On Materiality

Liam Miller, Louis le Brocquy, and Thomas Kinsella have created an artefact that re-envisions what material translation is. In the essay component of the Capstone, I outlined the importance of the materiality of the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of The Tain. For more details on the other components of the Open Collections Capstone, visit the ‘About’ page above. This digital component has given me the opportunity to explore le Brocquy’s ink drawings in the detail they demand. This in-depth investigation acts as an appendage to the essay in order to outline clearly the material considerations that lead to the creation of this edition. This can also be viewed as the colophon to my essay, as it usually accompanies livre d’artiste, similar to the one that appears in the Dolmen Press edition.

Liam Miller’s decision to reproduce the story as a livre d’artiste helps return creativity to the artefact, and his considered approach to the material object instils a reverence in readers for the contents, one which mimics the reverence typically attendant to the genre of Epic. Every aspect of the design of the edition is considered artistically, with le Brocquy, Miller and Kinsella’s work in dialogue with one another. Below outlines the history of le livre d’artiste and why the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of The Tain can be considered such.

Le livre d’artiste originated in France at the beginning of the 20th century, first appearing as an illustrated book. The defining factor was that the implement used to print was made by an artist rather than a technician on behalf of an artist. The products of this process were luxury, limited edition works, that were usually left unbound in order for them to be displayed. It also generally involved a publisher or writer commissioning a visual artist to illustrate a text specifically chosen to complement their practice (V&A). As le livre d’artiste became ‘the artists’ book’, new characteristics became central to the process. The practice became about publications which were created primarily as art themselves. They also functioned as an accessible way for people to disseminate and purchase art.

The simplicity of a book that is small in scale, costs relatively little to produce, and is easily replicable allows the work to flow outside of mainstream channels and reach an audience without institutional or commercial consent. The artists’ book offers a criticism of and alternative to these systems by circumventing them (Printed Matter).

Visual artist and academic AilbheNí Bhriain identifies The Tain as a livre d’artiste for a number of reasons. Ní Bhriain outlines the “carefully choreographed visual information” of the Dolmen edition in her essay Le Livre d’Artiste (Ní Bhriain 75). She notes that while le Brocquy’s content was “wholly Irish” it was always inspired by French art practices in “its formality and style” (Ní Bhriain 71). He admired figures like Georges Rouault and Pierre Bonnard; “artists responsible for some of the finest livres d’artiste” (Ní Bhriain 71). Liam Miller commissioned le Brocquy to illustrate The Tain in 1967, by which time le Brocquy had already illustrated ten other publications. This is in-keeping with the tradition of matching an artist to a text that suits their practice.

Ní Bhriain outlines the ways in which the Dolmen Press edition of The Tain reintroduces the importance of the material substrate in folkloric storytelling. It prioritises the material existence of the story, in search of the most fulfilling form with which audiences can engage. The aim, as outlined by Kinsella in his introduction, is to create a “living version” of the story (Kinsella vii).

Ní Bhriain’s essayprovides a detailed list of le Brocquy’s visual interventions in the work. Le Brocquy created 136 ink brush drawings for the project, which appear as follows:

  • 6 departs-de-chapître, which come at the end of a chapter.
  • 7 débuts-de-chapître, which come at the beginning of a chapter.
  • 23 images at the bottom of a page, known as cul-de-lapes.
  • 14 full-page plates, which fill a single page of the publication.
  • 1 double spread which covers two full pages and in this case, depicts the battle scene.
  • 3 drawings that connect from one full-page plate over to the next page.
  • 1 drawing spread across the bottom of two pages.

(Ailbhe Ní Bhriain 73)

Miller’s “preference for type design, artful margins and illustrations on a generous page” facilitates creativity within the publication (Ní Bhriain 70). Le Brocquy had the space to create works of visual art throughout the publication as a result of Miller’s vision. Miller had the opportunity to make this edition “an imaginative effort to bring the whole of a national and literary classic into contemporary artistic focus”, which he accomplished as a result of his creative collaboration with Kinsella and le Brocquy (Redshaw 90).

