Calendar and text page from a thirteenth-century Psalter. by Henry Noel Humphreys, 1810-79, 1844-49. 56.5 x 38.4cm. Source: Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 16. Collection: Providence Public Library, Updike Collection of Books on Printing. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Describing himself as an historian rather than a book designer and artist, Henry Noel Humphreys explained his purpose, scope, sources, and methods in the introduction and notes to the plates in Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Humphreys portrayed chromolithography as the printing process that would bring to all classes the "refining influence of beautiful combination in art, formerly only enjoyed by a few of the rich and powerful." Illuminated Books was issued in twelve parts. This procedure spread the cost of 21 shillings per part over five years and allowed readers to acquire a selection of plates and text without having to purchase the entire book. The Yale British Art Center owns eleven of the twelve unbound fascicles. Section IV is displayed here.

Humphreys also sought to inform practicing designers and architects of the history, sources, and uses of illuminated letters and borders. He did not include miniatures in his discussions. On page 10 of Illuminated Books, artists learned that thirteenth-century illuminated manuscripts could "make the fortune of a modern decorator by their quaint and unexpected novelties of invention." With architects in mind, he remarked upon the use of twelfth-century manuscripts in the contemporary restoration of London's Temple Church (image). However, he disliked servile copying of historical ornament. Disparaging what he called the "lamentable mania" of the preceding decades in producing imitations of bad drawings, he advised study of the principles of past design as a basis for new creations.

Enlarged scope and new sources distinguish Humphreys's work from his predecessors. In his overview of the development of hand-illumination, he suggested that it began in the Byzantine court and died out in the 1780s, only to reemerge in the 1820s. He investigated secular literature as well as sacred, illustrating state documents, historical chronicles, and romances, along with the usual Psalters and Bibles. His sources were considerably more diverse than Westwood's and Shaw's (Cat. 15. 14). Humphreys had begun studying manuscripts while living in Rome during the 1830s, consulting libraries in Rome, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Moscow, Copenhagen, Madrid, and the more usual Paris and London collections. For his readers' further edification, Humphreys appended to Illuminated Books a list of 463 mauscripts grouped by date and national style, indicating which libraries owned the books.

Contradicting the opinions of Shaw and Madden, Humphreys criticized the sixth-century illuminator Giulio Clovio in his remarks about plate 37, finding Clovio not as capable as his teacher Girolamo dai Libri. Furthermore, he praised thirteenth-century illumination as the least known and most interesting and original period of manuscript arts. Plate XII, illustrated here, displays a calendar and a text page from a thirteenth-century Psalter. The owner, Robert Stainer Holford (1808-92), was a private collector with contacts in Humphreys's circle of associates. Holford's home, Dorchester House, was designed by Lewis Vulliamy, under whom Owen Jones studied architecture. Jones executed the chromolithographs in Humphreys's book (Jervis, High Victorian Design, 136). Some of the plates in the Yale copy are signed by C. Graf and others by Day & Haghe, but the original drawings are by Humphreys.

By choosing to illustrate entire pages from the Holford manuscript, Humphreys gave his Victorian readers a more accurate sense of the form and content of antique illuminated manuscripts than previous authors had done. His abilities as a draughtsman allowed him to depict the lively vigor of entwined dragons, jousting knights, and droll monkeys found in the ornament of Holford's Psalter with remarkable precision. In addition, the quality of color in Illuminated Books surpassed that of any book printed to date in Britain on the history of illuminated manuscripts. Humphreys stated in his notes on plate 36 that his color illustrations took eight to twelve workings of the press. Letterpress and chromolithography were done separately, with all of the forty plates being mounted on folio leaves and the text enriched with pasted-in chromolithographed illuminated initial letters.

Related Material


Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.

Humphreys, Henry Noel. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1844—49. Chromolithography: Owen Jones, C. Graf, and Day & Haghe. Binder of the Updike Collection copy: J. Wright.

Jervis, Simon. High Victorian Design. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1983.

McLean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. 2nd edition. [London]: Faber & Faber, [1972].

Last modified 26 December 2013