Oxford artist William de Brailes was commissioned to produce illustrations for a Psalter in approximately 1240, but only seven leaves have survived until the 21st century.
Six of the leaves belong to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, where The Folio Society’s production director Joe Whitlock-Blundell approached Dr Stella Panayatova, keeper of manuscripts at the museum to ask permission to reproduce them in a limited-edition set.
The six leaves kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge are: Fall of the Rebel Angels; Scenes from Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel; Last Judgement; Wheel of Fortune; Christ and David; and Tree of Jesse.
The seventh, Early Life of Christ, was borrowed from New York’s Pierpont Morgan Museum. Whitlock-Blundell worked between Italy and England to print and proof each piece.
What did the job entail?
Italian printer Grafiche Damiani was drafted in to complete the project, which aimed to capture the first colour-accurate print on vellum.
In the Middle Ages, manuscripts were printed on the silvery-yellow animal skins but the printing press changed the way books were made and only Acts of Parliament and other such important documents are printed on vellum.
Only 480 sets of the seven leaves were created, each selling for £1,250 and hand-numbered by a skilled calligrapher.
How was it produced?
Tanners in Santa Croce, Florence, prepared the sheepskins for printing before shipping them over to Bologna in northern Italy to Grafiche Damiani.
Each print was produced in a five-step process and the entire project took one year to complete. First, an opaque white base layer was applied to each vellum sheet to improve the consistency of the parchment in preparation for printing, which can double in size from one sheet to another.
Grafiche Damiani then applied colour using a calibrated KBA press to handle the different thicknesses of the parchments and produce a consistent result – this offset lithographic process is now patented by the printer.
The gold was then applied over the colour print with a raised appearance to replicate the original documents – this work was outsourced to Nuova Rilievografica using a Heidelberg cold-foiling press. The intended pattern for the gold leaf was applied in dry adhesive to the vellum. The piece was then passed through a second unit with a roll of gold foil to heat-activate the adhesive, enabling the gold foil to take to the vellum in the intended pattern.
A further black, uneven layer was printed over the gold using a KBA press to recreate the patina of age. Finally, Nuova Rilievografica created dies with soft edges to apply the tooling marks using a Heidelberg die-cutter, giving the impression of hand-made craftsmanship.
What challenges were overcome?
Whitlock-Blundell said the main challenge was to transform an unstable substrate to a stable sheet. A second opaque base coating was often needed to ensure that the ink took to the fatty vellum. Each piece of the parchment is also so different in thickness that a unique technique was created by Andrea Albertini and his team at Grafiche Damiani to ensure that its press was calibrated to handle such varying sheets with consistent results.
As colour accuracy had never been achieved before on vellum, according to Whitlock-Blundell, proofing the pieces proved harder than in normal circumstances.
The pieces were originally proofed on digital paper rather than parchment and so the outcome of the proof on vellum had to be "almost second-guessed", according to Whitlock-Blundell.
With the added restraint of an airborne journey between the publisher and the printer, calibrating the press to exactly match the colours of the original piece took eight or nine months.
What was the feedback?
Whitlock-Blundell said: "It was wonderful to have been a part of such a revolutionary and ground-breaking production.
"I was astonished at how alike the tooling was compared to the original piece."
Dr Panayatova said: "I cannot get over the balance of the softness of colours and at the same the clarity; to strike this balance is very, very hard."
She said of the Fall of the Rebel Angels: "I remember how much trouble we had with this mass of bodies falling down into the mouth of hell but now each and every one stands out."
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