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Colour in Books: Between Decoration and Articulation

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The relative absence of colour from illustrations and decorations in Queens’ books is a powerful reminder of the Library’s exclusive purpose in the early modern era: to provide a working collection for College fellows. In an age when colour was added by hand, superficial beautification constituted an expense beyond this Library’s immediate remit.

Where colour is present in Queens’ books, it sometimes performs an explanatory role, as a means to articulate a text and highlight its structure. We see this in the so-called ‘rubrication’ of sixteenth-century books, a practice dating from the preceding era of medieval manuscripts (the Latin rubricare meaning to colour red). Here can be seen paragraph marks at chapter headings, initial-strokes on upper case letters, underlinings of titles and printed marginal notes. The survival of this earlier practice suggests its continued efficacy as a means to enable Renaissance scholars to navigate the texts they read.

The demise of manuscript illumination was accompanied by the rise in printed woodcut illustrations. Although most woodcuts would have remained uncoloured, the presence here of a rare illustrated manual on falconry emphasises the extent to which colour could be essential to a book’s conception and meaning. Daubed in translucent paint to avoid obscuring the lines of the woodcut, the colours in this copy not only decorate the illustrations but also act as an essential counterpart to the descriptions in the printed text.

As to who coloured these illustrations, little is known. It was not until the growth of the map market in the later sixteenth century that a colourist profession came about. Then, a thriving international market assured the sale of lavishly coloured atlases (such as that on display here) at almost twice the price of uncoloured copies.

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