The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts




The embellishment of a manuscript with gold leaf burnished to shine brightly, or with colour and gold.


Status Endangered
Craft category  Paper / Precious metals
Historic area of significance  UK
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK  Early Medieval
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  21-50
Current no. of trainees  6-10
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  6-10
Current total no. of craftspeople  11-20



IlluminationGold was always regarded in historical times as precious, it doesn’t tarnish as other metals do, it was rare, expensive, and had high status. It was thus a natural material to use for Christians producing the first manuscript books to decorate the pages to the glory of God. Gold in both leaf and powder forms were used; the latter mixed with gum to create shell gold (in later times it was sold in mussel shells – hence the name). Silver and other metals were also used, and, later mosaic gold, but none could compete with the brilliance of shine of burnished leaf gold on a raised gesso ground.



Learning how to gild with gesso is a complicated, and sometimes capricious, process, and it is usually best to take a course with an experience illuminator.


Local forms




Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • There are very few people who have the knowledge and expertise to gild in a traditional way as in mediæval manuscripts, replicating the craft processes, and the cost of doing so hinders those who may wish to learn (gold is expensive, and the tools and other materials are not cheap either!), and also those who want to commission.
  • Illumination is expensive to do and so even going on a course requires a degree of financial outlay.
  • There are no full-time courses being taught, and few part-time ones either.


Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known


Other information



  • Lovett, P. Illumination – Gold and Colour.
  • Lovett, P. The British Library Guide to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry.
  • Lovett, P. Illumination. (DVD).
  • – contains articles about illumination in mediæval and Renaissance manuscripts and contemporary illumination including producing props for film and tv