Marguerite Makes a Book

Stuart James (University Librarian, University of Paisley, and Editor, Library Review and Reference Reviews)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 July 2000




James, S. (2000), "Marguerite Makes a Book", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 5, pp. 252-260.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

As I think and write a lot about books all the time (not to mention reading them of course), the end of the millennium seems an especially appropriate time to do so. Much of this revolves around printed books, which have dominated the second half of the old millennium, but they were preceded by hand‐produced books which first preserved, or established, our literate culture and laid the foundation for the revolution of print (which has in its turn led to the revolution of IT). I emphasise the literate culture, but so many of the hand‐produced books were also visual works of art; and so many, too, anonymous. There are plenty of examples, too, of visual works of art among printed books; will we come to feel the same about Web sites or computerised information? Almost certainly, yes: good design is good design (and bad design, bad), whatever the medium. Turning back to the hand‐made book, scholars have established a corpus of knowledge about how (and in quite a few cases by whom) these masterpieces were created, from solitary monks, or monks grouped in scriptoria, to later secular mediaeval artists and workshops.

This latter source, the late mediaeval secular book artist, is the subject of a delightful book for children, expertly yet simply written by Bruce Robertson (Professor of Art History, University of California, Santa Barbara) and as expertly and beautifully illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. The story is based on an early fifteenth century set of Parisian manuscripts in the Getty Collection, and it simply tells a tale of how the young daughter of a Parisian artist takes over the painting of an illuminated manuscript for a wealthy patron when her father falls ill (and of course completes it just in time). In the process we learn about life in fifteenth century Paris and more particularly, in some detail, just how such manuscripts came to be produced: down to the recipes for making the colours. So, a simple story is used to impart precise and detailed fact.

The book itself is designed and illustrated to bring out the themes, not just as illustration of the story, but by the layout of some of the pages with illuminated initials and decorative borders in successful and attractive imitation of the original inspirations. This could all have been an artificial and over‐ambitious disaster, but instead it is a delight (to this reviewer at least). The combination of a simple story, a clear narrative, credible characters, and its overall design and illustration, make this a charming volume: a nice idea is accomplished in a manner which should endear the book to children of many ages (as well as their parents and grandparents).

Then to the real thing, and from America and France to England. Over the years the British Library has produced attractive volumes on its illuminated manuscripts, in various formats large and small. This volume is in a new and particularly successful format: a thin volume (keeping the price to a reasonable amount) but large page size (31 × 23cm) allowing generous colour reproductions of original pages. It goes without saying, from the identity of the author, that the text is the most complete scholarly, yet popular, account of this “the most spectacular service book of English execution to have come down to us from the later Middle Ages.” Made for the Benedictine Abbey of Sherborne in Dorset, it can be dated closely to between 1399 and 1407. Placed on indefinite loan in the British Library in 1983 by the Duke of Northumberland, the manuscript only came into the Library’s permanent keeping in 1998, so that this is the first account of it since then. The first, probably not the last, but for now an ideal account, generously illustrated throughout in full colour by reproductions of its wonderful pages and images, discussing the book itself and its place in the history of art. This scholarly but always readable account shows at its best the more traditional approach to explaining the history and techniques of the production of such a work of art, complementing the imaginative approach of the Getty book; both are most welcome.

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