Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2018

Book of Colours, by Robyn Cadwallader #BookReview

I knew I was going to love this book as soon as I heard about it.  I think I owe thanks to Amanda Curtin (whose novels I love) for bringing it to my attention on her blog but also to Sue at Whispering Gums and maybe elsewhere as well. There was bound to be a buzz over Robyn Cadwallader’s second novel Book of Colours after the success of her debut The Anchoress…

love all things to do with the art of illumination.  I am the one in art galleries all over Europe and the UK giving the staff conniptions because I am up so close peering at the exquisite tiny paintings that decorate medieval Bibles and Books of Hours and other illuminated manuscripts.  I was in heaven when the State Library of Victoria put on an exhibition called The Medieval Imagination and yes, I bought the book to appease my hankering to #InMyDreams own one of these illuminations of my very own.

I love this form of religious art because although the illuminations are focussed on biblical stories, the limners (the people who painted the illuminations) couldn’t help themselves… they also included all kinds of other weird and wonderful things as well.  I share Robyn Cadwallader’s fascination with these strange juxtapositions, as she explains in her Author’s Note:

Many of us will have seen photos, and perhaps even exhibitions, of sumptuously decorated books from the Middle Ages.  My attention, though, has always been drawn to the margins of books of hours, as they are known, where birds, animals, funny and fantastical creatures and even scenes of sin and bawd are often depicted – all alongside prayers and illuminations of Christ and the Virgin Mary. (p.352)

This historical novel was everything I hoped it would be.  It is structured around the life of the woman, Lady Mathilda Fitzjohn, who commissioned an illuminated book of hours at a time when all was going well for her privileged family, and also the trials and tribulations of the family of limners who work on the book for her.  But the early years of the 14th century in England were a difficult time for both rich and poor, because in additional to unusually atrocious weather which caused The Great Famine of 1315-17, there was also political turmoil resulting in warfare between King Edward II and his opponents.

The book begins with a very brief chapter in 1322 when Mathilda receives the book, not long after the death of her husband Robert.  The reader knows that something is amiss, but must read on to find out why it is that she frowns and says: ‘I’m sure the book will bring me comfort, even as it is.’  The next chapter – prefaced by an excerpt from The Art of Illumination which appears to be a sort of handbook for limners –  takes place two years earlier with the arrival of William (Will) Asshe in London.  He has fled from some tragedy in Cambridge, through freezing weather, in time to hear grumblings in the streets about the rich hoarding their grain while the poor go hungry.  Although there is some doubt about his missing papers and the reasons for his departure from Cambridge, he gets work with the limner John Dancaster whose beautiful work is renowned all over London and beyond.

John and his wife Gemma (who turns out to be the covert author of The Art of Illumination) are prepared to overlook Will’s antecedents for two reasons.  Firstly, they have just received the commission for Mathilda’s book of hours, and secondly, unknown to their agent Southflete or anyone else, John is – disastrously – not well.  Within the workshop, their son Nick and their apprentice Benedict have no idea that Gemma is repairing her husband’s work on the quiet in order to preserve John’s pride (and his refusal to admit to his difficulties).  But Will soon works out what’s going on, and although he doesn’t say anything, he is furious because he was hoping to restore his own reputation by working for a master limner, not by working alongside a mere woman.

Mathilda, meanwhile, is dealing with the fallout of her husband Robert fighting on the losing side against the king.  She has to abandon her estate and leave it to the looters, and hope that she and her children will escape the king’s vengeance and be left alone with the remnants of her property elsewhere.

This in itself makes for an interesting story, but what made it really interesting for any art lover, is the way Cadwallader reveals the thinking behind the images in the book of hours.  ‘Praying the hours’ was something that devout women did in an era when religious belief was near universal and when the world was the way it was, because ‘God had ordained it so’.  But there were also other purposes for a book of hours.  Lady Mathilda explains to her sceptical husband Robert who thinks that such books are only for nuns, that Lady Warren shows hers off to everyone because it is illuminated with the family heraldry that declares their lineage to all who see it.  For Lady Mathilda, the idea of the book declaring their status like this, is not just to show who they are, but also who they intend to be when an expected inheritance comes their way.  It’s a strategy, she tells Robert, analogous to how he decorates his banners, shields and pennants.  And if they ask the illuminators to also paint the heraldic devices of those around them, the book becomes a pledge of support to them as well.  So the book can help to strengthen alliances.

