Kelly Houle’s Illuminated Origin of Species Project

February 13, 2013 • 9:58 am

Kelly Houle is this website’s Official Artist and Calligrapher™, and, as you know if you’re a regular, she’s producing an illuminated version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a project that will contain the entire book in Kelly’s marvelous calligraphy and splendid art.  It will take her at least five years, and you’ll know why when you’ve seen the first two pages below. (I also find it deliciously ironic that at last illumination is being applied to something true rather than goddy fiction.)

The website for the project is here, which contains, among other things, information about Kelly and her methods, the timeline for the project, her studio log, and what she calls her “blog.”

Many of us have supported Kelly’s Illuminated Origin project, bringing her more than $13,000 above her initial Kickstarter goal of $3,000, and you can further support this worthy endeavor by buying some of her artwork (I have six of the beetle prints, which are beautiful, and I also recommend the gold-embossed greeting cards), or by making a direct donation.

I’m writing to report that, after doing a lot of preliminary research, Kelly has started producing the final copy.  I’ll show two pages of what will eventually be a huge book. Kelly wrote to me yesterday from Berkeley, California (email and artwork reproduced with permission, indented text is Kelly’s; click photos to enlarge, as they’re very high-resolution):

Hi Jerry,

I’m reporting to you live from the Codex International Book Fair ( I will be here today and tomorrow exhibiting the title page and frontispiece of the manuscript.
On the frontispiece (left) the Beagle sails into the distance with simplified circular tree of life above. I wrote the species names on the tree of life by hand, and a metal stamp was made from my hand-lettering. The tree was then hot foil stamped onto the background. The spiral pattern in the sky is based on the Parker Spiral, which describes the pattern of magnetic rays formed by the spinning of the sun.
A detail of this painting:
The title page (right) shows a sunset scene with pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), a ruby throated hummingbird, and an unfortunate fly. The pitchers were painted from photographs by Dr. Barry Rice at UC Davis.
The photo below will give you an idea of how large each page is. Kelly sent this picture of the not-quite-finished front page, showing her “patching up some areas of gold on the title block with a sheet of patent gold leaf and a hematite burnisher”:
IMG_0057 1
Ben Goren has made a high-fidelity digital capture of the frontispiece and will be making a limited edition print (30 copies) of both pages, which will be signed, numbered, and illuminated with a combination of foil stamping and hand-gilding. These will available soon at
Happy Darwin Day!
I’m immensely pleased to see Ben collaborating with Kelly to help support her project, as I think it’s this site that enabled them to meet. Do support the project if you can; it’s absolutely unique and, as you can see, the artwork and calligraphy are stunning.

34 thoughts on “Kelly Houle’s Illuminated Origin of Species Project

  1. Excellent to see that Kelly is making good progress on this project.
    The scale of the frontispieces is … appalling (in a good way), and I’m glad to have contributed.
    Take that, illuminated collections of fairy tales from Middle-Eastern shepherds!

    1. You’d actually be impressed with the ancient illuminated manuscripts as well. They’re often about the same physical size.

      And, to be fair, when we were at the bindery, they were also working on binding copies of the Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible. And it is truly an artistic masterpiece.

      Kelly’s project is of a similar scope. However, I think she’s looking at fewer copies, which should let us put a lot more into each copy. For example, the St. John’s Bible is printed with offset lithography on glossy paper (and it’s done superbly). Kelly and I, however, have been working on making glclée copies on watercolor paper, and generally doing everything possible to make the copies indistinguishable from the original (including hand-application of metallic and iridescent paints on top of the prints). That’s going to mean a fair amount of extra work, but I’m really excited about the end result.

      This is the real deal!



      1. (Re-reading that second sentence, I should hasten to add: we were at the bindery for the gold foil stamping of just the frontispiece. There’s a loooong way to go before binding of the final copies! b&)

              1. Oh, bloody hell.

                Yes, you and Kelly are absolutely correct — the second letter is a vowel. I know that perfectly well, and would have caught it had not typing the word required a vulcan nerve pinch combined with the fact that it’s not in the spellchecker so it always appears to be misplessed regardless.

                “We apologize for the inconvenience….”


              2. (Can’t reply at a deeper threading level)

                combined with the fact that it’s not in the spellchecker so it always appears to be misplessed regardless.

                “We apologize for the inconvenience….”

                “And normal service will be resumed as soon as we can figure out what ‘normal’ is!” To approximate Douglas Adams.
                Don’t you try to keep your spelling checker up to date? Right-click on mis-spelled word, add to dictionary?
                “Two to the power of sixty five thousand three hundred and thirty six and falling …”

  2. I gotta say, I can think of lots worse things to do than to spend a week staring at these things.

    Jerry, I’ll email you a crop of the Beagle to give an idea of the quality of Kelly’s brushwork.



  3. on a different subject:

    New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope

    Only the pope has the authority to make the changeless church change, but it is his authority that stands in the way of change.
    Or, copy and paste this URL into your browser:

  4. This is really beautiful! Excellent work. So wonderful to see the tradition of illumination, and, as Jerry said, for something other than scripture!

