An emblem is a picture that brings to mind something other than itself, a badge or symbolic device. In other words, it is a picture that is also a word, or a text. Apart from the 1955 diary, the only other book I have from my mother’s hand is a collection of postcards that she assembled, illuminated and bound in leather, and gave to Jack for his birthday in June 1951, nine months before I was born.
In this book she assembled postcards available in British galleries in the 1940s and representing the canon of European art as understood at that time. The paintings that she has chosen are, in the large part, emblematic – an angel in adoration by Fra Angelico and one by Fillipo Lippi, Lippi’s Annunciation, Piero Della Francesca’s Nativity, Botticelli’s Nativity, and a Madonna of his in which an over-large Infant gropes at the Virgin’s breast, the Angel Raphael and Tobias from the school of Veroccio, Raphael’s Crucifixion, Michaelangelo’s Entombment, and a luscious Venus, Mercury and Cupid Corregio. Apart from the emblematic works, she has chosen por-traits: a girl by Maynardi, a lady in profile by Baldovinetti, a man named Condotierre (with an arrogant stare and a scar on his lip) by Antonello de Messine, Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredano, The Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Eleonora di Toledo by Bronzino, Jan Arnolfini and his pregnant wife Jeanne de Chenany by Jan van Eyck, and many more.
From each masterpiece Lesley has selected some detail for il-luminating the facing page. In spite of the emblematic nature of many of the works, Lesley’s ink and gouache illuminations are decorative rather than textual. From Fra Angelico’s adoring angel she has taken the detail, reminiscent of Greek and Roman necklaces, which surrounds the angel’s halo and added flowers in the colour of the wings and robe. She turns St Hubert’s hunting horn into a pattern of horns, also with flowers. Where suitable details cannot be found, she invents them in the colours and spirit of the painting. It is as though she has abandoned the emblematic and narrative in favour of the world of the decorative arts and embroidery, making her point opposite each card. Each of her decorations is constructed like a traditional illumination, with symmetry, pattern and composition dominating the pages.
In the above illumination to Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way, Lesley has homed in on a pair of peacocks. The birds are very complex emblems in the symbolic language of Renaissance painting, but she has chosen to eschew the textual nature of the painting, producing instead a decorative panel whose style and line are more in harmony with the Indian peasant paintings which she was to see in great numbers in the bazaars of New Delhi twenty years later. Lesley was a versatile artist and could draw subtly if she wished, so I must conclude that the style she chose for Jack’s birthday present was intentional. If Jack was closeted in his office wedded to the text, then she was, whether consciously or not, placing herself in another world. Lesley’s representational oils and other works up to the early 1970s, while by no means peasant or naïve art, share this eschewal of the emblematic, textual or intellectual. For her, the line, style, colour and composition were themselves the meaning of her art.