It is a story that haunted renowned Newfoundland and Labrador artist Gerald Squires from the time he was a boy.
As a seven-year-old child, sitting around the dining room table in his home in Exploits Island, Notre Dame Bay, Mr. Squires and his brothers took turns reading verses from the Bible. At the time, it was the only book the family had in the house.
A preoccupation that began in 1945 would follow the province’s most celebrated artist throughout his creative life until he revisited its themes a final time before his death in October 2015.
Celebrated and decorated
Mr. Squires was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1999, awarded an honorary doctorate by Memorial in 1992, presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2003 and inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Hall of Honour in 2008.
At his request, Memorial University Libraries has acquired Mr. Squires’ final project: an original, hand-bound manuscript of The Legend of Job, illuminated by Mr. Squires and lettered and designed by the artist’s close friend and fellow artist Boyd Chubbs.
“It is a contemporary rendering of a medieval manuscript.”
The book, which took the men more than two years to complete, looks and feels otherworldly, as if it is from another era. Yet, it is also oddly contemporary.
“There is no other book like it in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Patrick Warner, special collections librarian with Memorial University Libraries.
“It is a contemporary rendering of a medieval manuscript. When you sit down with one page of the text from a printout of the King James Bible and then you read the text written in script by Boyd, with that decoration and that colour, it is a completely different reading experience. You sink into it, line by line. It has more resonance.”
1/ Introduction to The Legend of Job
2/ Job Rose Up Early in the Morning and Offered Burnt Offerings
3/ Behold Even to the Moon
4/ Then the Lord Answered Job Out of the Whirlwind
5/ Canst Thou Draw Out Leviathan
6/ What is Man That You Make So Much of Him and Set Your Heart Upon Him, Visit Him Every Morning and Test Each Moment?
The making of a national treasure
It was a bitter December morning in 2013.
Mr. Chubbs recalls how the windows were rattling. Mr. Squires telephoned with a proposition that was somewhere between an idea and a demand.
“This is what you have to do,” he told his friend.
From there, a conversation began between the painter and the scribe, both at the height of their craft.
They negotiated a creative process for the manuscript, one that involved Mr. Chubbs reading the text out loud in his studio at home to feel the weight of the words, then lettering the text on 320-pound watercolour paper, leaving critical space for Mr. Squires to illuminate.
Every detail was considered. The weight of the paper; the type of ink.
“There is a place outside of Venice, Italy, and the family’s name is Francesco Rubinato,” said Mr. Chubbs. “They have been making inks for 120 years from the plants in that area. I said, ‘We have to get those inks.’”
Once acquired, Mr. Squires mixed the Italian black, brown, gold, blue, red and claret inks with his watercolours to create the illuminations.
The artists then deliberated over how the book would be bound, and which version of the story to use. Significantly, Mr. Squires wanted the King James version, from the Hebrew Bible — the same one he read at the dining room table as a child.
The book was leather-bound by Dr. Brian Roberts, a local bookbinder who is known and commissioned from far and wide for his bookbinding and book restorations. He used 16th-century specifications at Mr. Squires’ urging. Dr. Sean McGrath, of Memorial’s Department of Philosophy, crafted the afterword.
In the shadow of Job
As they worked, the men talked at length about the legend of Job.
The book begins with an introduction written by Mr. Squires.
In it he writes: “Job was my hero from the very moment when the sons of God presented themselves before the Lord and Satan was among them when God asked him, ‘Whence comest thou?’ And his answer, ‘From going to and fro in the earth and from walking up and down on it.’ That line in Chapter 1, Verse 7, has haunted me all my life. It was the beginning and the root of my search for hope and redemption here on this floating rock.”
Throughout the book, Mr. Squires’ becomes Job. As his health declines, the illuminations change and describe the surreal landscape of terminal illness and his reflections on life, art and humanity. The earthy colour palette becomes lighter.
“He was always moving towards the light in his work.”
“Gerry saw where the light was,” said Mr. Chubbs.
“He had magnificent empathy for misery, pain, joy and for celebration. But he was always moving towards the light in his work.”
Towards the end of July 2015, Mr. Squires called Mr. Chubbs. He had completed all of the illuminations and wanted to show his friend and co-creator the last one.
“I looked at it and turned away. I just couldn’t handle it.”
Mr. Chubbs thinks the image is a self-portrait. It takes up most of the page. A man in a wool cap and red sweater stares out intently at the viewer. The man’s eyes are focused on something out of reach, faraway. An intense blue sky surrounds him. There is water seeping into the sky. A small figure rows a boat next to him.
A book lives on with a life of its own, says Mr. Chubbs. Perhaps that is why Mr. Squires pushed both himself and Mr. Chubbs to finish it before he died. Its sacredness is a final legacy for the world to see. A story within a story until we see ourselves on its pages.
“Gerry Squires wanted this book to stay in the province and be available to the public,” said Mr. Warner.
“It is the last work of a major Newfoundland artist, actually it is the work of two significant artists and probably the most highly decorative and the most beautiful book ever produced here.”
Retrospective at The Rooms
For the next five months, The Legend of Job will be on display at The Rooms as part of a retrospective of Mr. Squires’ work. That show opens on May 12, 2017; there will be a public reception at 7:30 p.m. Once the exhibit at The Rooms closes, the book will return to the Queen Elizabeth II Library for display. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Book of Job, there are a limited number of collector’s editions available through the estate of Gerry Squires.