John Ball Preaching by Henry Noel Humphreys, 1810-79. 32.4 x 26 cm. Source: Illuminated Illustrations of Froissart (1844-45), II, Plate 36. Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 62. Collection: Library of Rhode Island School of Design. With thanks to the Center for Digital Scholarship and Digital Production Services in the Brown University Library for producing the color image used in this web version. [Click on images to enlarge them.]


Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

Jean Froissart was a medieval historian who collected accounts of important military encounters from participants and onlookers. His Chronicles were repeatedly copied by manuscript artists in his own times and later. Victorian historians, book designers, and others in search of primary documentation of life in the Middle Ages read the illuminated versions of his texts in the libraries of England and the Continent. The fourth volume of an illuminated Froissart in the British Museum's Harleian Collection (1460-80) was the source for the first medieval facsimile produced by Henry Noel Humphreys. Humphreys's volume II was published the following year, from a manuscript of 1460-1470 made for Louis of Bruges which Humphreys examined in Paris. The French library held all four volumes of Froissart's Chronicles and this set was acclaimed by Humphreys as the most beautiful version ot the Chronicles known to him.

The gold-blocked red morocco bindings of RISD's set ennoble it. Similar bindings ornament Robin de Beaumont's copies, and both groups of volumes are signed with J. Wright's binder's stamp on the verso of the front free end papers. The square is gold-blocked as well. However, in the R1SD set, the guttapercha spines have dried and broken.

Each volume in the RISD collection contains thirty-six plates of miniatures and thirty-six pages of commentary. Humphreys did not at this point differentiate between the parts of the manuscript; thus, text, ornaments, and miniatures were all grouped with illumination. In spite of the simplification of the facsimiled images, Humphreys's books introduced important innovations. In the plates where he included texts with miniatures he drew directly "on the lithographic stone in order to imitate the handwriting of the original more accurately than a black-letter type font could" (Friedman 58). Concerned with accurate color, he added hand-coloring to the chromolithographed plates, echoing the work of Henry Shaw and William Blake. Friedman suggested Owen Jones as chromolithographer on the strength of the two men's cooperation on the printing of The Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages between 1844 and 1849.

Humphreys prefigured William Morris's interest in John Ball (cat. 34) by choosing to illustrate a miniature drawn from Froissart's narrative of Ball's involvement in the peasant rebellion of 1381. Ball's concern for the living conditions of the peasants formed the background for Morris's A Dream of John Ball of 1888. Morris was familiar with Humphreys's Illuminated Illustrations of Froissart and gave a copy of it to Louisa Macdonald Baldwin. In 1857, he gave her Thomas Johnes's scholarly translation of Froissart, recommended by Humphreys in Volume I of the present set (Morris, Letters, I 136).


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.

Friedman, Joan. Colour Printing in England, 1486-1870. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1978.

Humphreys, Henry Noel. Illuminated Illustrations of Froissart Selected from the Ms. in the British Museum. London: William Smith, 1844-45. Letterpress: Bradbury and Evans. Chromolithography: Owen Jones? Binder: J. Wright.

Morris, William. Collected Letters. Ed. Norman Kelvin. 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Last modified 27 December 2013