How far back does the practice of keeping a sketchbook go? The discovery of a 13th-century portfolio of ink drawings, far pre-dating Leonardo da Vinci’s famous notebooks of the 15th century, provides us with a much earlier date than we might expect. The medieval sketchbook in question is by an otherwise unknown frenchman called Villard de Honnecourt. It contains more than 250 line drawings across 33 pages of parchment, depicting a variety of subjects including animals, architecture, and religious iconography. The drawings are accompanied by annotations in Villard’s own hand. But is it really a sketchbook? In this article I explore this question, and discover what it reveals about medieval artistic practice.
Who was Villard de Honnecourt?
Everything we know about the individual behind the drawings comes from the portfolio itself. In it, he introduces himself by name in a written caption, from which we know that he was from Honnecourt, a small village near the French city of Cambrai. The year of his birth isn’t known, but his architectural studies of the cathedrals of Laon and Rheims suggest that the drawings were produced between 1225 and 1235. The only specific biographical detail Villard gives is a mention of a journey to Hungary, and the sparse details of his life have led many historians to attempt to fill in the gaps. Some have suggested that he was a professional architect or a master mason, but no mention of this is made in the portfolio itself and, if this were the case, we would expect his name to appear in contemporary records. There are no such surviving records, and if it weren’t for the discovery of his medieval sketchbook there would be no evidence of his existence at all.
Is it really a sketchbook?
What is the definition of a sketchbook? All artists have a unique answer to what their sketchbooks mean to them, as we’ve discovered in our Inside the Sketchbook series, but in broad terms a sketchbook can be defined as a place for the informal documentation of an artist’s internal process. This intimacy is why we value the sketchbooks of great artists so much today— they seem to reveal things about the mind of the artist that finished artworks don’t.
At first glance, the portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt appears to fit squarely into this definition. His drawings range from quick sketches to developed and detailed studies, revealing a multitude of interests from geometry to lion-taming, accompanied by annotations and notes written predominantly in Old French— the language Villard would have spoken everyday (as opposed to Latin, the language of the elite). Looking through the pages of the book, it’s easy to feel like we’re getting a glimpse into a curious mind.
However, there are many ways in which applying the term ‘sketchbook’ to the portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt is incongruous. It certainly wouldn’t have been how Villard described it. Medieval books were composed of leaves of parchment made from goat, calf, or sheep skin, bound with wood and leather covers. These were expensive commodities, so the idea of making a book dedicated to ‘sketching’ would have seemed insensible. Indeed, Villard de Honnecourt’s ‘sketchbook’ was bound after the drawings were made (it is unclear whether or not it was Villard that did this), so the drawings would have been made on loose leaves of parchment. It’s possible that it wasn’t originally intended to be a book at all.
For many artists today keeping a sketchbook is a personal pursuit— they do not necessarily expect anyone else to ever see or use their sketchbooks. Villard’s written annotations suggest an entirely different expectation. He addresses his reader, explains the drawings, and gives advice to architects and masons. Is it possible that it is not a medieval sketchbook, but a medieval instruction manual?
There is definitely a sense that Villard is trying to pass on technical knowledge to a future reader, but since it was discovered that the most advanced architectural studies in the portfolio were an anonymous later addition there has been much debate about the quality of Villard’s own credentials. While his images are very beautiful and clearly made by someone who was accomplished in drawing, many of them are flawed and wouldn’t have been very useful in a practical sense. For example, over two pages he details the parts needed to assemble church furniture, but stops short of actually telling the reader how to put them together. It could be that he saw and understood how these things were made to a certain extent, but lacked the practical experience to effectively communicate it.
The identity of Villard de Honnecourt and the intention behind his drawings remain a tantalizing mystery. The remarkable survival of his drawings brings up many questions about the nature of creative expression in the middle ages. It is generally frowned upon among art historians to apply modern concepts to historical objects, but I’m inclined to say that ‘sketchbook’ is a useful way to describe this collection of drawings. Whether it was intended to be a practical instruction manual, or if it was never meant to be a book at all, Villard’s drawings reveal his fascination in the world around him and the desire to dissect and document the things that interested him. If that isn’t in the spirit of a sketchbook, I’m not sure what is.