But when Robert dies, and she is grieving not just for him but also for her lost ambitions and her sense of safety for herself and her little children, the book becomes closer to Gemma’s vision for it.  Some scenes will evoke memories of babes lost in childbirth, something both women share despite the difference in wealth and status.  Gemma depicts the face of Mary at the Annunciation to show that the honour bestowed by the angel is also accompanied by Mary’s fear of being a mother with no identifiable father for the child, a crisis of status and identity which Mathilda will come to share in a different way.  And Gemma also hopes that the lady will recognise that the scenes of workers in bountiful fields are a lie, because the fields are barren and the people for whom Mathilda is responsible on her estate are starving.

Book of Colours is a beautiful book.  Highly recommended.

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: Book of Colours
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins Australia), 2018
ISBN: 9781460752210
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Book of Colours



  1. So glad you liked it Lisa. It’s a couple of months yet before I will get to it I think, but I’m looking forward to it. The conversation I went to was fascinating. Robyn Cadwallader loves illuminated ms as well – obviously!

    I love the idea of your giving gallery attendants conniptions!

    • LOL I am shameless when I’ve travelled all those kilometres and want to see an art work properly!

  2. *squeals* I didn’t know about this one. I love illuminated scripts as well (many, many years ago I was a calligrapher and I’ll always be drawn to the detail in illuminated texts) so cant wait to read this. (I still think about elements of The Anchoress).

    • Kate, you will be enchanted. Her descriptions are so vivid, you can almost see the images:) And the preface to each chapter where in The Art of Illumination she explains how to treat the vellum, how to make the colours, oh, it’s just gorgeous.

  3. My copy of this arrived today!

    • I can’t wait to see your review too, Theresa:)

  4. Just popped over to Netgalley and scored a copy – yay!

  5. Fabulous review, Lisa :-)

    • Thanks Amanda – it’s just such a wonderful book!

  6. Oh my goodness – if you liked this, you will LOVE Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts. It’s nonfiction, but the author (who is a librarian at the Parker Library in Cambridge) is clever and funny, very accessible, and the full-colour illustrations are utterly stunning. It’s in paperback now, so portable too!

    • Sold! I’ve just ordered it, it’s less than $20 from Fishpond!!!!!!


        • Don’t say that, Elle, your recommendations are welcome any time! BTW I returned Book of Colours to my library today and earbashed the young librarian about how good it was – and I suspect that it’s not going to get re-shelved, it’s going to be on the bench for quiet times between borrowers!

          • Ahhh thanks! I’m really evangelising Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, it’s definitely one of the best books I’ll read this year.

  7. Is there artwork in the book Lisa? Just wondering if it would work on audio.

    • No, there isn’t. It’s all just meticulously described so that you can see it in your imagination. Though I would say that if you’ve never seen the kind of artwork and how it’s done within these medieval books, it would enhance the reading to browse around online to see some images so that you can get an idea of how they used gold leaf and how they decorated the margins and so on. It’s a bit like the clothes, you know? If you’ve seen a woman’s wimple, you see it in your mind’s eye when a woman in a book puts one on!

  8. Hi Lisa, I too loved this book. Cadwallader is a beautiful writer. You might remember a couple of years ago the Melbourne State library had a Medieval exhibition of manuscripts for Rare Book Week. They were amazing.

    • Yes, that’s the one, I went to it twice. I went to the Persian one too, and that was great as well.
      We must meet up one day, at an SLV exhibition, eh?

  9. Hi Lisa, that would be great.

  10. Thanks Lisa. I loved this & I have just walked in with my new copy of The Book of Colours. I love illuminated manuscripts – spent ages with The book of Kells and I have been to some marvelous exhibitions over the years. All of the old libraries in Italy have wonderful examples too – the library of Pope Pius II in the Duomo of Siena is stunning. Looking forward to starting this book today.

    • I’s sure you will love it and I look forward to seeing your review:)

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