Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Illuminations on BBC4: Intelligent Telly!

Dr Ramirez: look, no gloves!
Last night I belatedly started watching the BBC mini-series 'Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings' and about half-way through the first episode I witnessed something extraordinary: two women standing in front of a cathedral, discussing the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar as if this was the most natural thing in the world. There was no rousing music. There were no special effects. Nobody was making outrageous claims about anything, or trying to shock - although we did hear a Chaucerian tale of nuns being pursued by the lusty monarch. It was like listening to the radio - only with pictures!

I'm sure I've seen art historian Dr Janina Ramirez on TV before - yes, I remember now. It was a few months ago, and she was talking about Icelandic sagas with an engaging earnestness that she also brings to the subject of illuminated manuscripts and the world in which they were created. Unashamedly academic and proud of her ability to recite poems with an authentic (we assume) Anglo-Saxon accent, she seemed genuinely thrilled to be let loose among the British Library's collection of Royal Manuscripts shortly before they went on show to the public last November.

The Alphonso Psalter (click name for details), British Library
This I can completely understand. For anyone who has a passion for any subject, there's nothing like handling a precious artefact, whether it's a book, a painting or a pair of Elvis's sneakers. And no gloves! When I saw her flicking through the first book with her ungloved fingers I thought Security would show up at any moment and carry her away, but then we were told that this is BL policy: bare fingertips are far more sensitive, apparently, and less likely to damage thousand year-old vellum.

The first episode was admirably simple. We saw books in the library. We saw the cathedrals, formerly monasteries, where they were made. We saw a few enthusiasts, also some cows (vellum on the hoof). The iPad, if that's what it was - other tablets are available - was put to good use, and on occasion text and pictures rose off the page and floated about in a pleasingly modern way. There was an assumption throughout that the viewer had a basic grasp of British history after the Fall of Rome - which may have been slightly over-generous - but in the main 'Illuminations' was as good as a Radio 4 documentary (something you can't say about many TV shows).

King Edgar, New Winchester Charter (click name for details) BL
But perhaps I'm biased. A long time ago now I studied illuminated manuscripts and once put on a slide show with images and pages from psalters and similar books. I've since seen different books at odd times and I love them. I love the ancient vellum and the glorious handwriting, and the personal quirks that Ramirez picked up on so well - the annotations and corrections and scribbles. Most of all, though, I love the bright, eccentric, personal illustration of these books, which you can see echoed in the work of more recent artists - from William Blake to Quentin Blake.

Some of the decoration I've seen so far has been breathtaking, preserved (as the presenter noted) for centuries by having been hidden away within the covers of a book. I'm looking forward to watching more, and visiting the exhibition of Royal Manuscripts at the British Library (ends March 12, I think).


  1. A wonderful series indeed and great to see Stuart and James Brockman keeping the bookbinders skills alive.

  2. Superb programme...no hype...no 'personalities'...it did what it said it would do and did it well.

  3. the exhibition at the british library is fabulous but the exhibits are small ... of course ! ... so take your spectacles and allow yourself a couple of hours to dodge around the other enthusiasts and to absorb it all

  4. thanks for your comments - maybe they should have combined the Royal Manuscripts exhibition with the Hockney show, so you could look at a book or two, then admire a gigantic painting by way of a change!