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Book of Colours

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Member Reviews

I'm gonna flick this back to my 'Want to read' list as well as give it a DNF mention at 20% because I'm finding it just too dull and complicated to be entertaining enough to read on my phone.

It seems like there's a decent story lurking in it's pages and I AM really keen to read it, but the e-book format is just not going to work for me here. So I'm benching it til I pick up a physical copy.

Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity, but sorry it didn't work out!
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Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

Summary: Set in London, in 1321, the story follows three people who are drawn together around the creation of an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a Book of Hours.

Thoughts: As she did in The Anchoress, Cadwallader has struck the perfect balance between telling a deeply compelling story and sharing with the reader niche historical fact. The detail around illuminated manuscripts and the paints and inks used in their creation was breathtaking, and Cadwallader brings the books to life. But the element of the story that I enjoyed the most, was the exploration of the role of women in the 1300s – this was achieved through two very different characters, who found strength and means in unlikely ways. The take home message? Books are good for the soul.

Recommended for readers who enjoyed: The Miniaturist and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.


I received my copy of Book of Colours from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Beautifully written, fantastically told tale. A little long, but immersive and captivating enough to keep me entertained. Will definitely recommend.
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To me, Book of Colours is a novel about art and artists. The process of creating art, what goes on in the head of an artisan, and how do they reconcile artistic independence with the need to eat and pay rent?

Set in 1321 London in a small illustrators’ workshop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a Book of Hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.

This is very much a literary novel rather than an edge-of-your-set page turner. The writing is, at times, poetic. At other times it reflects the rough and ready society of 14th-century London.

This has to be hands-down the best literary insult I’ve ever read:

‘Your words are turds, laddie. You’ve no business shitting them round here.’

The life of a 14th century artist

In 1321 illustrations in books were hand-painted by ‘limners’. Their job was to bring ‘light’ to the book:

This is a book about light, about finding light and painting with it. Illuminating. That is why the one who does this work is called an illuminator, a limner. Worker with light.

The historical setting in Book of Colours is very strong. I could feel the close heat of the cramped workshop as they painted in silence. I could smell the bodily odours.

People in 1321 were so much closer to nature than we are now. Limner apprentices pissed in pots to make certain colours of paint. Field labourers harvested dove excrement to fertilise the soil for growing food. There’s a certain wonder in realising that nature takes our waste and transforms it to products which nourish both the body and soul.

Being an artist in 1321 was very different to today. In 2018 artists can sell their work commercially, often to a large, international audience. Seven hundred years ago an artist needed a commission from a wealthy patron. This translated into a very strong focus on the singular audience. A Book of Hours is custom made for one person:

Lady Mathilda should see their faces, each one different, each worrying about the man they loved.

Unlike today, artists were discouraged from innovation – particularly English artists. The long-standing mutual disdain between French and English very much comes through in Book of Colours. On the job of a limner:

Remember that you are artisans, craftsmen. Your duty is to maintain the tradition of illuminations to the best of your ability. Leave behind invention, whatever the French might try to tell us. It is blasphemous and dishonourable to meddle with traditions, but that has always been the French way.

Creating art: what is it all for?

Book of Colours may be historical fiction but it also deals with timeless issues. William Asshe, the mysterious limner who shows up at the workshop door one day asking for work, suffers that same ‘What is it all for?’ anxiety that I think every artist struggles with at some point:

Was that why he painted? Wouldn’t they see only the money behind the gold leaf and lapis?

For a moment, he panicked, searching for what his yearning had been. Had his desire [to paint] led him to a shadow, a ghost of what he had thought it was, his work no more than a fancy for the nobility?

And yet, an artist could not work without a wealthy patron in 1321. The nobility commissioned art for religious purposes as much as to demonstrate wealth and status. It was a strange relationship. In modern days it can still be very difficult for an artist to survive financially without compromising at least a little. The wealthy patron has been replaced by mass audiences who have their own demands and desires which may or may not align with artistic innovation.

Of course, creating art is also a deeply personal process. It can have a cathartic effect and, to the individual artist, can become as necessary as eating and breathing:

He was surprised how much each new stroke of the brush settled him, brought him back to himself.

It’s the same feeling I used to get after a choral rehearsal or performance. Now I get it from writing. It’s always reminded me of the Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland – remember the only thing that would calm him was to paint jam on his nose? Writing is my jam.

Historical fiction; contemporary issues

The story arc may follow the lives of a few artisans and a fallen noblewoman, but the underlying philosophical questions shine through. Women were not allowed to be recognised limners, but often worked alongside their husbands in closed workshops. What did that mean in practice? We know throughout history that women have paraded as men to achieve their goals. Robyn Cadwallader, in writing Book of Colours, gives life to this question, relying on the scant historical evidence that exists about female artisans of the time.

