Highlight: Esther Inglis’s Octonaires, a masterpiece in miniature

Monday 25 July 2011

The new Highlight section has been created to feature our lesser-mentioned treasures and our most important recent acquisitions. Each post will be written by members of the Department of Special Collections staff, post-graduate researchers, academics or volunteers. If you would like to write a Highlights post for us, get in touch!

We have recently purchased a wonderful miniscule manuscript by the well-known calligrapher, Esther Inglis (1571-1624), one of only 59 of her works to survive. These tiny treasures filled with copies of pious texts have been described as jewels for their elaborate embroidered or leather bindings, ornamental scripts, mirror writing, decorative borders and watercolour flowers, often on a minute scale. They were made for royalty and aristocracy as well as for lesser mortals; ours was dedicated to John Spottiswoode (1565-1639), who became Archbishop of St Andrews and Primate of Scotland in 1615, and may also have belonged to a daughter of Archbishop James Sharp, Spottiswoode’s successor, as there are ownership inscriptions by an Elizabeth Sharp. After that its provenance is unknown until it turned up at a country auction at West Camel, Somerset, in 1938 and was acquired by a book dealer in Guernsey.

The manuscript, located at MS38830, consists of 50 eight-line poems entitled Les Cinquante Octonaires sur la vanitie et inconstance du monde, by Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, a Huguenot, the same heritage as Esther herself. It is signed and dated ‘Lislebourg’ (Edinburgh), 1616.  It measures only 78 x 50 x 12mm, bound in contemporary calf with beautiful gilt leaves on the spine and covers. It fits perfectly into a Henri Wintermans’ cigar box, seen by someone as so integral to the provenance that a case was made to fit both manuscript and cigar box. The script is a humanist revival Carolingian miniscule, simple, elegant, readable. Many of her works feature a pen or watercolour self-portrait – ours sadly appears to have been cut out. Unusually there are additions to the exquisitely written verses of poetry on the blank pages – an attempt to rival or copy her style perhaps.

Although born in France or perhaps London, after her parents fled Huguenot persecution in Dieppe, Esther was brought up in Edinburgh where her father Nicolas Langlois became master of the French School. Her mother was a talented calligrapher and passed her skill on to her daughter. Esther soon began to craft these manuscript books, gifting them to those in positions of power and influence, in the hope of either financial reward or patronage for her husband. She had married a clergyman, Bartholomew Kello, and most of her works reflect a devout nature, using extracts from the Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or moralising texts such as the Octonaires. They lived on the fringes of court society, her husband and probably herself acting as occasional scribes for James VI, and Kello may have used the presentation of these highly prized articles to foreign dignitaries as a pretext for diplomatic or more subversive missions for the king.

It is inspiring to see such visible creativity expressed by this gifted female artist and calligrapher in an age when the scribe’s role was a male domain. She justified her activities by describing her manuscripts as ‘a portrait of the Christian Religion’, using the gifts God had given her. She created these jewels, perhaps not with great originality, preferring to copy both text and illustrations, but with imagination and skill. She might not be an author in the accepted sense but she was a talented craftswoman. Her work was always admired and coveted, more as a work of art than a book. The Scottish provenance and St Andrews link to Spottiswoode mean this is a fitting homecoming for this tiny volume of delights.

Maia Sheridan

Maia is the Manuscripts Archivist for the Department of Special Collections of the University of St Andrews.

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3 thoughts on "Highlight: Esther Inglis’s Octonaires, a masterpiece in miniature"

  • Refurbished Main Library re-opens! | Echoes from the Vault
    Thursday 29 September 2011, 3.09pm

    [...] on display are some of the most important new acquisitions from this year, including: Esther Inglis’s Octonaires, first editions of Kew Gardens and Two Stories from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, a [...]

  • Highlight: Two Stories and Kew Gardens – new Woolf acquisitions | Echoes from the Vault
    Wednesday 19 October 2011, 11.06am

    [...] on from our previous Highlight post, Dr Ian Blyth explores the history and importance of two recent acquisitions to the Rare Books [...]

  • Jean Johnstone’s artist’s books: a presentation to Special Collections staff | Echoes from the Vault
    Tuesday 20 May 2014, 4.01pm

    […] She showed us the pieces from our collections that inspired her, including a beautiful book of the Octonaires by Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, calligraphed by Esther Inglis (ms38830). This book is so tiny you […]


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