Illuminated Letters from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
Freeman Gage de la Motte (d. 1862) and J. Willis Brooks
19.6 x 16.1 cm.
Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 55
Source: Medieval Alphabets and Initials for Illuminators
Collection: Anonymous lender
Modesty, clarity, and knowledge are hallmarks of De la Motte's books. [continued below]
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Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith
Besides being an illuminator, he was also a wood engraver, according to the title page of the first edition of Medieval Alphabets and Initials for Illuminators, and this may be why he chose to print his handbook using colored wood engravings rather than chromohthography. Additional reasons for this choice may be that wood engravings were less expensive and could be set up along with the text for letterpress printing.
His simple but pleasing binding was originally a deep maroon bubble cloth, blind-stamped on both boards with the title goldblocked on a ribbon wound around an illuminator's quill on the front cover. All edges of the pages are tinted red, and the end leaves and pastedowns are deep maroon coated paper. Essentially, De la Motte offered his readers the best quality that taste and imagination could provide at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, he died in in 1862 just after promising a new and expanded version of his instillation manual.
De la Motte wrote numerous books on illumination and lettering, including Ornamental Alphabets Ancient and Medieval, Examples of Modern Alphabets, and a Primer of Illumination. The Primer, published in 1860, was a manual outlining the history of illumination and giving clear instructions for the novice illuminator. In it, he published a list of specimens of illumination in the British Museum which were "accessible to all without charge" and were "best calculated to assist the beginner in his studies." On page 43 of the Primer he remarked, "We have, to our surprise, found so much misconception abroad on the subject, that we think it worth while to inform our lady readers that in this room [the reading room of the British Museum] there are seats specially set apart for ladies."
The text of Medieval Alphabets and Initials carried a reference to the Primer as a source of instruction, but De la Motte did not invite his readers to become pupils. His books were well received by the press and he concluded his series of illustrations in Medieval Alphabets with testimonials from The Sun, The Standard, The Athenaeum, and The Ecclesiologist. The Ecclesiologist's reviewer noted that the text of The Primer was modestly and judiciously written and accompanied by well-chosen and beautifully printed illustrations.
As testimony to his design skills, the simplest of De la Motte's pages holds up under close scrutiny. Plate 9 from the Medieval Alphabets illustrates his ability to create an interesting composition out of seven different illuminated capital letters. His sense of organization is so sure that even without the text as a unifying feature he is able to orchestrate this varied arrangement of forms in a dynamic balance. Several plates in this handbook are printed in gold and up to five colors, but De la Motte never relied on startling effects of gold and polychromy to attract the reader, and plate 9 is printed in red and blue only. Furthermore, none of De la Motte's letters is a servile copy of natural forms or historical examples, although he designed under the inspiration of the lively red and blue pen flourishes of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.
de la Motte, Freeman Gage and and J. Willis Brooks. Medieval Alphabets and Initials for Illuminators. London: C. Lock-wood & Co., second edition, 1864 (first edition, 1861). Printer: Whiting of London. [Inscriptions: Wm. Taylor from a Friend 25 Feb. 1919/Harry Cook English Master (Ldd?) Beaufoy 1919/Alice Galerman]
Last modified 31 December 2013