Issues of social order and class rumble along throughout. Written at a time when people weren’t really questioning the order of society, but perhaps starting to a little. Views like this were revolutionary and dangerous:

‘Why would God approve of a man who taxes the people and takes their money for himself, who won’t even abide by the laws he’s agreed to? What does natural equality mean if it isn’t that all men should have justice and a right to the results of their labour?’

Of course, you could well ask those very same questions of our neo-liberalist system in 2018.
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Thank you Harper Collins Australia and Netgalley for an ARC in return for my honest opinion.

I loved this book, I don’t often read historical fiction but when I find a book this wonderful I ask myself why.  
This book is beautifully written, it drew me in with fabulous discriptions and the three intertwining stories.  I highly recommend curling up with your favourite drink and loosing yourself in this wonderful story.
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To own a book, especially a beautifully illuminated Book of Hours was a sign of wealth and prestige in the 14th Century. This very engaging novel is about the making of such a book by John Dancaster,a London illuminator (or limner) and his atelier. His wife Gemma, herself a skilled limner, newly apprenticed son Nick and his senior apprentice Benedict all assist in either the making of the colours, drawing the decorations or the elaborate task of layering on the colours and gold leaf when required. To assist in such a massive job, John also hires a skilled limner newly arrived from Cambridge, William Asshe and much of the story is seen through his eyes.

I really enjoyed the detailed description of the illustrating of the book. Each chapter is prefaced by a little gem of an excerpt from a book that Gemma is secretly writing on the art of illumination for Nick. As a woman Gemma cannot be acknowledged as a limner and must hide how much she helps out when actually she is a wonderful artist. I also enjoyed the description of the type of illuminations used to illustrate the text - the beautiful letters at the start of the text, religious scenes from the bible, gorgeous vines and fruit and flowers in the margins but also the whimsical scenes of ordinary men and woman and amusing animals.

The Book of Hours in this novel is being made for a wealthy noblewoman Lady Mathilda Fitzjohn as a status symbol to help her show to the world her family’s improving status. She has asked that it not only contain prayers and texts to help her pray but illustrations that would reference her and her husband’s families and prospects. At the time the book is commissioned, 1320, her husband Robert has been called to fight against King Edward II and his favourite Hugh Despenser who he has allowed to seize power and property. Mathilda’s story is told in chapters alternating with the illumination of the book, as she waits for the revolt to end and her family’s fate to be known. The writing is just as luscious as the descriptions of the illuminations and I enjoyed the details of the process as much as the overall story and historical setting.
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A beautifully written and ricjly detailed historical fiction from the author of The Anchoress.

Set in medieval London, in the 1300s, ata time time when books were rare treasures, the plot follows three connected storylines linked by a book. Utterly gorgeous writing and complex, fascinating characters combine to make this a beguiling read for fans of historical fiction.
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I really love a good historical novel but often hesitate picking one up because they can be hit and miss for me. To make it a great read, the author not only needs to be well informed about the era, but also have the skills of creating vivid characters and an atmospheric setting to facilitate the perfect time travel experience. Not an easy task (and I am not picky at all – lol)! I am happy to say that Robyn Cadwallader has those superpowers, which made this book a wonderful reading experience, and I am mad at myself for letting this sit on my shelf for so long!

The medieval times have always held a special fascination for me, and Book of Colours is set in the dark times of 14th century Britain. At the time, persistently cool and wet weather conditions made crops fail and led to one of the biggest famines in Britain’s history, causing a huge increase in disease and a death toll of up to 25% of the population. On top of the natural hardships, there was crime, war and unrest to contend with, and unemployment was rife.  Whilst some people still believed the church’s claim that it was “the will of God”, others began to question their faith and reliance on a seemingly cruel God. With the creation of her unforgettable characters, Cadwallader manages to not only capture this atmosphere of upheaval, but also the mindset of the people during those difficult times– and yet it remains a story of hope and survival, which left a warm glow in my heart.

Anyone with a love for books and art will appreciate the intricate details Cadwallader shares about the creation of a medieval “book of hours”, a richly illuminated tome of prayers and psalms commissioned by one of the rich landowner’s wives. Cadwallader’s extensive knowledge of the subject becomes obvious as she describes the processes involved in the making of the book: the preparation of the parchment, the mixing of the paints from substances such as bone, plants, urine and precious metals, the processes of carefully constructing the pictures that will do justice to the religious texts. The author’s skill lies in seamlessly weaving these details into a story about the everyday lives of the limners working on the book, each bringing with them their own histories, pasts and secrets that shape their particular style of art. The role of women in medieval society is explored through the character of Gemma, a talented limner from a long line of artists, who – as a female – is not allowed to officially work in her role but must paint under her husband’s name. She rebels against society in her own way, not only by secretly painting in the book of hours but also by writing a book on the art of illumination for her son, an apprentice limner, which was so interesting that I couldn’t get enough of it! 

