The Newberry’s John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing and the Book Arts is one of the world’s leading resources in the field, with strengths that include calligraphy, design, the history of book collecting, and the history of libraries. Esther Inglis’s 1606 miniature calligraphic manuscript, A New Yeeres Gvift, which never fails to amaze readers, is relevant to all of these categories.
Inglis (1570/71–1624) is the best-known English calligrapher of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, in part because 59 of her manuscripts—including two at the Newberry—survive, the greatest number of extant works of any calligrapher of the period. Born to French Huguenot parents who emigrated to Edinburgh, she was taught calligraphy by her mother, Marie Presot, herself a skilled scribe. Only one specimen of Presot’s work survives, also at the Newberry. Inglis helped support her family through her writing and was accomplished in a wide variety of scripts, including secretary hand, chancery, and mirror writing. Although other calligraphers of the period surpassed her in beauty of form and decoration, she excelled at writing in minuscule—indeed, hers is the most minuscule of minuscules.
Inglis’s work has long been sought after by collectors, even during her lifetime. In 1620 the Bodleian Library, Oxford, acquired an example, which the diarist John Evelyn noted seeing there in 1654. This institutional acquisition is significant because it bolsters the notion that there was a thriving scribal culture in seventeenth-century England that coexisted with print culture; in fact, the Bodleian was interested in such manuscripts at the same time that it resisted collecting popular printed works such as almanacs and plays.
This is an excerpt from an essay written by Jill Gage that appears in our recent book, The Newberry 125, Stories of Our Collection. See this object featured in “The Vault,” a blog on Slate.com about historic materials at institutions around the world.