you're reading...
2007-03, 353, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Reviews- Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West.

The Felton Illuminated Manuscripts in the National Gallery of Victoria.

By Margaret M Manion.(Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria and Macmillan, 2006) 440pp.ISBN 1-876832-46-0. $A99.00

The Cambridge Illuminations: Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West.

Ed. by Paul Binski and Stella Panayotova. (London. Harvey Miller Publishers, 2006). 416pp.ISBN 1-872504-63-X. £24.95 (paperback)


These two excellent catalogues from opposite ends of the world reflect the beauty and historical relevance of illuminated manuscripts.

Margaret Manion is former Herald Professor of Fine Art at the University of Melbourne and is Honorary Curator of Medieval and Early Renaissance Collections at the National Gallery of Victoria. Gerald Vaughan, the Director of the NGV, and Andrew Grimwade, the Chairman of the Felton Bequest Committee, note in their Foreword to The Felton Illuminated Manuscripts in the National Gallery of Victoria that the publication not only “celebrates” the Gallery’s collection of illuminated manuscripts, but also “eloquently comments on the development of the handwritten and ornamented book from the twelfth century to the advent of printing in the late fifteenth”.

Alfred Felton (1831-1904) was born in England and emigrated to Mebourne at the age of 22. At his death, he left a substantial bequest to the NGV for acquisitions of works of art which would “raise and improve public taste”. Felton’s bequest apparently meant that the NGV’s acquisition funds suddenly exceeded the combined funds of the National and Tate Galleries in London.

More than 15,000 artworks were ultimately purchased for the NGV from the Felton bequest, although the number of manuscripts were relatively few. Much of this acquisition was due to the energetic work of the Felton advisors in London, notably Frank Rinder from 1918-28 and Sir Sydney Cockerell who was appointed Felton advisor in 1936. Reaction in Melbourne was initially mixed, with Manion quoting one writer’s view that the Gallery was assembling “a collection of curiosities”.

The small group of manuscripts described by Manion are artistically rich and demonstrate “in a variety of ways the vibrant and enduring relationship between the visual and literary dimensions of the arts”. They include the Byzantine ‘Gospel Book of Theophanes’ (c1125-1150) made in Constantinople; Livy’s ‘History of Rome’ (Paris c.1399), and the ‘Wharncliffe Hours’, (circa 1475-80), probably also from Paris. Manion discusses the manuscripts in a context which not only incorporates recent research but also caters for the interests of a more general readership.

Manion, in more than 400 pages of full-colour images and commentary, provides a superb overview of the richness of the NGV manuscripts. The book is almost a work of art in its own right with publication subsidised from the Felton bequest. The NGV has not acquired any illuminated manuscripts since 1966 for a variety of reasons, but the value and the importance of the NGV collection has remained undiminished and indeed has grown in research attraction. This sumptuous reference book will become in itself a focal point to publicise the collection around the world.

The Cambridge Illuminations, subtitled Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West, derives from a major exhibition held at Cambridge from July to December 2005. It comprised over 200 illuminated manuscripts, many on public view for the first time, dating from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries and drawn from the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University Library and a number of the Cambridge colleges.

Peter Fox and Duncan Robinson state, in the Foreword to this sumptuous exhibition catalogue, that Cambridge “contains the greatest concentration of illuminated manuscripts anywhere in the world, the Vatican excepted”. An overarching introduction by Paul Binski, emphasises that certain of the manuscripts are “landmarks in themselves of the religious, literary and cultural life of England and Western Europe”.

Christopher de Hamel writes on ‘Collectors and Collecting’ of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge, culminating in the recent acquisition by the Fitzwilliam Museum of ‘The Macclesfield Psalter’, “the most important medieval illuminated manuscript found in Britain in living memory”, written and illuminated in East Anglia about 1330. Stella Panayotova and Teresa Webber describe ‘Making an Illuminated Manuscript’ in the second introductory essay.

The detailed illustrated catalogue entries which follow are organised into eight sections, each with a covering essay, such as ‘The Coming of Christianity’ by Rosamund McKitterick, ‘The Medieval Encyclopedia’ by Peter Jones and ‘The Humanistic Manuscript’ by Jonathan Alexander. The whole is supplemented by a glossary, bibliography and detailed index.

The catalogue of 184 items includes such treasures as the sixth-century ‘Gospels of StAugustine’; ‘The Trinity Apocalypse’c.1255-1260; ‘The Bury Bible’ c.1130-1135; the Charter of Edward I confirming privileges of Cambridge University issued 6 February 1292; Geoffrey Chaucer ‘Troilus and Creseyde’ c.1415-1425, as well as numerous books of hours, bestiaries, Bibles, encyclopaedias, scientific and mathematical manuscripts.

There is also an impressive web exhibition of 65 items at


which “presents an opportunity to browse through the thematic sections of the exhibition, to view the work of outstanding medieval and Renaissance artists, and to admire the commissions of the most discriminating patrons of learning and art”.

Colin Steele



Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: