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Illumination page by Morris

William Morris's own decoration to the book consists of great floriated letters in gold and colours, where the arrangement and relation to the page, the quality of colour and the handling are quite the finest of his work. The painting is solid and luminous, the broadly-designed leafage, carefully modelled and finished, is at once strong and delicate, reminding one of the finest early French Gothic sculptured ornament. He made a beautiful and dexterous use of white in finishing and also played with the gold with evident enjoyment. Sometimes two colours were used — a pale silvery gold (the colour of a harvest-moon) beside one of a richer tone, or the gold itself glazed with thin red and painted with red veins. It is noticeable that the decoration was started well on in the book, for he wanted the first pages to be as good as the rest, to be done when he had settled into the work and was at his best. . . . [xxiv]

Illumination page by Morris

The page we reproduce in colour is a typical example of the ornamental letters, though this plate— done with the utmost skill and care— cannot render the sparkle and life of the painted vellum. Gold is used in this book with a special ingenuity and enjoyment: one page has pale and red gold and silver fruit with brownish-black (Chinese ink) stems and flourishes, while the capitals of the page are silver and blue. (The silver throughout is untarnished.) Then there is an enchanting page where the quite severe ornament consists of plain flat silvery-gold indented with a slight dotted scroll, and all over it hang fruit which are in raised gold of a darker tone, as is also the letter I, which has a little running leafage in brown. The margin of the ornament has just a fluttering of gold penwork, like a streak of gauze. You have to imagine the distinguished simplicity of the arrangement and the subtle handling— veil over veil of transparent gold. The sight of such ornament gives me the same feeling as that experienced on looking at a piece of early Syrian weaving of silk and gold— I forget who calls it "woven air" — a sort of emotion before something not grandiose in aim, but quiet and lovely, made by a hand that does not measure its happy work in hours. There are several pages of this serene golden decoration of the Haroun El-Rasheed order, one of ears of wheat in gold, another of gold and silver and brown with bronze nourishes. I remember his showing me the bronze shell-gold and expressing some pleasure in it, but also a doubt as to its lasting quality. He thought it rather too beguiling to use largely. In the one place where it is employed here, it has not changed colour at all.

He also played with the gold in another way — quite his own as far as I have seen. He laid a coloured ground which was then covered closely with spots of flat gold paint; fine effects were got in this way — dots on a red ground, dots on a pale green giving a surface like a lemon; and then he de- veloped this and laid a parti-coloured ground, red and black, say, between the twinings of branches, and over it the gold spots were set thick — such a surface! all"bonded " by a big plain letter of raised gold a-top. All the lettering in this book, gold and coloured, is by his own hand. [xxviij-xxix]


The Æneids of Virgil. Trans. William Morris. The Collected Works with Introductons by His Daughter May Morris. Volume 11. London: Longmans Green, 1911.

Last modified 15 November 2006