I was so fascinated by Cadwallader’s descriptions that I spent hours googling images of books of hours, remembering seeing them on visits to museums in Europe, where they still offer valuable glimpses into this distant past. The artwork in some of them is incredible, and I could appreciate the many months the fictional limners spent on illustrating Lady Mathilda’s book. With the beauty of the artwork offset against the harsh environment and living conditions, I felt instantly transported back into history – not only immensely enjoying this virtual time travel, but also learning so much along the way. I am so infinitely grateful that owning books is no longer just a privilege of the rich! I also loved the despair of those tumultuous times reflected in small details Cadwallader includes in her story, such as the supernatural element of the gargoyle following Will’s every footstep as a symbol of his demons.

In summary, if you appreciate a well-written historical novel brimming with fascinating detail of the era, then I strongly recommend this book! Personally, I loved every step of the journey and I feel that I have learned a lot about medieval art that has given me a whole new appreciation for the courage of our ancestors finding beauty despite hardship, and gratitude for all the privileges we take for granted today – especially books.
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An incredibly rich historical novel which was beautifully written and brought the period of 14th Century London to life. The characters brought the story to life  - the story of the creation of an illuminated Book of Colours - and the story unfolds.

Thank you to Netgalley and publisher HarperCollins Australia for a copy to read and review.
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Book of Colours, a beautifully written, multi-layered historical fction, set in early 1300s England was a five star read for me.  

There are three connecting story lines:   
The family of limners and their workers/apprentices, who are preparing an illuminated book for a noble lady; 
Mathilda, the noble lady and her family who has commissioned the book; and 
Gemma, the wife of the head limner who is preparing an book of her own as an instruction in the art of illumination.

I enjoyed the style of writing, which is poetic and sensual, and the different timelines, which intersected and had their own pace.  The characters are lifelike and they and their stories develop well during the course of the book.  This all made it quite a suspenseful read for me.  I also enjoyed the settings which through the use of language brought that era, its sights and smells alive.

I highly recommend Book of Colours and thank the publishers for the opportunity to read it.
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This was a historical novel set mostly in London in 1320 to 1322. 
John Dancaster has been commissioned to illustrate a book of hours for Lady Mathilda. John is assisted by his wife Gemma, apprentice son and two Journeymen who have finished their apprenticeship. Throughout the book is a description of how a book is illustrated with details of how colours are sourced and mixed. There were lots of descriptions about people involved in illustrating books and their life.
I loved the way life in London in 1321 was described, also the descriptions about how people lived and worked.
John and Gemma struggle to complete the book of hours and they employ Will to help. Will is haunted by his past but helps Gemma keep her secret safe.
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‘If you touch the page, it’s smooth and fine.’

In fourteenth-century England, books are rare and treasured items.  They are often symbols of wealth and status: who else (apart from wealthy nobles and the church) could afford to commission a book?  In London in 1321, during a rebellion against Edward II and his hated favourite Hugh Despenser, work is scarce.   In John Dancaster’s small shop on Paternoster Row, a small group of people are drawn together to illustrate a Book of Hours for Lady Mathilda of the Fitzjohn family.  John Dancaster is a renowned limner, or illuminator, he has two apprentices –  his son Nick, who is just commencing his apprenticeship, and Benedict, who has almost finished his.  John’s wife Gemma also works in the shop and they are joined by Will, who has recently fled from Cambridge.  Gemma, John and Will each have their own aspirations, strengths and secrets.

The rebellion will have its impact on both John Dancaster’s shop and on the Fitzjohn family.  As the story unfolds, the limits placed on the role of women in 14th century England become clear.  Lady Mathilda’s circumstances change as a consequence of the rebellion, while Gemma Dancaster’s skills are not recognised and must be hidden.  Will has his own demons to contend with, while John has to contend with a loss of his own. 

 ‘What I meant was simple enough.  Even a beggar knows beauty when he sees it.’

The story has two timelines: the creation of the book, and Lady Mathilda’s reflections over that period.  The story is also about two books: the public Book of Hours being created for Lady Mathilda, and the private book (‘The Art of Illumination’) being created secretly by Gemma as advice for her son Nick. Each chapter opens with a paragraph or two from ‘The Art of Illumination’.  This book covers topics from the preparation of the skin to the composition of some of the colours. 

I enjoyed this novel.  I found the information contained in ‘The Art of Illumination’ engrossing.  I found the characters (especially Gemma, Will and Lady Mathilda) interesting. I kept turning the pages, not quite sure how the story was going to end but wanting to absorb as much of it as I could.  

This is Ms Cadwallader’s second novel, and well worth reading.  I also enjoyed her first novel ‘The Anchoress’ and would happily recommend them both to lovers of historical fiction.

‘What worlds these pages make.’ 

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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