What drawing materials did Villard de Honnecourt use in his Medieval Sketchbook?
As previously mentioned, medieval European artists in Villard de Honnecourt’s time worked on vellum and parchment instead of paper. Sheets were made from sheep, calf, or goat skins (the term ‘vellum’ refers specifically to sheets made with calf skin) which were soaked to remove the hair and flesh, stretched, and then scraped to make a smooth, even surface. Parchment and vellum might look similar to paper, but it was very different to work with– it has a smooth but scratchy quality, unlike the softness of artist papers used today. Every sheet of parchment was texturally different, sometimes containing natural flaws like remaining hair follicles that needed to be navigated by the scribe or draughtsman. Any mistakes could be scraped out with a knife and then worked on top of again.
On many of Villard’s drawings we can see that he has sketched in the lines of a drawing using a silver or lead stylus. These drawing tools work in exactly the same way as a graphite pencil– silver and lead are relatively soft metals, so they are deposited onto the page as they are dragged across its surface. On top of the sketch, Villard consolidated the drawing with ink. Black ink could be made by either combining a carbon black pigment with gum Arabic (similar to the shellac-based Indian inks commonly used today), or by making oak gall ink. Oak galls (the tannic acid-containing growths found on oak trees formed by nesting wasps) were crushed and soaked in water. Ferrous sulphate was then added to the solution which reacted with the tannic acid to produce a deep black-brown ink. Gum Arabic was used as a binding agent so ensure that the ink adhered to the surface.
On the following page from Villard’s sketchbook we can see both an ink drawing (at the top) and a fainter silver or lead stylus sketch below:
Today, parchment and vellum is rarely used except for certain governmental documents, but other materials familiar to medieval draughtsmen are still available to artists today and can be interesting to work with. Silverpoint is beginning to become a popular drawing medium again– it has a certain delicate softness and over time the silver lines tarnish and become warmer- a quality that sets it apart from graphite. Most drawing papers are too smooth to accept a silverpoint stylus, and should be treated with a silverpoint ground before drawing. Lead, on the other hand, is softer than silver so a leadpoint stylus can be used on most artist papers.
Oak gall ink is relatively easy to make and there are many recipes available online. Alternatively, it is produced as a readymade ink by Zecchi. You may not find a quill to use it with, but dip pens work in the same way.
The Relationship Between the Artist and Their Materials
Developing a Daily Drawing Practice With the Royal Drawing School
A Guide to Dip Pens and Drawing Ink
Everything You Need to Know About Drawing Paper
Shop Sketchbooks on jacksonsart.com
Fascinating explanation of sketches (whether from sketchbook or otherwise). Thanks.
Thank you Tom!
This is an amazing article. Thank you for
your in depth research and extraordinary
You’re welcome Timmi, thanks for reading!
I enjoyed this article on a medieval
sketchbook tremendously. Last year took
the V&A Course From Court to Cloister
which included a section on Psalters and
Hi Barbara, we love to hear it! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for this… it strikes me how often
we use bright white papers and black
black drawing material now. The pages
illustrated are quietly warm and tones
soft too… lines thin and barely there. I
know it is all to do with the surface and
tools… but it is so different in
atmosphere isn’t it? So enjoyed getting
inside Villard’s world a bit.
Thank you Frances, yes it’s true, warmer tones do provide a totally different atmosphere. Do you think you’ll try it?
Do you have a link for the MSS at the
Hi Susan, it’s MS number is MS fr.19093 and the whole book is digitised here
Love this article. Fascinating and interesting
to read and not too “lecture-based” so that
my very tired mind had no trouble reading –
and above all- registering what I was
reading. Very interesting and fascinating.
So glad you enjoyed it, thank you!