The power of the English currency has been. till of late, largely based on the national estimate of horses and of wine: so that a man might give any price to furnish choicely his stable, or his cellar; and receive public approval therefore; but if he gave the same sum to furnish his library, he was called mad, or a bibliomaniac. And although he might lose his fortune by his horses, and his health or life by his cellar, and rarely lost either by his books, he was yet never called a Hippo-maniac, nor Oino-maniac; but only Biblio-maniac, because the current worth of money was understood to be legitimately founded on cattle and wine, but not on literature. The prices lately given at sales for pictures and MSS. indicate some tendency to change in the national character in this respect, so that the worth of our currency may even come in time to rest, in an acknowledged manner, somewhat on the state and keeping of the Bedford Missal, as well as on the health of Caractacus or Blink Bonney.1 John Ruskin, "Munera Pulveris," Frasers' Magazine, 1862

Although John Ruskin knew that most of his contemporaries did not share his bibliomania, he was aware that he was not alone in this fascination with medieval manuscripts. Indeed, he and other nineteenth-century British writers fostered an appreciation of these works as a context for the discussion of ethical values and standards, and as historical objects rich in form and meaning that created a link with what they saw as the wisdom of the past.

Several tendencies in the nineteenth century are important to any investigation of the Victorian fascination with illumination. First, there was the desire to collect the handwritten and painted books known as illuminated manuscripts, produced before the invention of printing. Accompanying this interest was the study of these early books as cultural documents, based on their form and content. Nineteenth-century students of the history of the book also noticed that the earliest printed books (those fifteenth-century works called incunabula, from the Latin word for cradle) mimicked the shaping of the letters and decoration of the pages seen in handcrafted books. Finally, the nineteenth century witnessed the spread of the lithographic process, introduced to England in 1817, and the perfection of wood-engraving technique by Thomas Bewick, whose work received its first substantial discussion in the Annual Review of 1805. These processes allowed mass production and wide distribution of facsimiles of antique manuscripts, as well as sparking interest in creating new kinds of printed illuminated works. The first thirty years of the nineteenth century can be viewed as a time of discovery, with the works of lithographers and wood engravers, and the experiments and medievalizing interests of the poet and artist William Blake, coming into play. Between the l830s and the 1860s the general public became more aware of illumination and of the uses of books as sources of ornament in all the arts.

As Ruskin remarked in "Munera Pulveris," there was a change in the art market in the 1860s. Auction records reveal that in 1861 an illuminated manuscript of the Pontificals of Jouvenel des Oursins sold for a price almost four times higher than any previous such sale. The increased valuation of illuminated manuscripts came about through the popularizers of these treasures, such as Henry Shaw, Owen Jones, and Henry Noel Humphreys, who in the first half of the century had begun printing illuminated books with the newly invented chromolithographic process.

Hoping to introduce a wide public to the visual and intellectual delights of illuminated manuscripts, Ruskin wrote and lectured widely, founded an art school at Oxford University, and established a museum near the industrial city of Sheffield, all in the years between 1853 and 1889. He believed that university students, iron workers, and many others could gain enjoyment and spiritual inspiration from the study of beautiful books. For instance, he sent a thirteenth-century illuminated Bible to his Sheffield museum curator, Henry Swan, remarking, "This will baptise their eyes." It is significant that most surviving early hand-illuminated manuscripts are religious texts, revered secular literature, or primary historical sources, books that touched on fundamental concerns of Victorian culture.

Left: August Welby Northmore Pugin, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843). Right: John Ruskin, A thirteen-century illuminator's marginal ornament from John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1853). [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The prefaces and texts of nineteenth-century printed illuminated works reveal the ways British authors from William Blake to William Morris encouraged readers of their books and illuminated facsimiles to appreciate the intellectual and spiritual values found in handmade antique manuscripts. The Gothic Revival architect Augustus W. N. Pugin, who dedicated himself to reforming public values through art, enriched his books on medieval architecture by designing such illuminator's forms as historiated initials and illustrations that take the form of miniatures found in thirteen- to sixeenth-century books. Pugin's interest in designing Gothic Revival pages as well as [12/13] buildings is characteristic of the Victorian sensitivity to the relationship between books and architecural ornament. Indeed, both Ruskin and Morris spoke of illuminated books as "pocket cathedrals," while Pugin and other architects used illuminated manuscripts as sources of design in restoring ancient medieval churches and in creating new Gothic Revival structures. Pugin's idealized medieval architect (see above) is at work surrounded by manuscripts, with a text written in Gothic script on the cornice of the wall above his head. The whole of Pugin's miniature is set in a border featuring heraldic insignia, which he had studied in illuminated documents and books.

