Gray's Elegy. Owen Jones, illuminator, 1809-1874. 24.9 x 17.6 cm. (1846). Collection: New York Public Library. Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 26. [Click on images to enlarge them.

Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

Gray's Elegy, probably written in the yard of the Stoke Poges Church in Buckinghamshire ca. 1750, is a memorial to the country folk buried there, and a meditation on how circumstances prevented them from developing their minds and talents. The poem is suffused with the egalitarian attitude that inspired the public education movement and some branches of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century. Both movements embraced the belief that people could improve their character and station in life if they had the enlightening advantages of art and knowledge. In his poem Gray ennobled rustic life by suggesting that the heavenly reward of the poor who lived honestly was greater than for those who enjoyed recognition and wealth. Gray himself refused the prestigious position of Poet Laureate when it was offered him in 1757.


Although the Elegy was often honored with illumination in Victorian Britain, Owen Jones's version contains a number of innovations. It was the first book issued in Leake's patented relievo binding (Ball, Catalogue, no. 46d), the first example of a title page with names of both the London and New York publishers (McLean 91), and an early example of Jones's ability to use the chromolithographic press in designing a consistently interrelated program of illumination. A second book published by Jones in 1844, The Sermon on the Mount (cat. 9), also displays a unified approach where the pages are conceived as facing pairs. Each set of page openings in Gray's Elegy differs in its design from the others, but blue, red, and gold are the only colors used, along with black and white, and this lends visual coherence. The Gothic-lettered text is written on the lithographic stone. Each text block is enclosed by a sprouting vine printed in blue, white, and gold.

Joseph Cundall accused Jones of inappropriately clothing an English poem in "monkish garb" when he mentioned this binding in his On Ornamental Art Applied to Ancient and Modern Book Binding (1848). One wonders if Cundall's motive was to attack his competition in the illuminated gift book industry, since his illuminated Booke of Christmas Carols (cat. 25) was published the year before Jones's version of Elegy. Jones did not imitate any previous binding, but his deeply embossed cover did recall medieval hand work. The use of native British flora—holly, ivy, and shamrocks—relates the volume to the United Kingdom. The title appears in Gothic script bursting into ivy vines on the front while Jones's monograph ONJ ornaments the central rectangle on the back cover.

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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.

Gray, Thomas. Gray's Elegy [Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard]. London: Longman & Co., 1846. Illuminator: Owen Jones. Hathi Digital Trust Library version of a copy in the New York Public Library. Web. 26 December 2013.

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

Last modified 26 December 2013