To me, Book of Colours is a novel about art and artists. The process of creating art, what goes on in the head of an artisan, and how do they reconcile artistic independence with the need to eat and pay rent?
Set in 1321 London in a small illustrators’ workshop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a Book of Hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.
This is very much a literary novel rather than an edge-of-your-set page turner. The writing is, at times, poetic. At other times it reflects the rough and ready society of 14th-century London.
This has to be hands-down the best literary insult I’ve ever read:
‘Your words are turds, laddie. You’ve no business shitting them round here.’
The life of a 14th century artist
In 1321 illustrations in books were hand-painted by ‘limners’. Their job was to bring ‘light’ to the book:
This is a book about light, about finding light and painting with it. Illuminating. That is why the one who does this work is called an illuminator, a limner. Worker with light.
The historical setting in Book of Colours is very strong. I could feel the close heat of the cramped workshop as they painted in silence. I could smell the bodily odours.
People in 1321 were so much closer to nature than we are now. Limner apprentices pissed in pots to make certain colours of paint. Field labourers harvested dove excrement to fertilise the soil for growing food. There’s a certain wonder in realising that nature takes our waste and transforms it to products which nourish both the body and soul.
Being an artist in 1321 was very different to today. In 2018 artists can sell their work commercially, often to a large, international audience. Seven hundred years ago an artist needed a commission from a wealthy patron. This translated into a very strong focus on the singular audience. A Book of Hours is custom made for one person:
Lady Mathilda should see their faces, each one different, each worrying about the man they loved.
Unlike today, artists were discouraged from innovation – particularly English artists. The long-standing mutual disdain between French and English very much comes through in Book of Colours. On the job of a limner:
Remember that you are artisans, craftsmen. Your duty is to maintain the tradition of illuminations to the best of your ability. Leave behind invention, whatever the French might try to tell us. It is blasphemous and dishonourable to meddle with traditions, but that has always been the French way.
Creating art: what is it all for?
Book of Colours may be historical fiction but it also deals with timeless issues. William Asshe, the mysterious limner who shows up at the workshop door one day asking for work, suffers that same ‘What is it all for?’ anxiety that I think every artist struggles with at some point:
Was that why he painted? Wouldn’t they see only the money behind the gold leaf and lapis?
For a moment, he panicked, searching for what his yearning had been. Had his desire [to paint] led him to a shadow, a ghost of what he had thought it was, his work no more than a fancy for the nobility?
And yet, an artist could not work without a wealthy patron in 1321. The nobility commissioned art for religious purposes as much as to demonstrate wealth and status. It was a strange relationship. In modern days it can still be very difficult for an artist to survive financially without compromising at least a little. The wealthy patron has been replaced by mass audiences who have their own demands and desires which may or may not align with artistic innovation.
Of course, creating art is also a deeply personal process. It can have a cathartic effect and, to the individual artist, can become as necessary as eating and breathing:
He was surprised how much each new stroke of the brush settled him, brought him back to himself.
It’s the same feeling I used to get after a choral rehearsal or performance. Now I get it from writing. It’s always reminded me of the Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland – remember the only thing that would calm him was to paint jam on his nose? Writing is my jam.
Historical fiction; contemporary issues
The story arc may follow the lives of a few artisans and a fallen noblewoman, but the underlying philosophical questions shine through. Women were not allowed to be recognised limners, but often worked alongside their husbands in closed workshops. What did that mean in practice? We know throughout history that women have paraded as men to achieve their goals. Robyn Cadwallader, in writing Book of Colours, gives life to this question, relying on the scant historical evidence that exists about female artisans of the time.
Issues of social order and class rumble along throughout. Written at a time when people weren’t really questioning the order of society, but perhaps starting to a little. Views like this were revolutionary and dangerous:
‘Why would God approve of a man who taxes the people and takes their money for himself, who won’t even abide by the laws he’s agreed to? What does natural equality mean if it isn’t that all men should have justice and a right to the results of their labour?’
Of course, you could well ask those very same questions of our neo-liberalist system in 2018.