This season, the British Library is all about the manuscripts. The gorgeous artworks in ‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ – its big winter exhibition charting 800 years’ worth of illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts collected by English kings and queens –bring a feast of glimmering gilt, holy lapis lazuli and rich royal crimson into a grey January.
From Winchester’s New Minster charter, which dates back to 966 and shows King Edgar worshipped alongside Christ by adoring angels, to Henry VIII’s personal psalter, complete with illustrations of the hirsute king posing as David, these manuscripts admirably achieve their aim – which is to dazzle us with the magnificence of the monarchy whilst furthering its religious, political and social ends. The exhibition is the result of three years’ research undertaken by the Library in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art on 2,000 ancient handwritten books, which give deep insight into the motivations, aspirations and imaginations of our ancestors. Its stated aim is to “to make them as well known as landmark medieval buildings linked to the monarchy, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle”.
Seriously stirring stuff.
But when you’ve finished marveling at these parchment peacocks, don’t hit the Euston Road straight away. Our In Residence series is all about uncovering some of the best artistic gems nestling in the permanent collections of London’s museums and galleries – gems that are totally free to visit and prone to be overlooked in the age of the expensive blockbuster show.
So before you head back out into the rain, take a detour to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery on the Library’s upper ground floor and seek out an altogether less flashy manuscript. This book more closely resembles something you might have made for a school project: pages stained with tea, edges crisped on the hob, ye olde calligraphy carefully pressed on in sepia Letraset. But to me it is more moving and magnificent than the finest bestiary.