Two plates from Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages (1843) by Henry Shaw (1800-73). Left: Ladies of the Twelfth Century (Vol. I, Plate 10). Right: King Henry VI and His Court (Vol. II, Plate 48). 27.3 x 18 cm. (both volumes). These images were catalogue no. 38 in Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania (1987) [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

Henry Shaw's bibliomania inspired him to pursue a career as a book designer and historian of the decorative arts. His knowledge of antique illuminated manuscripts formed the basis for his innovative use of printed illuminated initial letters, as well as providing sources for his illustrations and discussions. He achieved a chronological unity of text, illustrations, and initial letters which evokes William Blake's and John Ruskin's calls for an art of the book that united words and images. In 1853, Ruskin had Shaw supervise the printing of a color illustration from an illuminated manuscript for Modern Painters, volume III (cat. 19).

Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages consists of hand-colored copper plates and polychrome wood engravings of Shaw's drawings of objects and activities of daily life in the times he defined as the medieval period. He adapted his illustrations from illuminated manuscripts as well as antique tapestries, metalwork, and furniture in public and private collections. The book is organized around the ninety-four plates. Wood-engraved initial letters in as many as four colors signal the beginning of each plate narration.

In both the "Ladies of the Twelfth Century" page and "King Henry VI and His Court" Shaw's initial letters correspond in style with the theme of the text. Further augmenting the text are pictorial colored wood engravings from illuminated manuscripts which are chronologically apt and enrich the reader's understanding of the period under discussion. The flat metallic forms of the figures and shorthand decorative approach to natural forms in the "Ladies" is very characteristic of twelfth-century painting, as is the stylized wave motif on the well from which a servant draws water.

In his discussion of Henry VI Shaw included quotations from Shakespeare. He also decorated the page with a fifteenth-century-inspired initial letter and a man in a tabard holding a banner. The tabard represents the arms of Talbot, and is probably worn by John Talbot, first Earl of Shrewsbury, while the banner is for King Henry VI and his Queen Margaret ofAnjou. The blazon for both flag and tabard are on the following page and undoubtedly came from the 19th-century heraldist, Thomas Willement (1786-1871), whom Shaw acknowledged in his introduction. There is, however, an error in Shaw's drawing of the quartering for the Lisle arms on the tabard: he shows two lions, facing in the wrong direction, instead of one. Such lapses were not uncommon in the Victorian period when heraldry was being rediscovered by Gothic Revival amateurs.

Shaw's Dresses and Decorations was regarded as a model of good taste in the nineteenth century, as shown by the tipped-in letter on the fourth flyleaf of a copy in the Library of the Rhode Island School of Design. It reads, "My Dear Brother, I hope the book which accompanies this may gratify your taste and that you will accept it from your affectionate C. R. Goddard Nov. 8, 1845 Mr. M. B. Ives." The Goddard, Brown, Ives, and Russell families were and are supporters of the Rhode Island School of Design, founded in 1877 to instruct artisans of trade and manufacture, to train students in the practice of art, and to educate the public through its Museum of Art. This is exactly the audience that Henry Shaw hoped to address, as he stated in his Alphabets, Numerals, and Devices (cat. 39), published the year Mrs. Goddard gave the gift book to her brother.

Other plates from Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Internet Archive and the Pennsylvania Museum of Art and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


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.

Shaw, Henry. Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Seventeenth Centuries. 2 volumes. London: William Pickering, 1843. Printer: Charles Whittmgham, Chiswick Press. Illuminator: Henry Shaw. Internet Archive version of a copy in the library of the University of Toronto. Web. 22 December 2013. [The copy of this book in the 1987 exhibition the copy came from the Library of the Rhode Island School of Design.]

Last modified 22 December 2013