A Christmas present worth waiting for: Edward Johnston, Gerard Meynell and an illuminated Aldine

As has previously been reported by Julianne Simpson, in recent years we have undertaken a major recataloguing project on our renowned collection of books printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius and his successors. The Aldine collection now numbers some 2000 volumes, and is perhaps the largest in the world. Our indefatigable cataloguers, Mary O’Connor and Christine Stahl, have been digging deep into the provenance of these books, and we are discovering what fascinating lives they have led.

One volume in particular caught my eye recently, Martial’s Epigrams (1517), because it was decorated by the celebrated calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944). Johnston was responsible, more than any other individual, for the revival of calligraphy and letter arts in the early twentieth century, and he wrote the definitive how-to manual, Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering. 

A lengthy inscription at the end of our volume records that Johnston’s plan to present the book to his friend Gerard Meynell (founder of the Westminster Press) at Christmas 1920 was delayed for six years while he attempted in vain to learn Latin. Johnston eventually gave it to his patient friend at Christmas 1926. Procrastinators amongst us will take heart.

Inscription by Edward Johnston. Martial, Epigrammata (Venice: Aldine Press, 1517), R90031.

The volume opens with a richly gilded and decorated initial B (filled with Lancastrian red roses), but I prefer the simpler inked initials at the openings to subsequent books, in alternating red and blue, with their confident, sensuous  curves and delicate serifs. They are reminiscent of the  initial letters he produced for T. J. Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves Press.

Decorative initial by Edward Johnston at the beginning of Martial’s Epigrammata.


Edward Johnston
Inked initial by Edward Johnston at the beginning of Book 14 of Martial’s Epigrammata, f. 179v.

The volume was given to the John Rylands Library in January 1945 by  E. Parsons esq. of Hassocks, Sussex, in January 1945. At the same time he donated a draft of a testimonial produced by Johnston in 1918, for presentation to the printer Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, presented by his fellow book-printers in gratitude for his services to the printing trade. The testimonial is annotated ‘Rough Draft for G.T.M. [Gerard Tuke Meynell] by E.J., 29.iii.18’.

Draft calligraphic testimonial by Edward Johnston, for presentation to Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, 1918. English MS 1039.

If anyone is able to shed any light on Mr Parsons, and any connection he might have had with Gerard Meynell, we’d be delighted to hear from them.

We wish all our readers a merry Christmas, and a peaceful New Year.

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