Designing English

This exhibition will illustrate the graphic design of handwritten manuscripts and inscriptions for the first thousand years of English, across the Middle Ages.
Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG, Mon 18 December - Sun 22 April 2018

The Weston Library is known for its fascinating displays from the Bodleian's collections. In this latest exhibition, they're taking visitors through a thousand years of written English using the medium of graphic design, looking at everything from brightly illuminated manuscripts to ancient scribbled song lyrics. Another display, Redesigning the Medieval Book, will accompany Designing English until 11th March; here, modern workshoppers and competition-winners respond to the medieval works on display, creating their own examples of book art. Come along and see these early - and contemporary - experiments in words as an art form!

Admission is free, and the exhibition is suitable for visitors of all ages.


February 13, 2018
Illuminated Manuscripts: books have always been beautiful

In the lofty Weston Library lies the ST Lee Gallery, a dim room with the attentive attendants lurking in the shadows. Fortunately the content of the Designing English exhibition currently residing within is anything but dark - brightly lit up books flank the room, with shiny gilded lettering and brightly coloured illustrations. The exhibition tells of the layout and design of books through the ages, and provides a vision of literacy in times gone by.

One of the first objects in the exhibition - and the oldest - is a twelve hundred year old book, lying open. Inside is a pattern of coloured rectangles, with minimal wording; not too recognisable. What strikes me is how little the outer structure of a book has changed; one would think in over a thousand years that the book makers would have come up with new and improved ways of reading (Kindles don't count!). But this is really a case of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', with this ancient tome looking just like a modern leather-bound encyclopaedia or dictionary. However this exhibition focuses on the inside of the book, and how layout has changed over time.

Many different layouts are on show including poetry anthologies, actor's scrolls, and recipe books. One poem was told on a scroll, broken up by small illustrations, not unlike comic strips of today. I particularly enjoyed the contents of one remedy book, which told of a spell which, when written on a loaf, butter, or an apple, and eaten, would cure toothache. Something to try at home perhaps!

The variety of books on display was where this exhibition shines, and I felt myself wanting to reach into the glass cases and flick through the volumes. There weren't just books on show though; other standout pieces were a large engraved metal jug, and a piece of stretched out animal skin which resembled something out of Doctor Who.

The most beautiful section of the exhibition was the part on illustration. The detailed, hand painted illustration on what seemed like rather mundane-sounding books was astonishing. The gold shining out from the pages prompted one thought: they don't make them like they used to!

The exhibition ended with a short video on the physical process of how books were made in the medieval times. The sheer skill, time and effort involved in each individual volume was amazing; it's a wonder any were made at all.

This informative and visually interesting exhibition is a must-see for book lovers.

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