Clare A. Lees, Director of IES

Image: Book of Durrow, fol. 21v, the Evangelist Matthew (symbol man)

Mid-summer means summer schools at the IES.  First comes the London International Palaeography Summer School, then the London Rare Books School, swiftly followed by the T.S. Eliot Summer School.  Our minds are focussed on the many ways we study books – from medieval manuscript to digital text, from critical edition to interpretation, from script to print.  The arts of the book are central to English Studies and so too are they to many contemporary artists.  

Image: Sean Scully, ‘Robe Blue Blue Durrow’ (2018). Oil on aluminum

Now on show at the National Gallery, London, for example, is Sean Scully’s ‘Robe Blue Blue Durrow’ (2018) in Sea Star, an exhibition of new work by Scully inspired by the collection at the National Gallery and by J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The Evening Star’ (c. 1829-30).  Scully, who was born in Dublin, grew up in South London and trained in Newcastle, is an internationally celebrated abstract artist, known for his astonishing use of colour. Sea Star is a contemporary engagement with Turner’s remarkable picture, enabling us to see it anew.  Chronology and colour also work together in ‘Robe Blue Blue Durrow’ with its allusion both to the late seventh, early eighth century, Book of Durrow, one of the great early medieval gospel books (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, recently exhibited in The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War, British Library, 2018-19) and to the colour most associated with the Virgin Mary, blue.  ‘Scully’s solo exhibition, HUMAN, in the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, one of the official collateral exhibitions at the 58th Venice Biennale this summer, similarly responds to the collection of illustrated medieval manuscripts held by the abbey as well as the renaissance architecture of its church. ‘Robe Blue Blue Durrow’ and HUMAN are examples of how medieval books find their way into contemporary art.

Medieval in Contemporary Art (MiCA), a partnership between the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL and the IES, explores how the medieval becomes a resource for modern art.  MiCA has brought together artists, medievalists and curators over the last eighteenth months to learn from one another and share interests and expertise. In its next phase, MiCA will focus on using practice-based research to interrogate medieval culture through processes of making. This occasional series exploring medieval books in contemporary art will also report MiCA’s news.   

Let me conclude, though, by returning to Sean Scully. An earlier example of Sully’s work is found in the CNAA Collection, Senate House Library. The collection is currently being assessed by Dickson Russell Art Management as part of a project to explore how some 300 artworks in the Senate House Library Collection and across the University of London and its Institutes might be developed for better access and public display.  I look forward to showing ’26.7.74 No. 1/4’ to those interested in medieval books in contemporary art at one of our summer schools in the near future.

Image: Sean Scully ’26.7.74 no. 1/4’ (1974). Acrylic on canvas

Clare A. Lees, Director of IES


For the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Dublin, MS 57), see Accessed 24 June. 

MiCA is co-directed by Sharon Morris, Professor of Fine Art, the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, and Clare Lees, Professor of Medieval Literature, Director of the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

‘Robe Blue Blue Durrow’ (2018) is included in Sea Star: Sean Scully at the National Gallery (13 April – 11 August 2019): (accessed 17 June 2019)

HUMAN is showing at the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 8 May – 15 October 2019: (accessed 17 June 2019)

For the CNAA Collection at Senate House Library and Scully’s ’26.7.74 No.1/4’:  (accessed 17 June 2019)