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The Illuminated Alphabet

The Illuminated Alphabet by Timothy NoadThe Illuminated Alphabet; Calligraphy by Timothy Noad, Text by Patricia Seligman, Running Press, 1994, 159 pages, $24.95.

Many of us who practice the craft of calligraphy felt the first pangs of love upon seeing a lovely illuminated page from the far distant past, perhaps in an art book, or if very lucky, the real thing in a museum. To gaze upon such beautiful decoration of color and gold surrounding a text of pen made letters made clear the wonderful power of calligraphy as practiced in its heyday and showed us the art in our craft.

For those of you who have made the leap from pages of practice alphabets to something more elaborate and who honor the historical models, The Illuminated Alphabet will be an indispensable addition to your library. In fact it is a good introduction for anyone attempting this for the first time. The book itself is candy for the eye, beautifully printed with sumptuous amounts of gold ink and color on every page. Unhampered by long blocks of text, it is truly a picture book of the first order, and could grace any coffee table (though its size is an easily manageable nine inches square). Upon further inspection, though, the book proves itself to be also very instructive. Open to practically any page and you will see information you can use.

The artist whose work illustrates the book, Timothy Noad, is traditionally trained in Calligraphy, Heraldry and Illumination in England and is a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators. He counts the Queen of England among his clients, and so is eminently qualified in his subject. The lettering exemplars in the book are flawless, unlike those contained in some other books about illumination.

Mr. Noad is obviously a very skilled practitioner of his art.The book begins appropriately enough with a brief history of illuminated manuscripts, which is well illustrated and covers the high points. Following this is a fifteen page summary of tool and materials. Photographs are used liberally throughout the book, which makes things very clear for the beginner and even clarifies some things for the more experienced scribe. If you canÕt watch a live instructor demonstrate the technique, a good set of color photographs is the next best thing, and this book has them. For all the brevity of the information, everything is covered sufficiently well, from paper and vellum, to pens, brushes and pencils, the use of gouache, egg tempera, and dry pigments (though no mention is made of glair, another binder made from the whites of eggs, sometimes preferred by illuminators), and last but not least, gold in its many forms and various sizes to lay under it. laying goldThe most surprising thing in this section was the recommendation of white glue as a size to lay gold on, an easy material for beginners to handle. For the more traditional illuminator, recipes for gum ammoniac and gesso are given. Methods of laying gold leaf are demonstrated thoroughly here and throughout the book, offering the most novice illuminator easy reference for this most daunting task. Transfer (on paper backing) and loose leaf golds are both explained, as well as shell gold and gouache gold. Sketching, tracing, enlarging and the all-important order of work finishes up this section.

white vine border drawingThe substance of the book is the projects, in which the artist has recreated twelve decorated initial letters, all but the last copied faithfully from historical manuscripts. There is much to be learned from the faithful reproduction and study of historical models, and here it is made very easy to do so. There are two Celtic examples, three Romanesque, three Gothic, two Renaissance, and two modern. Each historical period includes two alphabets (one majuscule and one minuscule), a reproduction of the original manuscript page, a comprehensive list of materials (including the colors of gouache you will need for each initial), step by step instructions for copying the initial, and a picture of the finished letter. Following each initial are sketchbook pages with layout suggestions for the initial and other ideas drawn from similar manuscripts of the period. Many of the pages include an important Tip, set off in the side margin. More historical references are sprinkled throughout, and each period ends with a two-page gallery spread, offering further examples from the period along with some contemporary examples done in historical styles.

The layout of the book is in small pieces, encouraging easy consumption of history and technique in a format that is appealingly modern. Screens of initials and borders are used throughout the sketchbook pages, creating a lush and visually rich impression. Those interested in more in-depth instruction will refer to other books offering more detailed treatments of diapered backgrounds and painterly borders, or indeed to the original models themselves, in many of the facsimile books available and recommended by Mr. Noad himself as worthy of advanced study. But for a succinct and loving treatment of illumination, The Illuminated Alphabet more than lives up to its subtitle, An Inspirational Introduction to Creating Decorative Calligraphy. As beautiful as this book is, it would make a fine gift book. You might want to leave this review lying around in an obvious place, as we hurtle into the holiday season.

First published in 1997, in the newsletter of John Neal, Bookseller
Book is currently out of print but can be found through the used-book market