Maxims and Precepts of the Saviour… by Henry Noel Humphreys (1848)

page1_2With its lithographic text surrounded by wide and profusely illustrated borders, Maxims and precepts of the Saviour is a beautiful gift book containing a selection of Christian morals as described in the Four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  The precepts selected, such as “Behold the fowls of the air…” and “Consider the lilies of the field”, lend themselves particularly well to their chromolithographic borders composed alternately of majestic birds and vibrant flowers.

Maxims and precepts… was designed by British illustrator and author, Henry Noel Humphreys.  Born in Birmingham in 1807, Humphreys was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School before training as an artist in Brussels.  In 1833 he married Marianne Bland and the pair travelled the Continent, its architecture and scenery, particularly around Rome, Italy, providing Humphreys with inspiration that would resurface continually throughout his career.  On his return Humphreys settled in Bayswater, London, where he and Marianne mingled with leading artistic, literary and scientific figures of the time, including the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of English painters, poets and critics established in 1848.  In fact, his son was a model for John Everett Millais’ 1849-1850 painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’.

Humphreys’ writing found its way into many publications, beginning with periodicals such as the Architecture Magazine (1837-1839), Loudon’s Gardener Magazine (1838), British Wild Flowers (1844), Westwood’s British butterflies and their transformations (1841) and British moths and their transformations (1845).  He was enthusiastic about natural history and publications such as these, along with his own The Genera of British Moths (1860) and The Genera and Species of British Butterflies (c1859) addressed issues of species identification and habitat without sacrificing artistry.

page5_2Humphreys’ artistic abilities were also showcased in many illustrated and illuminated manuscripts. These included his titles: Illuminated books of the Middle Ages (1849), The art of illumination and missal painting (1849), Masterpieces of the early printers and engravers (1870), as well as those of others – Hans Holbein’s celebrated dance of death (1868) and William Blades’ The biography and typography of William Caxton (1877) are fine examples.  From the illustrations it’s clear that Humphreys understood the connection between a page’s design and its written content.

It was in gift books, however, that Humphreys reached the pinnacle of his career.  Lithographic printing allowed him to combine his illustrations with both ornament and calligraphy, and examples of some of his best work can be seen in The illuminated calendar and home diary (1845), A record of the Black Prince (1849) and Sentiments and similes of William Shakespeare (1851).  Many of Humphreys’ works, intended for the gift market, also exhibited his experimental cover designs.  He was renowned for bindings of wood and papier mâché, so his pieces could be easily identified stylistically.  Advances in industrial technologies resulted in coverings that were bold and luxurious, and which often involved the use of embossed leather and intricate die castings.

cover_2The Library’s copy of Maxims and precepts… is no exception.  The binding is designed from a peculiar style of ornament, supposed to be the “Opus Anglicum”, much prized in the 10th and 11th centuries.  Bound in black leather, with an unusual relief paper overlay of hand-coloured red and green leaves and blue and gold borders, the book is certainly striking.  It includes a central onlay of grey paper upon which the title appears blocked in gold and in relief – its smaller letters interspersed between large capitals.  It also has heavy bevelled boards, the edges of which are tooled in gold, and decorative blocked turn-ins as well as marbled endpapers in the swirled nonpareil pattern.  Individual pages have chromolithographic borders comprised of interweaving scrolls which contain the scientific and popular names of the birds and flowers that appear inside the borders.  The precepts themselves appear in calligraphy with bold illuminated illustrations.

By the time of his death in 1879 Humphreys was well-known and admired for his contributions to the commercially produced book.  His early interest in art and architectural colour was evident in all of his work.  As Simon Cooke of The Victorian Web suggests, Humphreys achieved an unusual depth of feeling in his bindings, where casings, though ornamental, reinforced the book’s contents.[1]  He certainly knew how to combine his skills as a writer, illustrator and calligrapher with his passion for experimental cover design in a way that ensured an expressive unity between the inner and outer surfaces.

Maxims and precepts of the Saviour is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at RB 226 ZHU


Maxims and precepts of the Saviour: Selections of quotes from the Gospels.  Illuminated by H.N. Humphreys. London: Longman & Co., 1848

Cooke, Simon. “Henry Noel Humphreys as a designer of cloth bindings”. The Victorian web: Literature, history & culture in the age of Victoria. 2015. Accessed 9 January 2017.

Cooke, Simon. “Henry Noel Humphreys as a designer of cloth bindings”. The Victorian web: Literature, history & culture in the age of Victoria. 2015. Accessed 9 January 2017.

Leathlean, Howard. “Humphreys, (Henry) Noel”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition published 2007. Accessed online 9 January 2017.

“Henry Noel Humphreys”, Wikipedia, accessed online 9 January 2017.

“Sir John Everett Millais, Bt “Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop)”, 1849-1850. Tate Galleries. Accessed online 9 January 2017.

Lee Hayes
February 2017

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