A Designer’s Portfolio, 16th Century-Style

From the original Macc Book – as used by designers in the 1500s
Before black vinyl folders, and way before the website, the Mediaeval ancestors of today’s graphic designers produced ‘model’ or ‘pattern’ books to show their work to potential clients. Only a handful survive but the British Library has recently discovered a prime example – the so-called Macclesfield Alphabet Book

From the original Macc Book – as used by designers in the 1500s

Before black vinyl folders, and way before the website, the Mediaeval ancestors of today’s graphic designers produced ‘model’ or ‘pattern’ books to show their work to potential clients. Only a handful survive but the British Library has recently discovered a prime example – the so-called Macclesfield Alphabet Book.

“…and with this alphabet we achieved best of breed stand-out in the highly competitive gruel sector…”

Produced c1500, the book is filled with designs for different styles of script, letters, initials and decorative borders. All are believed to have come from one workshop, where the book would have been used not just in ye olde pitche meetinge but also to teach assistants how to reproduce the house styles.

There are 14 different types of decorative alphabets featured, including decorative initials with faces

‘foliate’ alphabets, ie those featuring leaves or other foliage

a zoomorphic alphabet

plus, the Library says, large, coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings

as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold.

“Yes, very nice, but can you make my coat of arms bigger?”

The Library is appealing for donations so that it can acquire the book, which it describes as being of “outstanding significance” and which has been in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield since around 1750. So far it has raised £340,000 of the £600,000 purchase price. If you can help, please email chloe.strickland@bl.uk or gabrielle.filmer-pasco@bl.uk

I asked the British Library about whether people should use gloves, here’s what they had to say:

“We recommend that people do not wear gloves when handling collection items unless they are touching certain vulnerable surfaces such as un-protected photographs, lead seals or the surface of a globe.

Instead we prefer people to ensure that they have clean, dry hands. There are several reasons for this. Gloves can blunt touch and make people less manually dextrous as they cannot feel the item that they are handling. This can cause them to grab at the item they are viewing or to hold it too firmly. This can actually increase rather than minimise the risk of damage to the item.

It is also very difficult to turn or lift pages with gloved hands. We have recently filmed a series of short videos which demonstrate the best way to handle and use different types of collection items.

This includes a video entitled ‘Using Gloves with Collection items’ which demonstrates how difficult it is to turn or lift pages with gloved hands. These videos can be viewed on our website by following this link.

Lastly gloves can also catch on loose pigments or fibres as well as picking up and transferring dust.”

  • I absolutely love this, thank you for posting.

    Yes, the significance of this “book” is of great importance. Go beyond the idea that it’s about the alphabet. Consider:

    hand drawn illustrations by candle/oil lamp with a quill pen
    hand made paper
    hand bound book

    Makes everything I create on a computer so insignificant.

    I hope the library is able to raise the funds so it can be added to the public collection. (I’ll contribute what I can.)


  • “Yes, very nice, but can you make my coat of arms bigger?”

    Funniest thing I have read all day!

  • This is a pretty cool posting, they actually did some pretty cool stuff with font design.

  • dies irae

    “ye olde pitche meetinge”


  • I love this my hands are tingling just reading about it. Im feeling inspired to do something similar hummmm …(drifts off in creative thought)

  • fitley

    These illustrations are fantastic. If they’re looking for donations they might want to consider using a professional photographer, you know, someone who knows how to shoot pictures with their thumbs OUT of the picture. I’m just sayin’.

  • Yikes! Are those the current owner’s grubby, greasy mitts all over the place? WHITE GLOVES please! Where’s an archivist when you need one? If I were the buyer, I’d use these pics as evidence that the price should come down. Signed, an ex-Museum Employee Who Wasn’t Even Allowed to Touch (sniff) STUDENT Work Without Gloves

  • Ramone

    Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves when touching a 500 year old book?

