Great Book of Ireland

Calligraphy news from Denis Brown, January 18 ,2013.

The Great Book of Ireland sold for $1 million

My first major commission upon graduating, The Great Book of Ireland, has been acquired by University College Cork for one million dollars. Made between 1989 and 1991, the hefty manuscript features contributions by Irish artists and poets including several Nobel laureates. My early calligraphy forms the integrating design element on each page. Read the Wikipedia article for the general background of the project, conceived by Theo Dorgan and Gene Lambert. Here I'll share some images followed by personal insights and memories.

The Great Book of Ireland

An example of a spread with poems handwritten by their author, Anthony Cronin in a dark brown ink chosen to reflect the brown tones of the natural grain of this beautiful calfskin vellum. Painter Anne Madden later added leaf images, which appear to be imprints from actual leaves. She also shaded areas of the skin with pencil. My calligraphy was generally the final element added to each page, after consultation with Trevor Scott, the projects design consultant. Here, I felt that an integrated composition had yet to be built. The calligraphy is the central structural element supporting all others, so it is ironic that it was added last, but this became my normal way of working. I also added the gold leaf trapezoid forms to develop a crescendo at the central top potion of the spread. I was not asked to meet nor consult with either poet nor painter in this case, nor in most cases.
Even on a relatively straightforward page like this, the calligraphy serves to integrate the design of the pages. Recalling my very first meeting with directors Gene Lambert and Eamonn Martin, (f
or which I was flown back to Dublin in 1989 from London where I was in my final year of calligraphy studies at the Roehampton Institute), the initial idea was that calligraphy was required since this was to be a "modern Book of Kells", but at that stage they hadn't figured out what it would actually do. The idea proposed was to have a painter work on one page of a double page spread and a poet write by his own hand on the facing page, and calligraphy would merely transcribe poetry already written on the page. I realized this would be superfluous decoration if the poets handwritings were at all legible. I pushed for better integration of all elements and, thankfully, I was ultimately allowed an important design role far beyond scribal duties.


The Great Book of Ireland

This spread features at left a poem handwritten by Czech poet Miroslav Holub on a visit to Galway. His hand is clear and legible but lacks a sense of flow. (Poets had to write with pens with a metal nib, dipping into liquid acrylic ink. This must have been unfamiliar and uncomfortable.) The artist Pat Murphy was next given the pages. I'm afraid I know nothing about him other than his work here, which is the brown writing on the right hand page and the outlining rectangular frame. I don't know why he chose to transcribe the poem again in an unskilled scrawl, but his carefree writing does form a counterpoint to the poet's stiff hand. Before my own layered scrawls in the centre, I felt that the void there was uncomfortably conspicuous. Its framing edges of the margins of both text blocks made an awkward shape, so I filled it. I hoped my marks could be almost viscously expressive yet retain some calligraphic discipline. I felt a huge amount of pressure at times on this project and had some major disagreements with the directors. (Vestiges of teenage rebellion remained in me back then and I lacked refined communication skills at that age). Sometimes in writing like this I was releasing rage on the page, even spitting on the calfskin as I wrote. Here my words appear to be simply transcribing the poem: "Taking sips from man, like the moon from dew drops". But if anyone deciphers some of the words I wrote in rage on other 'expressive' pages, I might get sued.

Below I present a page I photographed before I added calligraphy, and further below, the completed page. Calfskin vellum can be very translucent and also buckles more than paper when painted with wet media. That's why medieval book illuminations generally avoided large washes of colour and utilized small brush strokes of less dilute paint. Contemporary artists generally have no experience of working on skin, so there were some disasters. Yet to discard one flawed page would mean discarding a full folio with three other pages which might have already been completed to satisfaction by respected artists. That was not an option. A director of the project was shocked to receive folios returned by an artist badly buckled and wrinkled, the consequence of a wet colour wash on the opposite side of the lower part of the right hand page below. It was in purple and showed through as a dark stain. Being a painter himself, his instinct was to work over it hoping to save the page. (He didn't know that I could flatten the vellum by relaxing it with moisture and allowing it to dry under tension, stretching out all wrinkles). A highly regarded painter; his work here didn't show it. His drawing of some islands and a red sea monster were more garish than this dark photo reveals. Design consultant Trevor Scott told me his own reaction to being shown this page along with a batch of new arrivals, by the director who painted it, but not knowing it was his work. Viewing newly painted pages was normally a stimulating treat, but upon turning the pile to reveal this page as shown below, Trevor confided to me that he unfortunately exclaimed, "Who the hell did THAT?" After that embarrassment, the artist/director abandoned his remedial attempts and disassociated his name from the page. It was left to me to "fix it".


