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Books and Illuminated Texts

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the art of illumination and Renaissance printing was revived by the pre-Raphaelites. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in England and Howard Pyle in the United States designed books in historical styles and printed them with traditional fonts, papers, and bindings. Violet Oakley, an acolyte of the pre-Raphaelites and a student of Pyle, developed a lifelong interest in calligraphy and book design.  

Oakley’s most elaborate Arts and Crafts books were two folios that explicated the themes of her murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. In 1922, she published The Holy Experiment: A Message to the World from Pennsylvania, a leather-covered, limited-edition folio with color plates of murals in the Governor’s Grand Executive Reception Room and the Senate Chamber. Eleven years later, she released the companion volume, Law Triumphant: A Portfolio in Two Parts Containing the Opening of the Book of the Law and the Miracle of Geneva, with color plates of the murals in the Supreme Court Chamber and portraits of the delegates to the League of Nations. In 1950, she designed The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn, 1644–1944 to commemorate the tercentenary of Penn’s birth.  

To explain the symbolism of The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, a triptych produced in 1924 for the Vassar College Alumnae House, Oakley created an illuminated manuscript of the same name and placed it on a lectern in the room in the manner of a Bible. For Great Women of the Bible: A Series of Paintings in the Room of the Pastoral Aid Society, First Presbyterian Church, Germantown, she composed a black-and-white guide to the murals in calligraphy in 1949. 

Oakley wrote and illustrated two short biographies in the form of theatrical sketches: Samuel F. B. Morse: A Dramatic Outline of the Father of Telegraphy and the Founder of the National Academy of Design in 1939 and Cathedral of Compassion: A Dramatic Outline of the Life of Jane Addams, 1860–1935 in 1955. 

Throughout her career, Oakley illuminated texts for professional and personal purposes. Her design of the Philadelphia Award included a scroll honoring the annual recipient. She created illuminations to illustrate Christ My Refuge: One of Seven Hymns by Mary Baker Eddy, a book published by the Christian Science Church in 1939. Oakley was called upon by schools to illuminate honor rolls listing the names of their alumni who died in the world wars. Because medieval illuminations evoked sacred texts, she often designed and printed her personal Christmas cards in illuminated calligraphy.  

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