Illuminating a Craftswoman

The work of British arts and craftswoman Jessie Bayes (1876-1970) has been described as ethereal, magical, and an “expression of things felt and seen.” Cranbrook has in its collection three of Bayes’s works, acquired by George Booth between 1920 and 1929. The illuminated manuscript “Hymns to the Elements” is one of her most stunning works.

Bayes was known for her work in woodcarving, painting, calligraphy, gesso and gilding, and stained glass, but is best known for her ethereal illuminated manuscripts inspired by Scandinavian, Celtic, and French poetry. She often wrote the texts which were dominated by themes of romance and mysticism and strove to beautify everyday life and “wed the physical and spiritual.” The art of illumination requires patience and laborious attention to detail, which is clearly evident in “Hymns to the Elements.” Bayes, who combined tempera with watercolor and gold gilt, developed her own sense of jewel-like color, often in blues and golds. She felt that the “idea of colour symbolizing love should be above all precious to an illuminator, since, in illuminating, colour can reach its intensest [sic] height of purity and radiance.”

Hymns to the Elements, ca 1923. One of Bayes’ largest and most elaborate illuminated manuscripts. Close-up of Athena, Mistress of the Air.

Jessie Bayes was raised in an artistic family where the four children were taught by their father Alfred, an etcher and book illustrator, to appreciate beauty at an early age. Her brother Gilbert became a sculptor, her brother Walter was a painter who also designed theatrical scenery, illustrated books, and lectured about art, and her sister Emmeline worked in enamel.

Bayes received art education from evening classes at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, which grew directly out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris and John Ruskin. There, Bayes learned to gild on wood and discovered a love for writing and illumination which she deemed among the strongest of the curriculum. She was also heavily influenced by her employment with Sydney Cockerell, an engraver and former librarian for William Morris. In this role, he had been responsible for completing the Kelmscott Press publications after Morris’s death.

Close-up view of Hephaistos, the Fire King.

Bayes exhibited widely with the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, and at the Royal Academy and the Baillie Gallery in London, alongside artists like Walter Crane, Arthur Nevill Kirk, and Omar Ramsden. In 1922, Bayes exhibited some of her illuminated books, as well as paintings on vellum, fans, and panels, at the Art Center in New York. Bayes gradually expanded her repertoire to include painted and gilded decoration on furniture as well as interior design and stained glass work. Jessie Bayes died in Paddington, Central London in 1970.

For Jessie’s personal views on family, life, and art, read The Bayes Saga (1970).

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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