John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893) was a bona fide polymath. An archaeologist, entomologist, editor, artist, and art historian, he was a regular contributor to the Gardner’s Chronicle, a founder of the Entomological Society of London, and the author of books about everything from sessile-eyed crustaceans to the early sculptured stones of Wales.
Westwood’s fascination with Anglo-Saxon and Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts — created in Britain and Ireland between 500 and about 1066 CE — derived in part from a distinctly Victorian national pride. He is insistent in his introduction to Fac-similes of the Miniatures & Ornaments of Anglo-Saxon & Irish Manuscripts (1868) that by publishing these chromolithographic plates, he is giving readers access to “the first chapter of a History of the Fine Arts in this kingdom, extending from the Roman occupation of Great Britain to the Norman conquest.”
But Westwood also brought to these bright, dark age illustrations an entomologist’s intensity of attention. The lithographs, made by W. R. Tymms based on Westwood’s paintings, are intended to highlight a defining characteristic of these anonymous masterpieces:
the excessive elaboration of ornamental details, often exceedingly minute, but nevertheless frequently so arranged as to afford fine broad effects in a manner which might scarcely be supposed possible, and which often, indeed, seem to be the result of accident rather than of design.
It is precisely this “peculiarity”, Westwood adds, “which renders the study of the Manuscripts and other relics of the early Anglo-Saxon and Irish schools so interesting to the Art-student.” (Whether art students would be able to spare the price of £21 — around £1300 in today's money — is doubtful, though Westwood himself was at least hoping to make an affordable volume — “a humble rival of the grand but enormously expensive work of Count Bastard on the Miniatures and Ornaments of early French MSS.”)
The lithographs themselves reproduce details, and sometimes whole pages, from manuscripts held at museums, libraries, and churches all around the British Isles. These reproductions, in the words of Incunabula on Twitter, “did much to fix the visual appearance of manuscripts like the Book of Kells in the Victorian imagination”.
While the style of the Book of Kells has by now grown relatively familiar, the lithographs of the many lesser-known manuscripts reveal the astonishing variety of styles available to these artists, over a thousand years ago. Westwood’s reproductions show us not only the artists’ ornate Celtic knots and squiggles but also their bold use of color and inventive integration of images and letters. Consider the almost American Southwestern color scheme of the seventh-century Royal Manuscript VI’s illustration of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the beautiful interplay of text, ornamentation, and human figures in the ninth-century St. Gall Manuscript, or the lithe trees on either side of the crucified Jesus in the eleventh-century Arundel Psalter. It’s easy to understand how these prints could capture — and continue to capture — people’s imaginations.
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Sep 4, 2019