Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Illuminated Ornaments by Henry Shaw

Illustration: Henry Shaw. Medieval decoration plate from Illuminated Ornaments, 1833.

In 1833 the book Illuminated Ornaments Selected From Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Sixth to the Seventeenth Centuries, to give it its full title was published. The driving force behind the book and the main artist involved was the English architectural artist and antiquarian Henry Shaw, while the text was written and supplied by Frederic Madden who was assistant keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum. Indeed, most of the subjects for the book were either derived from the British Museum collection, or that of other collections held in Britain.

Although this was not Shaw's first published book, he had produced his first solo publication in 1823 with A Series of Details of Gothic Architecture, and it was by no means the only one of its kind, or indeed the only one dealing with the subject of the medieval period as a source of decoration and pattern work, it was an influence on forms of decoration and ornament in England during the early nineteenth century, and indeed later. In some respects Shaw's book became at least one of the instrumental tools not only for the Victorian Gothic Revival, but also as a form of launch pad for the decorative styling of designers such as William Morris.

Illustration: Henry Shaw. Medieval decoration plate from Illuminated Ornaments, 1833.

By analysing medieval ornament and decoration, Shaw enabled the subject to be examined for both its intrinsic vocabulary along with its historical place in the theme of English decorative arts. This places the book in an interesting position whereby this level of production and explanation had usually been reserved for the antiquities of the Ancient World, particularly that of the Classical world of Greece and Rome. To place a renewed emphasis on, if not the historical decorative and ornamental antiquities of England, then at least that of Northern Europe, says much about the cultural shift that was beginning to take place between the world of the Classical dependency of the eighteenth century and that of a new found confidence in the historical roots of English decoration in the nineteenth.

That much of this confidence was to do with both the contemporary economics of Britain along with its dominant navy, does not belittle the English identity with medieval antiquity. This identity, which in some respects was made to reflect the individuality and uniqueness of England within Europe, helped to foster the Victorian Gothic phenomenon. This was all part of the search for a truly English decorative style that was hoped would both challenge the French and Classical domination of European decorative art, or at least give England an identity within the decorative arts. Eventually this yearning for self-identity would be incorporated into the Arts & Crafts movement with its dependency on the domestic attributes of England. That William Morris was heavily influenced by medievalism, at least in his early career, places Shaw's book in an important position within English decorative art history.

Illustration: Henry Shaw. Medieval decoration plate from Illuminated Ornaments, 1833.

It would be rash to say that without Shaw's book there would have been no Arts & Crafts movement and therefore no Morris. Both were independent of the book, Morris may not have even seen the publication, though this seems unlikely due to its continued popularity throughout the mid Victorian period. That Morris himself was a keen user of the collections of the British Museum and others, may mean that he was privy to the illustrations shown Shaw, at first hand. What can be said is that Shaw and others raised the profile of medieval decoration and ornament, giving it a status amongst artists and designers that allowed them to begin to unravel the decorative formats in order to reuse them for their own contemporary styling.

The 1833 book Illuminated Ornaments is set out with a short introductory chapter which leads to the main segment of the book which contains coloured plates with explanatory text next to them. The book is full of page borders, illuminated full pages and illustrations and decorative alphabets. Not all of the illustrations are English or even Northern European in origin, for example a number are from Italy. However, what is important in its over three hundred pages is the fact that the emphasis is clearly laid with that of the medieval or gothically inspired and definitely not with that of the Classical. All the illustrations deal with the lost skills of the medieval illuminator and deal largely with pattern, decoration and colour.

Illustration: Henry Shaw. Medieval decoration plate from Illuminated Ornaments, 1833.

In many respects the medieval world that Shaw published in his 1833 publication, was not necessarily perceived as being a subject fit only for scholars and antiquarians, even though this might well have described Shaw himself. The illustrations instead showed a vitality of colour, movement and balanced harmony in a period that saw some of Europe's greatest decorative achievements. That it was fitting to both highlight those achievements and also to promote the contemporary use of at least aspects of the styling, proved unavoidably attractive particularly to those who felt that Classical antiquity was somewhat narrow and confined by comparison. Books such as Shaw's helped to open up the possibilities as regards the decorative arts in England, which was also to prove to be one of its most productive and creative periods.

Shaw went on to publish amongst others, the titles Specimens of Ancient Furniture Drawn from Existing Authorities in 1834, Specimens of the Details of Elizabethan Architecture 1835, Examples of Ornamental Metalwork 1836, The Encyclopaedia of Ornament 1842, Alphabets, Numerals and Devices of the Middle Ages 1845, and A Handbook of the Art of Illumination as Practised in the Middle Ages in 1866.

Illustration: Henry Shaw. Medieval decoration plate from Illuminated Ornaments, 1833.

Reference links: 
Illuminated ornaments: Selected from manuscripts and early printed books, from the sixth to the seventeenth century
Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages (Volume 1)
The hand book of mediaeval alphabets and devices
A Handbook of the Art of Illumination as Practised During the Middle Ages.
The encyclop√ɦdia of ornament
A Guide to the Principal Manuscripts, Early Printed Books, Autograph Letters, Etc., Contained in the Auckland Free Public Library
The art of illumination, as practised during the Middle ages: With a description of the metals, pigments, and processes employed by the artists at different periods
Details of Elizabethan architecture
Border Designs: A Treasury of Hundreds of Decorative Designs in Color and Black and White

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