  • asterix_51

    so about the gloves…not to side track. I remember a few years back going to see the rare book collection at the Walters musuem in Baltimore, one of my prof’s from grad school was a book conservator there and he and his colleagues started pulling out all these rare books and illuminated manuscripts and let us freely thumb thru them, and someone asked abut gloves, and this is what they said “as long as ur hands are clean its better not to use gloves, apparently the oils in your skin help to preserve the fiber in those papers”

    am sure there are different schools of thought on this ..

  • Marcy

    Utterly exquisite. I find myself at a loss for words.

  • Jens Alfke

    Whew, that’s definitely a MaccBook Classic! It seems about the size of my MacBook Pro, considerably more scuffed-up, but the screen resolution looks fantastic. On the downside, I suspect I’d go blind trying to read my email in those ornate blackletter fonts.

  • Edward Ripley-Duggan

    Absolutely correct about gloves generally being unnecessary. The same is true of fine bookbindings, which thrive on (careful) handling. The natural oils of human skin are a perfect match for those in leathers and vellum. Gloves can breed clumsiness, and are not that widely used in institutional settings these days. Varies from institution to institution. naturally…

    This is an utterly amazing codex. I’m not sure how many such model books survive, but it can certainly be counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, I’d be interested to know of any others–I’ve seen preliminary trial leaves as part of manuscripts (one such sold recently in London), but this is the finest thing of its kind known to me.

  • I’m thinking the key to bare hands and touching these old books is maybe the material. Parchment. Unlike papers, leathers *like* oils.

  • Tori H

    Ok, when is the reproduction of this book coming out? I want one!

  • Very nice! Pretty useless though – where’s the @ and the euro symbol? Seriously, a most humbling post, reminds me that I need to sharpen my pencils.

    Thanks for the post!


  • Daniel Hostetter

    As both a designer and a history buff I can;t sat just how kewl this post is and just how important the purchase would be. having been lucky enough to see similar work in real life it has so much more impact in front i you. The scale and depth and vibrancy of the colors… wow! I can’t say how often I’ve turned to this style of design for inspiration in my own work. Look around and you can see Mediaeval design everywhere today.

    I want a copy of the book when it comes out as well.

  • Thanks for addressing the gloves issue. I will sleep better!

  • Joann, you made great valid points. Not only the creativity behind this book, but the circumstances under which these beautiful fonts were created.

    Imagine how long it could have taken these artists to complete a full library of the alphabet in Upper and Lower case…if that were the way.

    Thanks for posting this…it just makes the mind wonder and create even more…beyond what we use everyday.

  • Wow.

    That is quite something. I want a copy of such a book.


    How hard can it be to draw one out for yourself? I might try, despite the obvious drawbacks of being neither a caligrapher nor an good at art or drawing.

  • I like this portfolio. :) So I like 16 century, I travelled in Loire castles, it’s beutiful!

  • Thank you very much for sharing this great article.it is hand made library of 16th century.i am inspired to do something like that.

  • rwelzenb

    Fitley–it’s very difficult to take pictures of rare books without fingers in the frame. The only way to get books like this to open flat enough to take a good picture without using the hands is to put it in a cradle and press it under glass–not great for very old and rare bindings.

  • Daniel

    These are all so beautiful and inspirational.

    Thank you for uploading them. :)

  • Betty

    It is so exciting to see this type of discovery and such a wonderful find. It is so special to be able to gaze through your window into another time of human history and another time of crafting art. I also agree with Joann. This 500 year old portfolio is the product of an artist with rudimentary tools. Quill pen, ink, hand made paper, a bit of gold, and color as could be made and his imagination, sitting at either an open window by day or bent over a tilted wooden table by candle light or oil lamp, sitting on a backless stool. Tools that were more than enough to make his wonderful contribution. Its sites and posts like this that value and hopefully inspire the continuation of hand rendered art. There is something incredibly special about pen to paper or brush to paint and paint to canvas or cloth or board. Thank you for sharing this very special post. I can’t resist attempting my own fanciful themed alphabet now. Thanks for sharing this.