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Vellum at best

Tuesday 03/11/15

Debby Faulkner-Stevens

William Cowley, Parchment and Vellum Makers, have been all over the news recently as the costs of using vellum for Government and Royal documents has reared it’s head once again. Cowley’s themselves have put the case for the continued use of vellum far more eloquently than I ever could, and this can be read on their excellent website There is also intelligent and informed argument for the product as truly ‘green’ and sustainable, a topic unheard of in Medieval times when the monks scribing and illuminating away in cold monasteries would have accepted the material they worked on as another of God’s marvels, the beast who provided the vellum or parchment already having given them milk, meat, clothing, bone and horn for utensils, sinew for thread and tallow for candles and soap.

The vellum used for the charters and documents is of a different grade to the one I use for miniature painting. The news item on Radio 4 quoted a price of, I believe, £14 for a sheet of A4 size. I would be very happy to pay that! I use Kelmscott vellum which costs more, but I choose my own sizes, the preparation of a skin takes three weeks of man power and is highly skilled with the process unchanged over almost a thousand years. The end result for the vellum I work on is an incredibly smooth surface on a fairly stiff sheet of material, at first glance not unlike a very thin sheet of plastic. The magic happens when you apply the paint – there is quite simply nothing like it.
I remember when I first started working on vellum and went to collect a fresh supply from the works. The secretary had told me they sent the material out all over the world but rarely saw any work on it, so I took in a couple of miniatures with me. The craftsman who had prepared my vellum came in to the office, gave my paintings careful consideration, then, in that wonderfully laconic North Bucks way declared, “Mmm, very nice, but you can’t see much of the vellum can you?” Not a surprising comment when you consider he had spent three weeks of his life scraping and sanding to produce a perfect piece of vellum, only for me to come along and obscure most of it with paint.
It still makes me smile.
I do hope the politicians vote to continue using vellum and parchment; for the history, the continuity, the sheer quality and longevity of the material and, of course, for the future of William Cowley, the only parchment makers left in England. I am off now to have a look at the link given on Cowley’s site and compose an email to my local MP ...


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