Academic journal article Arthuriana

Illuminating Arthurian Texts-In the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Illuminating Arthurian Texts-In the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Article excerpt

In the Victorian age, there was a renewed interest in illumination, which is seen in the work of Ruskin and Morris, a growing scholarly attention to this subject, manuals instructing enthusiasts in the art of illumination, and a number of Arthurian works by artists as varied as Beardsley, Sangorski, and Beard. (AL)

An anonymous review of Tennyson's 1859 Idylls of the King in the London Review observed that the volume contained many passages 'which the pencil of Hunt or of Millais might nobly render to the eye' but that there was 'little need' for such illustration because 'the book itself is an illuminated poetic missal; it makes pictures to the imagination which the graphic art can only faintly realize.'1 What interests me here is not the reviewer's acumen in recognizing Tennyson's brilliant use of imagery but rather the comparison of that imagery to the decoration found in medieval manuscripts.

The Victorian interest in illumination was spurred on by John Ruskin, one of the leading figures in the contemporary art world. He wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1855, '[a]mong various works I have in hand at present, one is the endeavour to revive the art of illumination.' Part of this endeavour, as Ruskin said in another letter (to Lady Trevelyan), involved teaching illumination to sign painters and 'the younger ladies' and having 'prayer books all written again.'2 Ruskin had an idealized view of the labor of the illuminator and of the reverence an illuminated book would receive. An account of a lecture Ruskin gave on illumination records that '[h]e could not imagine a happier life than that which would be led by any person of quiet and studious habits with something like the disposition of the old monks who were the illuminators in past times, while following this occupation.' The illuminator could also take great pride in the book because it would 'be placed in a library as a beloved thing, to be handed down from father to son, and from generation to generation,' rather than being 'printed in the ordinary way, tossed about and scattered all over the world with all the errors committed in it by printers' devils, and thrown aside as soon as read.'3 Thus, because of the greater beauty and artistic merit of the books produced and because of the satisfaction illumination gave to the worker, it was an occupation that Ruskin promoted.

Another important figure in the nineteenth-century art world, William Morris, became interested in illumination when he first became acquainted with the medieval illuminated manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. He began illuminating his own manuscripts in 1856 and after moving on to other interests returned to illumination in 1869.4 In his own library, Morris had 'approximately one hundred medieval manuscripts' as well as 'fifteenthcentury German and French illustrated books, which he drew upon repeatedly for examples of that unity of text and illustration which was central to his definition of the ideal book.'5 The illuminated manuscripts that Morris created himself ranged from short poems or tales to works like the Rubaiyat, Icelandic sagas, the Odes of Horace, and a part of Virgil's Aeneid, amounting to 'more than 1500 pages of careful writing in several styles of script and a great deal of ornament.'6 But they were usually quite different from the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages and from the nineteenth-century imitations of those texts.7 It is true that, as Joseph Dunlap has observed, '[e]ven today the richness of [Morris'] manuscript decoration and the extent of his creativity in this field or art are neither known nor appreciated...since each manuscript, whether complete or not, is unique, and reproductions of pages have been few and usually not in color.'8 Nevertheless, the productions of the Kelmscott Press are quite well known; and these were greatly influenced by Morris' work on illumination.

Concurrent with the interest of Ruskin and Morris in the illumination of the Middle Ages was a growing scholarly attention to this aspect of medieval culture. …

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