This exhibition reveals some distinctive design features of the books and medieval manuscripts held in Sir George Grey Special Collections.

The examples range from 15th century medieval manuscripts through to 21st century alphabet and artists' books. Those presented here are a selection with no known copyright.

Read the exhibition case list.

Wayfinding with initials

Before the advent of page numbering readers found their way around handwritten medieval manuscripts by way of decorative initials. They were signposts to changes in the text and they were often highly decorative. Rubrication, the use of red ink, was also used in this manner.

‘Missale ad usum Romanum’ [Latin]. France, between 1450 and 1500. Volume 1. Med. MS G.138 (0368)

‘Missale ad usum Romanum’ [Latin]. France, between 1450 and 1500. Volume 1. Med. MS G.138 (0368) , Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

‘Bible’ [Latin]. Southern France or Italy, between 1225 and 1250. Med. MS S.279 (0673)

‘Bible’ [Latin]. Southern France or Italy, between 1225 and 1250. Med. MS S.279 (0673) , Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

‘De claris mulieribus’ [Latin]. Northern Germany, 1464. Med. MS G133 (0006)

Boccaccio, Giovanni. ‘De claris mulieribus’ [Latin]. Northern Germany, 1464. Med. MS G133 (0006), Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Alphabet books

Through the centuries book designers have enjoyed using decorative initials, from the early printers, to modern book artists. Decorative letters often feature in alphabet books too, both for children and adults, where illustrators can explore the wilder side of letter forms and fonts.

The illustrated London spelling book

‘The illustrated London spelling book’. London: W. S. Johnson, about 1858. Atlas 38-295467, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Book of picture alphabets

‘Book of picture alphabets’. London: T. Nelson and Sons, about 1880. Atlas 38-295478, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

An alphabet duet

These two films of decorative alphabets feature a selection of illuminated initials and decorative letters sourced from the medieval manuscripts, illuminated addresses, maps and early printed books held in Sir George Grey Special Collections.

They are a glimpse into this amazing world of illumination and decorative arts for online viewers, and were shown during the physical exhibition.

Read the reference list.

A chronology of letters

From 15th century medieval manuscripts through to 21st century alphabet and artists’ books, letters have been re-formed and re-interpreted by every generation.

Missale ad usum Romanum

‘Missale ad usum Romanum’ [Latin]. Volume 2. France, between 1450 and 1500. Med. MS G.139 (503)

Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive, Lombardica historia (The Golden Legend)

Jacobus, de Voragine. ‘Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive, Lombardica historia (The Golden Legend)’. Westminster, London, England : William Caxton, after 20 Nov. 1483.

Designs by Mr R. Bentley, for six poems by T. Gray

Thomas Gray. ‘Designs by Mr R. Bentley, for six poems by T. Gray’. London: R. Dodsley, 1753.

Address presented to the Mayor, James McCosh Clark, on the occasion of his retirement, 31 January 1884

‘Address presented to the Mayor, James McCosh Clark, on the occasion of his retirement, 31 January 1884’. Artist: J. Slator. NZMS 1653.

Address presented to Alexander Grant on his departure for Auckland from the Dunedin section, 29 December 1894

‘Address presented to Alexander Grant on his departure for Auckland from the Dunedin section, 29 December 1894’. NZMS 1203 (7)

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam. ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’. Illuminated by F. Sangorski & G. Sutcliffe. London: Siegle, Hill & Co., 1910.

The exhibition

11 November 2015 – 14 February 2016

9am – 5pm weekdays
10am – 4pm weekends

Sir George Grey Special Collections
Level 2
44–46 Lorne Street
Central City Library
Auckland, New Zealand