Before the calligraphy was added

Pages before (above) and after (below) my work completed them. Poems by Hugh Maxton and Michael O'Loughlin. Anonymous artist, for reasons discussed below.

The completed page

The design of the page began before the disaster, before I was much involved. The two poets were each directed to write differently, one within a pencil grid I ruled on all pages, the other around it in the margin of the facing page. The idea was to set up a positive/negative counter change that an artist might later develop. But after the pages were damaged by buckling, and remedial attempts in over painting had failed, it was left to me to complete. I flattened the page and, since the artist had disassociated himself from his remedial attempt, I softened his drawings by over painting with diluted white gesso. I think I over painted all of the calfskin vellum pages in this way, to reduce show through from imagery on the opposite sides as well as to curb a less than ideal vellum surface. Even now, 22 years later, looking at the low resolution unfinished image I can see that this was the "flesh" side of the calfskin for of both pages. (Vellum, being animal skin, has a hair side and a flesh side, and these days the hair side is generally preferable to work upon. But in a book, both are necessarily used). I can see machine lines where the vellum manufacturers sanding machine overdid the process leaving the surface "woolly" and hard to repair. These lines are visible in the unfinished image above as vertical stripes in the space beneath the handwritten first verse on the right hand page. (Vellum manufacturer Joe Katz of Celbridge Co. Kildare is a master of his craft but at that time was less familiar with requirements for manuscript vellum. His main work is supplying skins for orchestral tympani heads, and he supplies orchestras worldwide. Indeed, on one occasion when I was teaching in Sydney Australia, a student brought in discarded old skins she'd amazingly acquired from a tympanist at the Sydney Opera House after initiating a chat during an interval. I recognized the imprint of Joe Katz... these were certifiably "Katz-skins." These days, and not as then under pressure to suddenly conjure up 50 vellum skins at a time for The Great Book, his vellum is excellent for calligraphy. No judgement on Joe, as my calligraphy skills have similarly come a long way since.) Anyway, I over painted the vellum, which should be 'ideal' for calligraphy, to make it merely workable. Not a space for displaying calligraphic virtuosity, but I had an important job to do.
As often, I was given a page as yet lacking a composition, and my job was to give it one, so that pre-exiting elements might appear visually supported by a structure that did not exist when they were originally placed on the page. This is the opposite progression to normal compositions where primary structures are built first and visually peripheral elements added afterwards. I reduced the impact of the offending remedial work by drawing focus away from the bottom right, by painting similar colours over the verse on the left page. Painted on top, but to appear behind, by using translucent layers. I added gold detailing between the lines; a herringbone pattern to catch the light as the page is turned, again to draw focus to the centre.
My calligraphy functions by adding bold curving lines to prevent the curved lines of the abandoned remedial attempt from drawing attention, in what previously was otherwise a rectilinear page. My colours are in harmony but the weight of my main calligraphy is bold enough to advance beyond the other elements. So again the lead vocal was recorded after the backing singers, but this was the way I had to work. I added smaller, more grey calligraphy to make sure the calligraphy was also bought back to the spatial planes occupied by other elements. It was never my preconception to dominate a composition, but in cases when one was lacking, I had to boldly take the lead.

Later today I'll drive down to Cork for the acquisition celebration, where the Irish President will sign the book, 22 years after I did. It is a fantastic achievement for both commissioning bodies to close a chapter in The Great Book of Ireland by finally selling it to an appropriate benefactor. Those bodies are Poetry Ireland and the Clashganna Mills Trust, a charity helping those with physical disabilities to develop in an unbiased environment. For me, it was a seminal commission, the best part of which was the educational conversations with Trevor Scott, who was at the time principal of Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, and who inspired generations of graduates. Trevor was ever passionate, always calm, never unnerving. He helped me translate the design knowledge I had learned about traditional layouts of calligraphy to what was then a new language to me, the language of painterly composition. He was a man who knew flow in painting and in people. May he rest in peace.


detail from title page

Enlarged detail of shell gold capitals with raised and burnished diamonds at the centre of each stroke, from the title page I made for The Great Book of Ireland, a major commission I undertook straight out of college, 1989-1991.



Denis Brown
Dublin, Ireland
January 18, 2013

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Addendum: Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins spoke at the ceremony in UCC Cork on January 18th 2013, to mark the acquisition of The Great Book of Ireland. A poet before he was elected President, it was a privilege for me to be introduced to an artist who has become our nation's leader.

President Michael D.Higgins
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