Hilary M. Carey, ”The Secret of England’s Greatness’: Medievalism, Ornithology, and Anglican Imperialism in the Aboriginal Gospel Book of Sir George Grey’

Lancelot Threlkeld from the Aboriginal Gospel Book
Lancelot Threlkeld from the Aboriginal Gospel Book. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. GMS82

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries holds many treasures, but one of the more remarkable is the Aboriginal Gospel Book (Grey MS 82). This is work of unique importance because it contains the only manuscript copy of the first translation of the gospel into any Australian Aboriginal language. The translation was completed by the missionary Lancelot Threlkeld and presented to the bibliophile and statesman Sir George Grey on 26 June 1858. But this was not the end of the story.

In an amazing transformation, Grey commissioned the artist Annie Layard to give the Aboriginal Gospel Book a medieval makeover. An early enthusiast for the Gothic style, Layard made use of models from Victorian printed books on heraldry and medieval calligraphy as well as drawing on original medieval manuscripts. She also used her talents as an ornithological illustrator to decorate the margins of the manuscript with scientifically accurate pictures of Australian native birds.

Illumination by Annie Layard
Illumination by Annie Layard. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. GMS82

Starting with a forensic analysis of the manuscript, Cary’s essay in JVC 16.3 weaves together the threads which came together to create an extraordinary cultural artefact. It sheds light on the world of some fascinating Victorians and their world, including the artist Annie Layard, her ornithologist husband, Edgar Layard, the missionary Lancelot Threlkeld and the colonial patron, Sir George Grey. It argues that Layard’s transformation of the Aboriginal Gospel Book can be understood forms one episode in the Anglican imperialism of the second half of the nineteenth century for which Victorian Gothic was an entirely suitable artistic, scientific and intellectual vehicle. Tracking down the sources for the Aboriginal Gospel Book has been a labour of love for Hilary Carey, a medievalist and religious historian at the University of Newcastle NSW.

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