The embellishment of a manuscript with pure gold leaf laid on a gesso base and the metal burnished to shine brightly, or decoration with colour and gold.
|Craft category||Paper; Precious metals|
|Historic area of significance||UK. There are various mediaeval manuscript production centres: Christ Church in Canterbury, Ramsey Abbey, Bury St Edmunds, Minster-in-Thanet, Durham, St Albans, Rochester, London etc.|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Early Medieval|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||2-3|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Gold 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.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Demand for traditional illumination work is low: very few commissions insist on strictly traditional methods, so often illuminated work is carried out using more modern techniques and materials.
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.
Preparing traditional paints from scratch is time-consuming and often challenging, and demand for work created using these materials is low.
As well, authentic tradition-based work requires the practitioner to have considerable understanding of the history and uses of pigments over historical time, how they work with one another, etc, which is highly specialised knowledge that takes time and study to acquire: and again in this case, demand for the use of traditional materials is low as most commissions are adequately fulfilled by using modern commercial materials.
There are no full-time courses being taught; there are a few part-time courses (in the south east) and unquantifiable occasional workshops.
- Most practitioners are in their mature years and there is no systematic approach to passing skills to young potential craftspeople
- The craft is challenging, complex and takes a long time to become truly proficient
Craftspeople currently known
- Patricia Lovett MBE
- Andrew Stewart Jamieson
- Neil Bromley
- Tim Noad
- Ann Hechle
- Michela Antonello
- Toni Watts
- Helen White
- Gerald Mynott
- Christabel Helena Anderson
- Jan Mehigan
- Jan Pickett
- Mary Noble
- Penny Price
- Tina Warren
- The Prince’s School for Traditional Arts (PSTA) in London offers regular short courses (usually 5 days long) in medieval illumination and gilding, taught by different tutors.
- The PSTA also offers regular short courses in traditional Islamic illumination taught by various tutors.
- Various other short courses, workshops and one-off training sessions in working with gold and/or traditional painting methods and styles.
- Patricia Lovett MBE runs one-day courses at the British Library, the Parker Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of London etc, and three-day traditional manuscripts skills courses once a year in Sevenoaks.
Lovett, P, Illumination – Gold and Colour.
Lovett, P, The British Library Guide to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry.
Lovett, P, Illumination. (DVD).
www.patricialovett.com – contains articles about illumination in mediæval and Renaissance manuscripts and contemporary illumination including producing props for film and TV.
- Noad, T, and Seligman, P, The Illuminated Alphabet: an inspirational introduction to creating decorative calligraphy (Quarto)
- Mehigan, J, and Noble, M, The Encyclopaedia of Calligraphy & Illumination: a step-by-step directory of alphabets, illuminated letters and decorative techniques (Search Press)