Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 107
August 1996


I have allowed myself to get behind in my reading for this column. Four issues of The Scribe, the very interesting Journal of the SSI (Society of Scribes and Illuminators, in England), and the one I feel appeals most to calligraphers, were waiting to be read and reported on.

Sally Yeague, a Fellow of the SSI, has prepared two video tapes on illumination. The first one, Gilding for Calligraphers, was reviewed in the Summer 1994 , No. 61, issue; and the second tape, Modern Gilding for Calligraphers, in the Summer 1995, No. 64, issue. In them Derek Benney gives an outline of the contents of both tapes. He is very enthusiastic about both of them.

Illumination has, from the beginning of my studies in calligraphy, been my prime interest. After one workshop in England & two three-week workshops in New York with Donald Jackson, Louis Strick asked me, in 1974, to teach the illumination classes in his newly-formed school, The Calligraphy Workshop.

Gilding is the skill that sets illumination apart from other manuscript decoration, and seems to be the most elusive.

In our first workshop with Donald, we all had high hopes of laying on gold and making it stick, ending up with a beautiful highly burnished letter or design. We each picked an illuminated page to copy, then selected the vellum skin to use and prepared it for writing with careful sanding. We cut turkey quills to write with and lay gesso, slaked the plaster and mixed the gesso recipe, which would be largely responsible for the burnished gold. We had to learn how to handle gold, how to place it on a cushion and cut it carefully with a knife, how to pick it up and place it on the gesso, and how to prepare for use the haemitite burnishers made for us by Donald.

Gilding did not start on the first day, not sooner, in fact, than the second week. With all the many steps to go through, no facsimile pages were finished in the workshop. It took at least a year before mine was finished, and the gold began to flake off the gesso after a few years. I had to scrape off the gesso and lay it back on now that I had mastered the knack. The knack might have come sooner if we had had video tapes to help us along.

The fine reviews of these two tapes have convinced me that together with The Calligrapher's Handbook, edited by Heather Child, any calligrapher with an earnest desire to become involved in illumination could get a good start into this fascinating subject. I would suggest, to take the plunge, beginning with Tape #1, Gilding for Calligraphers and follow this with purchase of The Calligrapher's Handbook, because there are always small questions which come up in learning this unique skill. The second tape sounds intriguing from the review and if I were just beginning the subject, I would probably want them both.

Tape #1's contents include preparation of vellum; the making of a vellum panel; the stages in making and transferring an accurate copy of a medieval manuscript; the making of glair; the preparation of slaked plaster; the mixing of the ingredients of gesso; the application of the gesso; the laying of the gold; the method of painting. These topics are not repeated in Tape #2. Tapes can be ordered from: Vidian, 9, Parsons Mead, East Molesey, Surrey kt8 9dt, England. Price £25 + £3 p&h, £5 outside EEU.

An interesting article in The Scribe, Spring 1995, No. 63, Working with Pigments by Tony Curtis, concerns grinding your own pigments - getting dry pigments and grinding them further, then adding your own binding media. Although we have fine gouache colors in tubes, I am sure there would be some pleasant surprises in grinding and mixing your own. He includes a Bibliography for further reading.

The Scribe is published three times a year, Spring, Summer and Winter, and is circulated to all members. Membership is $50 per year. Write to Clare Turvey, Membership Secretary, The Society of Scribes & Illuminators, 6 Queen Square, London wc1m 3ar. E-mail:

The SSI is now part of the Internet, through the graphics pages of the World Wide Web. Their address is Their site will commence with a Home Page and it will then be possible to view other pages as the site develops.

Frances Manola