Christ Church manuscript appears in major Tate exhibition of women artists

One of Christ Church Library’s most significant manuscripts, a book of Psalms in French, written out in a large variety of scripts by the Franco-Scottish calligrapher Esther Inglis (c. 1569–1624) is currently on display at the exhibition Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain.

Now You See Us runs from 16 May to 13 October with Christ Church’s manuscript on display until August for conservation reasons. The exhibition celebrates over 100 women who forged public careers as artists and charts the journey of women to becoming professional artists.

The exhibition begins at the Tudor court with Levina Teerlinc (1510–1576) and Inglis, whose manuscripts contain Britain’s earliest known self-portraits by a woman artist. Christ Church’s manuscript contains Psalms written out in a variety of scripts, decorated in black and white, as well as Inglis’ self-portrait. The manuscript was presented to Queen Elizabeth I in the spring of 1599. The velvet binding displays a Tudor rose embroidered on red velvet, within a floral border picked out with seed pearls. The manuscript has been digitised and is freely available on Digital Bodleian.

Inglis was one of the earliest recorded women artists working in Britain and she is celebrated for her accomplished and beautiful manuscripts, which include tiny self-portraits. She authored more than 60 manuscript books and included her name and self-portrait in many. Raised in Scotland, she may have learnt the art of calligraphy from her mother, Marie Presot (active 1569–1574). Inglis seems to have produced manuscripts for both financial and religious reasons and to have presented finished articles to potential patrons, rather than working to commission. 

The exhibition ends in the early 20th century with women’s suffrage and the First World War. Women artists like Gwen John, Vanessa Bell and Helen Saunders played an important role in the emergence of modernism, abstraction and vorticism, but others, such as Anna Airy, who also worked as a war artist, continued to excel in conventional traditions. 

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Photographs of the binding and opening page of Inglis' book of Psalms