of my eyes: a delicate signature in faded red ink, the V leaning over the following letters as though to shelter them, the F slashed through with a certain finality. Being a bit of a Woolf obsessive, I was deeply moved. The book cost a casual £950 so I decided to save it until I got a job.
Now, still jobless and regretting not having nicked the bloody thing, I find myself once again pottering around old books and being deeply moved by dead people’s handwriting. But this time we’re talking seriously old books, books that are so old they required animals to be slain so they could be made (look out for hair follicles on the parchment).
The British Library’s exhibition of illuminated (ie very decorated) manuscripts is oddly engrossing. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a huge fan of manuscripts, illuminated or otherwise. To be honest, I haven’t really thought about them much before. But after two trips to the exhibition, I can’t really get them out of my head. There is something very touching about these beautiful and mysterious books, and the longer you stare at the browned pages, the more time seems to fall away; ink shines as though it were painted yesterday, gold leaf glitters in the dimmed lights of the exhibition hall.
Many are huge labours of love. Jean de Varrin’s two volume ‘Chronicle of English History’ took him twenty-five years to complete, each tiny black letter painstakingly drawn out and filled in. This review will probably take me twenty-five minutes (okay, two hours including lunch, coffee, fags and Facebook). The sheer skill, time and effort that went into creating these things is mind-blowing. Imagine if Jean de Varrin had had Facebook… The ‘Chronicle of English History’ would probably have taken fifty years!
The borders that surround the prose and illustrations are particularly lovely. Roses, wildflowers and impressively intricate ivy tangle around the main images. Robins and great tits, phoenixes, lions and lambs nestle in between. Keep an eye out and you can spot some really lovely details, a spray of blackberries, a pelican feeding her young with her own blood. There are a couple of excellent bestiaries (works on the physical nature of animals that carry a spiritual message), including one that shows lions breathing life into their cubs, as some believed they did.
A personal favourite illustration is found in Edward IV’s ‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings of the Romans’, portraying a line of elegantly dressed women bursting into a council chamber to protest against discriminatory laws, including banning colourful clothes on women. Four men stand by, pointing and covering their mouths in shock. I couldn’t help thinking of this year’s Slut Walks.
That’s one of the interesting things about this exhibition: it somehow demonstrates how little actually changes across time and this collection is an excellent documentation of lives lived and objects loved.
The Harker provides a platform for young (unpaid) writing talent.