Materially speaking, there are three separate editions of The Tain,two of which were produced in September 1969, and the third in 1970. The first is a cloth edition with a run of 1700 copies. It is printed on paper specifically made for the project by Swiftbrook Paper Mills, and contained maps and colour plates (Ní Bhriain 72). All of the editions have a colophon attached which outlines the printing information including font size, style etc. This is a usual trait for livre d’artiste, normally known as a “achève d’imprimer” (Ní Bhriain 72). The size of this printing is important because later editions are smaller, which informs the size and placement of le Brocquy’s ink brush drawings. This first edition has an “11 by 7.5 inch page and each page has top and bottom margins of 1.5 and 3.5 inches” with “center and side margins of 0.5 and 2.5 inches.” (Ní Bhriain 72).

The second edition is a collector’s edition with a run of 50 copies. This edition was bound in vermilion Oasis Niger goatskin, with le Brocquy’s shield images embossed in gold on the cover (Ní Bhriain 72). The shield images are pictured below. Each of these copies is signed by the author, illustrator and publisher. They also include additional Warp Spasm drawings (Ní Bhriain 72). This collector’s edition is in-keeping with the original livre d’artiste tradition because of its limited run and opulent detailing.

The final edition was published in 1970 and is an Oxford University Press (OUP) trade edition. According to Ní Bhriain, this is an illustrated book, not an artists’ book. This edition has thirty-three of the original one-hundred-and-thirty-six drawings, resulting in the drawings having a more ornamental function than le Brocquy intended.  This edition is a smaller edition and as a result has no marginal illustrations. It is limited to the full plate, the débuts-de-chapître, and the départs-de-chapître. The quality of the paper is poorer, which softens le Brocquy’s originally sharp images (Ní Bhriain 75).

The OUP edition complies more with the principles of the later artists’ book than le livre d’artiste. Kinsella was resolved to create “a cheap paperback, available to as many people as wanted it” as a reaction to finding poorly constructed but wildly expensive Celtic manuscripts before the creation of The Tain (Redshaw 91). This is in-keeping with the criteria for the modern understanding of an artists’ book. The lower quality of paper and fewer illustrations mean that it becomes a cheaper work to produce and purchase. It is easier to disseminate because it is published by OUP rather than Dolmen Press, which is an independent press. Each element of the material existence of the publication, including the publishing and dissemination, is in dialogue with the creative intentions of its creators.

This edition of The Tain is a true collaboration between artist, author, and publisher, which is clear from the influence that each aspect has on the narrative. By engaging with the tradition of artists’ books they have redefined the preservation of Irish folklore. This is fostered by le Brocquy’s illustrations which bring about a “sensitive symbioses between verbal text and visual image” (Ní Bhriain 76). Le Brocquy’s abstract illustrative approach, as well as Kinsella’s considered and prudent translation of the text, is a notably artistic addition to the history of the preservation the Táin Bó Cuailnge’. Kinsella, Miller, and le Brocquy have created an impressive ode to the preservation of texts by allowing creativity, both linguistically and materially, into the edition.


“Artist Book.” Printed Matter, New York, www.printedmatter.org/about/artist-book.

Bhriain, Ailbhe Ni. “Le Livre D’Artiste: Louis Brocquy and The Tain (1969).” New Hibernia Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2001, pp. 69–82., doi:10.1353/nhr.2001.0014.

Kinsella, Thomas, and Louis le Brocquy. The Táin. Dolmen Press, 1969.

“What Are Artists’ Books?” Artists’ Books, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 23 June 2015, www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/books-artists/.

Redshaw, Thomas Dillon. “Making The Tain, 1951–70: Thomas Kinsella, Louis Le Brocquy, and Liam Miller.” New Hibernia Review, vol. 23, no. 1, 2019, pp. 86–105., doi:https://doi.org/10.1353/nhr.2019.0006.