The rehabilitation of the Middle Ages paralleled the nineteenth-century fascination with illuminated manuscripts, with a corresponding effect on the art market; Gothic manuscripts came to be avidly sought. The revaluation of the medieval period and its books could be seen in the illuminated works of William Blake (cats. 1, 23), in the essays of Thomas Frognall Dibdin (cat. 13), and in a study by F. Somner Merryweather. In 1849, as the balance began to tip in favor of a more positive view of the Middle Ages, Merryweather wrote a volume neither illustrated nor ornamented. Bibliomania in the Middle Ages or Sketches of Bookworms - Collectors - Bible Students - Scribes - and Illuminators from the Anglo-Saxon and Norman Periods to the Introduction of Printing in England; with Anecdotes, Illustrating the History of the Monastic Libraries of Great Britain in Olden Time. His title conjures up the British bookmen of what was once called the Dark Ages, and outlines the historical, religious, and artistic parameters of the study of illuminated manuscripts.

Merryweather was a bookseller in London who read his own rare manuscripts and through them came to understand and appreciate the priests and monks of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. Over and over again he remarked that while one might not agree with their religion in the nineteenth century, in the days before the Reformation, Roman Catholic religious offered England much in terms of devotion to scriptural study and to preserving knowledge through their labors as scholars, librarians, scribes, and illuminators. Merryweather's need to defend himself against any suspicion that he might be a Roman Catholic sympathizer is typical of the stance taken by artists who designed chromolithographed sacred and secular texts in the 1840s (cats. 2, 8). Such a defense was necessary in part because the whitewashing, stained-glass-breaking, book-burning years of Puritan England were still a part of cultural memory (cat. 45). Furthermore, as the nineteenth-century British government began to allow more freedom to its Roman Catholic citizens, there was a suspicious response among intolerant Protestants. During the second half of the century, the rehabilitation of the monastic world was furthered by many of the artist-writers in this exhibition, so that by the 1890s, when William Morris set up his Kelmscott Press, the ecclesiastical associations of the Gothic were no longer as troubling.

The strongest voice in encouraging renewed delight in Gothic arts and ideas during the second half of the nineteenth century was John Ruskin's. Few scholars have noticed how important illuminated manuscripts were to Ruskin's theories of art, work, and life. In his famous chapter on "The Nature of Gothic" in The Stones of Venice II, in 1853, he turned to manuscript illuminations from the thirteenth century to buttress his statements about excellence in medieval art being related to the artisans' enjoyment of their tasks when they were allowed to enrich their works themselves. Ruskin intertwined form and content, with the result that an ethic of human value became joined to a valuing of human work. To illustrate similarities in architecture and hand illumination, he printed a woodcut of a thirteenth-century illuminator's marginal ornament, a dragon, with a trefoil cusp forming the inside arch of its wing (see above), after his discussion of the trefoil arch as the major innovation of the Gothic vaulting system.

The year after he published “The Nature of Gothic” Ruskin gave a series of public lectures at the Architectural Museum in London on "Decorative Color." At these informal talks he proposed the use of illuminated lettering on shop fronts, in churches and [13/14] homes in order to enliven the city streets and to introduce inspiring texts in houses of worship and daily life. In addition, he suggested illumination as a source of employment for artisans and as a vehicle for attracting readers to inspiring works of literature. During the next few years he paid craftsmen to make facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts from the British Museum and to produce new designs for ornamenting contemporary works such as the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. By 1856 he decided that illuminating might provide an avenue of employment for women. Among his early students of this art were the poet Adelaide Ann Proctor and the woman who eventually ran his freehold properties for the benefit of low-income people, Octavia Hill.

Proctor, a prime mover in the women's employment movement, was one of the two Honorary Secretaries of the Society for the Promotion of Employment for Women, established in 1859. Printing was the first occupation these women investigated, and as a result Emily Faithfull opened the Victoria Press with women compositors in March 1860 (Herstein, 140-44). Proctor wrote the introduction to the magnum opus published by the Victoria Press, the Victoria Regia of 1861. Victoria Regia was a collection of stories and poems dedicated to the Queen and ornamented with wood-engraved illuminated initial letters. Chromolithographed illumination was also produced by the Victoria Press, with Faithfull's sister, Ester Faithfull Fleet, doing the designs for Te Deum Laudamus in 1868 (cat. 10).

