Evelyn Waugh’s Blood Book

Dubbed “The Victorian Blood Book,” this unusual album was found in the collection of Waugh, who was a collector of Victoriana. The book includes 41 pages of religious decoupage/collage work tinted with blood-red ink. It includes extensive religious commentary, and depicts the struggles of faith and life and the ultimate victory of Christ.

Here’s how it’s described by the Harry Ransom Center  (University of Texas at Austin), which currently holds it, as well as all of Waugh’s manuscripts and his library:

Its decoupage was assembled from several hundred engravings, many taken from books of etchings by William Blake, as well as other illustrations from early nineteenth-century books. The principal motifs are natural (birds, animals, and especially snakes) and Christian (images of the crucifixion, scenes from the Bible, and crusaders). Drops of red india ink and extensive religious commentary have been added to many of the images. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and after more than 150 years, the adhesion of the decoupages is still perfect. The book bears an inscription by one John Bingley Garland to his daughter Amy and dated September 1, 1854: “A legacy left in his lifetime for her future examination by her affectionate father.” Shortly afterwards, she married the Reverend Richard Pyper, so the album was probably an early wedding present.

How does one “read” such an enigmatic object? We understandably find elements of the grotesque and surreal. But our eyes view it differently from Victorian ones. As Garland’s descendants have written, “our family doesn’t refer to…’the Blood Book;’ we refer to it as “Amy’s Gift” and in no way see it as anything other than a precious reminder of the love of family and Our Lord.”

The first plate contains a short table of contents and the title “Durenstein!” (Dürenstein, the Austrian castle in which Richard the Lionhearted was held captive). The title and the theme of many of the plates relates to the spiritual battles encountered by Christians along the path of life and the “blood” to Christian sacrifice. According to the Garland family, “it is full of symbols of both Human and Non-Human ‘Crusaders and Protectors’ of God and Christianity and most of the Verses, Quotes, etc are encouraging one to turn to God as our Saviour.”

The work of a father for his daughter, it seems to alternately mystify and horrify the secular readers who come across it from time to time and reproduce the images on blogs and even in YouTube videos. Dismissed as a grotesque, they laugh off as yet another curio of those hung up Victorians.

But imagine, if you will, the father who labored over this gift for his daughter (and indications are that he did it himself). It’s of exceptional craftsmanship, with the images vivid and the decoupage still holding over a century later. The pages include quotes from scripture and poetry. For example, Wordsworth’s profound “Intimations of Immortality” is juxtaposed with a passage from Job and images from the natural world and of a Roman victory procession, crating a portrait of God’s creation moving through life to death, which is ever present.

Gardner was a prosperous businessman, but also, quite clearly, a devout, high-Church Christian. The blood of Christ was shed for our redemption, so it’s always had deep significance that a modern secular audience–unable to separate it from images of the blood and gore they encounter entertainment and news–can no longer grasp. The blood is sacred.

The cross is at the center of our experience. The blood of Christ is what redeems us from that experience. Rather than a ghoulish artifact of a backwards age, it’s a powerful, tender, and beautiful gift. It is father reminding a daughter on the cusp of her adult life, that this life will include a great deal of suffering, but also joy and, at the end, glory. And that all of it was bought for a price. That’s why he marked every page with a vivid symbol of that price.

See a selection of the book at Retronaut.


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