Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

01 October 2022

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’: A golden binding by Pierre Legrain

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’ So said the fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) to the interior decorator and designer Pierre Legrain (1889-1929) when he encouraged him to apply his talents to designing modern bindings for Doucet’s modern books. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between a collector and a designer which would produce some of the most striking binding designs of the early 20th century. Following his work for Doucet, Legrain became known as a designer of bookbindings in the early 1920s and worked for a number of different clients. He was widely recognised as the leading designer of French bindings of the early 20th century and produced some of his best and most famous work towards the end of his life.

The cover of a book, made of yellow leather decorated with an art deco design of gold semi-circles and blue and white circles
Gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain on a copy of Colette La vagabonde (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

The final case in the British Library’s Gold exhibition contains a number of bookbindings which are all decorated with gold using various techniques. Among them is the most recent object in the exhibition. It is a binding designed by Pierre Legrain in Paris on an edition of La vagabonde by Colette, printed in 1927. The binding was designed by Legrain at the height of his career in the late 1920s and is a great example of the very effective and skilful use of gold tooling. The book is bound in citron goatskin, Legrain’s favourite covering material, and is decorated with blue goatskin onlays and tooled in gold and silver to an all-over art deco design. It is signed by Legrain on the doublure inside the upper cover and belonged to the book collector Major J. R. (John Roland) Abbey (1894-1969) before it was acquired by the British Library in the 1970s.

Pierre Legrain was a designer rather than a bookbinder, and his designs were transferred to bindings by skilled craftsmen, always to the highest standards, first in their studios, and later, once he had become successful and well-known, in his own studio. His style was revolutionary and a departure from all French bookbinding designs produced in previous centuries. His designs were not centred on each cover as had been the case previously, but he instead used both covers and the spine of a book as a blank canvas for which to create a design going all the way across, looking to contemporary art and design for inspiration. Legrain often made use of a ruler and a divider, and his early designs were often geometrical before he moved to more asymmetrical and complicated designs later on in his career.

Spine of the book, with a yellow leather cover tooled with a design of gold lines and blue and white circles, and with a gold-tooled title 'COLETTE LA VAGABOND'
Spine of the gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

Legrain was of the opinion that a binding should prepare the reader for the book it encloses. The designs he produced and the way he looked at a binding as a work of art set the tone for how French – and other European – bookbinding design was to develop in the first half of the 20th century.

You can visit Gold in the British Library until 2 October 2022. If you would like a taster of the exhibition or are unable to visit in person, you can watch the virtual exhibition opening on the British Library Player, or purchase the accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World from the British Library shop. 

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

27 September 2022

Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opens in Newcastle

The British Library has loaned the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, for an exhibition that runs until 3 December 2022.

The Lindisfarne Gospels open on a book cradle
The Lindisfarne Gospels on display in the Laing Art Gallery

The manuscript is displayed to show the spectacular decoration at the beginning of the Gospel of John. On the left-hand side is one of the book’s five densely painted carpet pages, all based on the shape of a cross. On this page, the decoration is centred on an equal-armed cross, filled with yellow interlace. The grid of geometric panels on the page is surrounded by a dense network of interlaced birds painted in pink, red, blue and yellow, set against a black ground. The bright green background of the four rectangular panels contrasts with the palette of the rest of the page.

A page filled with intricate animal and interlace decoration around the design of a cross
The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

On the facing page are the opening words of the Gospel of John in Latin, ‘In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum…’ (‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…’). The first three letters of the text form an intricately elaborated ‘INP’ monogram which dominates the page. Some of the letters on this page end in a spiral, interlace, or the head of a bird, but the letter ‘C’ in principio ends in the head of a man with long blond hair. Other than the portraits of the four evangelists, this is the only human depicted in the manuscript.

A page of decorated text, beginning with large ornate letters 'INP'
The beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 211r

You can read more about the Lindisfarne Gospels and see full digitised coverage of the whole manuscript on our website.

The British Library has also loaned three other manuscripts to the exhibition, including the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000), which the Library acquired in 2012 with the support of many donors including the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. It is displayed in Newcastle alongside the pectoral cross from the Staffordshire Hoard which was discovered in 2009 and is on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Leather book cover with a design of interlace and vines
The upper cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel: Add MS 89000

Also on loan from the British Library to the exhibition in Newcastle are the Tiberius Bede, containing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) and an Irish pocket gospel-book (Add MS 40618) which is displayed alongside the Mac Durnan Gospels on loan from Lambeth Palace Library.

Evangelist portrait of St Luke as a standing figure holding a book, with a border of interlaced animals
Portrait of St Luke in the Irish pocket gospel-book: Add MS 40618, f. 21v

The loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery marks the sixth loan of the manuscript and the fifth time that it has been on exhibition in the North East of England. It has been displayed twice before in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, in 1996 in the exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Lost Kingdom of Northumbria’, and again in 2000 to mark the millennium. It was also displayed in Durham Cathedral in 1987 as part of the celebrations for the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert, and in Durham University’s Palace Green Library in 2013.

The British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, Eleanor Jackson, has written a new book, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022), to coincide with the loan of the Gospels to Newcastle. The book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop, along with a new pack of 16 Lindisfarne Gospels postcards.

A bookshop display of books about the Lindisfarne Gospels
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

The Laing Art Gallery is also showing a short film which Turner-prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has produced in response to the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Newcastle. The film, entitled ‘The Deliverers’, is free to view at the Gallery this autumn.

Downstairs, in the Gallery’s Marble Hall, is the display, These Are Our Treasures. This free exhibition, featuring treasured objects belonging to people in the North East of England, is the result of a project led by artist Ruth Ewan. Each treasured object is displayed alongside an account of its story, as told by its owner.

An exhibition case containing objects with visitors looking at them
Part of the ‘These Are Our Treasures’ display at the Laing Art Gallery

The Gallery is holding a series of talks during the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, and other organisations across the North East are running a programme of events. This programme includes Illuminated Sheep in Northumberland, and an exhibition, Sharing Stories, at Newcastle City Library which focuses on modern children’s stories, and includes loans from the British Library and Seven Stories in Newcastle.

The Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle is open daily from 10.00am to 7.30pm until 3 December 2022, and tickets are available to book online.

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.

Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.