Women in England who were not in the circle of Emily Faithfull and Adelaide Ann Proctor were also interested in hand illumination, and they were often the target audience for the numerous manuals of illumination produced in the 1860s (cats. 52-57). The fashion became so widespread that it turned up in a novel by Charlotte Mary Yonge, The Trial, published in London in 1864 and circulated in the United States by D. Appleton, the American publisher of Henry Noel Humphreys's chromolithographed illuminated Parables of Our Lord (cat. 7).

Covers and illuminations by Henry Noel Humphreys. Left: The Parables of Our Lord. Middle: The Miracles of Our Lord. Right: Water into Wine. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Yonge's story focuses on the teaching of values of honesty, responsibility, courage, and determination to young men and women. She returns again and again to the descriptions of such values in Sir Walter Scott's medievalizing poem Marmion (cat. 24), read by her young protagonist early in the development other plot. Along with the ethos of the Gothic Revival evoked by the Marmion references, Yonge used the contemporary revival of hand illumination as a means of transmitting information about her characters. One very serious young woman in an argument with a young man complains that another, superficial character was desecrating illumination by using it for less than sacred subjects. The young man responds by wondering if using any illumination might in itself desecrate sacred subjects. The discussion is resolved by a worthy older sister who says, in the spirit of Ruskin, that "all depended on the spirit of the work; that it was a dangerous thing for a mere fashion to make playthings of texts of Scripture; but that no one could tell the blessing there might be in dwelling on them with loving decoration, or having them placed where the eye and thought might be won by them" (Yonge, 101).

In this context William Morris's remark that he worked on his hand illumination as a proper Sunday pursuit is all the more understandable. Although Morris's scribal abilities were not well known until the twentieth century, he was one of the most innovative practitioners of the art of illumination in the Victorian period, as can be seen in his Kormak manuscript of 1871 (cat. 59). Printed illuminated works were of a lesser quality in the 1870s and '80s, and this was probably one of the reasons why the publisher Kegan Paul wrote in 1883 in his Production and Life of Books what amounts to an open letter to Morris asking him to become involved in "the artistic future of books."

Morris came to printing from a background in architecture and decorative arts. He had tried his hand at the scribe's task of writing and the illuminator's art of ornamenting letters and their surrounding margins and line endings in the 1850s and again in the 1870s, when he was in close contact with Ruskin at Oxford. In his career as a decorative artist he designed printed fabrics, wallpapers, tapestries, and painted furniture, all of which were at least in part inspired by his knowledge of Gothic and Renaissance book ornament. He began his printing venture in 1889-91 with a certain amount of nostalgia for the hand-illuminator's work environment as opposed to that of the pressman; he wrote to F. S. Ellis, "Pleased as I am with my printing, when I saw the two men at work on the press yesterday with their sticky printers' ink, I couldn't help lamenting the simplicity of the scribe and his desk, and his black ink and blue and red ink. and I almost felt ashamed of my press after all." Such antipathy did not last, nor did it prevent Morris from drawing upon his experience as an illuminator in designing floriated initials and marginalia derived from hand-illuminated forms. Apparently the illuminated printer's ornaments he designed held a special value for him, because his final wish was that these wood blocks be kept out of circulation until 100 years after his death. He allowed the three typefaces that he designed to remain in the public domain; the ornamental blocks, however, continue to be held at the British Museum until 1996.

The titles Morris printed are in keeping with the choices of illuminated works made throughout the nineteenth century. He chose Christian texts, historical chronicles, and revered works of secular literature, as well as books that showed the interrelationship between the arts of architecture and book design (cats. 38-51). Significantly, the fourth volume from his press was "The Nature of Gothic" chapter from Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, including the illustration of a winged dragon from a thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript (fig. 2).

Studying the uses of illuminated ornament in the nineteenth century from William Blake to William Morris lets us see what the Victorians valued as they came to grips with the disorienting experience of the Industrial Revolution, when handicrafts were being replaced by machine processes. The artists and historians of the book attempted to draw public attention to the value of visually pleasing and intriguing ornamental forms that carried associations with sacred texts and the newly appreciated medieval past. The books honored with illumination in the nineteenth-century affirmed the value of human work, as well as reminding their readers to uphold the chivalric virtues of honesty, charity, and courage.

Note: Caractacus won the Derby in 1862, Blink Bonney won it in 1857; the Bedford Missal is the British Museum's Bedford Hours, written in France ca. 1423, acquired by the British Museum in 1852.

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.

Last modified 2 August 2014