    1. Kelly plans on doing additional research on this history of illuminated science manuscripts, but Wikipedia lists 17 illuminated science manuscripts, mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries, though some from much earlier…and none later.

      The St. John’s Bible is the first illuminated Bible since Gutenberg’s invention. Kelly’s probably working on the first illuminated science manuscript since then.

      And it’s the perfect text for it, too, what with all the species deserving of illumination. And Kelly’s the perfect artist for it, what with her background in both biological illustration and bookmaking.



  5. This work sounds brilliant. Bibliophile that I am, I would give a great deal for a copy. Unfortunately the illness that makes me unable to work also destroyed all my financial resources. If you post what you can on any website, I will feel privileged to see those. Just please let me know where in the ether it calls home.

    1. Jerry’s post above includes links to the project’s official Web site, and I’m sure Jerry will continue to post updates.

      I’m sure that copies will wind up in university libraries / museums / etc. for public viewing, and there will be opportunities to buy individual pages (rather than an entire book) along the way. And Kelly’s also offering annual subscriptions for the well-heeled who want dibs on a final copy. Plus, you can buy lots of very lovely greeting cards and the like.

      In other words, lots of ways to get involved, whether you have lots of money or none at all.



      1. Wow, that is so beautiful. Just totally wonderful.

        Is there any inkling of a thought of someday having human sized prints of the book made for mortals? Doesn’t sound like there is.

        Although I understand the uniqueness of the work, and how unreproducible the experience of the full sized version must be, I have enjoyed pale shadows of many other works of art. While I enjoy going to museums, I also enjoy my collection of prints and my big coffee table books of art prints. Who, visiting a home with even a coffee table print of the book, could fail to be enticed to dive just a little into the world of Darwin?

        1. Shuggy, gluonspring — I don’t know what, if any, plans Kelly has for cheaper reproductions.

          I tend to think it’d probably lend itself well to a large coffee table book. The original is 22″ x 30″, but the text I’ve seen so far is also large. I imagine a quality half-sized publication would probably still be readable, and the artwork should scale reasonably well. (Note the constant use of weasel-words; this speculation is all suppository, as they say.)

          There’re other considerations, though…high-quality medium-run odd-sized publications aren’t necessarily inexpensive, and they require their own up-front investments. None of that is insurmountable, of course, but it does mean that you don’t want to act hastily.

          …but, regardless, unless some generous benefactor comes along and pays Kelly enough to stop doing everything else she does just to work on the Illuminated Origins, it’ll be a while before the project gets to the point where we’d be ready to start working on that sort of thing….



    1. She’s still working on the limited edition. When they’re ready for sale, I’m sure they’ll be available on her Web site. I’m also sure she’d more than welcome an email if you’d like to arrange to be one of the first to buy a print.

      If you want to see the work in person, right now, this very instant, is a perfect time if you’re in the Bay Area; she’s at the Codex Book Fair in Richmond. I don’t know what other exhibitions she might have planned, but I’m again sure she’d be happy to share her schedule by email.



        1. I honestly have no idea what her pricing is.

          I am quite confident, however, that it works out to an hourly rate that’s nowhere near what other professionals charge…artists spend so much time doing what they do that there’s no way they could charge what their time is worth….


  6. Kelly Houle’s beautiful lightning bug print hangs in my kitchen and I enjoy it every single day. Maybe it’s time to add another beetle to the collection! Thanks for the reminder! Wow – that page with the ship sailing into the distance is just stunning, as is the title page. I hope I’ll be able to get somewhere to view a copy of the completed illumination!

    Thanks for the update.

  7. I had the good fortune to see these pages at the Codex Book Fair earlier this week; if there are any other WEIT readers in the Bay Area wondering if they’re worth the trip to Richmond to see, they absolutely are. I was glad to be able to speak briefly with Kelly Houle and her partner at the booth, and am happy to report that as well as being an obviously talented artist and craftsperson, she’s also very nice and humble and a pleasure to meet. Definitely introduce yourself.

    Kelly was kind enough to schlep a couple of prints to the fair that I’d ordered over the interwebz, and to show me several framing options for another piece; the hand-embellished beetle prints are more lovely in person than they can be seen to be on the Web, so if you’re wondering whether to get one, just do it. I’ve already had several friends comment on how nice they are. Kelly also showed me an early print of the frontispiece on which she’s collaborating with Ben Goren, and it’s really, really nice (I ordered one on the spot).

    (There are, incidentally, a lot of really incredibly beautiful handmade books and related art at the fair, as well, and I walked out of there with a much lighter wallet but with beautiful art, a couple of prints, and a few miniature books — one of them from Ms. Houle, even, of a Borges poem — in return. I’ll be going back to this fair in future, as the craftsmanship and art on display is just marvelous.)

  8. Just beautiful, a wonderful project. Kudos to Kelly for her artistic abilities and for applying her art to such a project. Hats off to Ben as well for his part in this amazing project.

    1. Some religions do various teenage “confirmation” type ceremonies. which raises some really snarky (or “undermining the parents influence”) types of gifts.
      I must be feeling particularly evil, waking up excessively early and jet-lagged!

Leave a Reply