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Collector profile: Sir Paul Getty's two weaknesses, books and cricket

Over twenty-five years this Anglo-American has built up a great library of early books, manuscripts and incunabula

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London

Sir Paul Getty is to unveil his favourite treasures at an exhibition in New York. Although he is one of the world’s greatest private collectors of rare books and manuscripts, he has never before shown the highlights of his magnificent library, set in the Buckinghamshire countryside. “The Wormsley Library: a personal selection by Sir Paul Getty”, opens at the Morgan Library on 27 January 1999 and runs until 2 May.

Morgan Library curator George Fletcher told The Art Newspaper how the idea for the exhibition developed. As a noted scholar he was invited to Sir Paul’s country house, and found the collection “truly phenomenal. I recognised ‘old friends’ which I had failed to buy at auction. There were a great many complementary items to our own works, particularly illuminated manuscripts and early printed books.” He then sounded out Bryan Maggs, Sir Paul’s curator, about the possibility of a loan exhibition. The response was that Sir Paul would be “flattered” if the Morgan asked, which suggests that no major British institution had ever made a request.

The Morgan Library’s exhibition will have just over a hundred items, representing a cross-section of the collection. Although individual items have been lent in the past for special exhibitions such as “William Morris” at the V&A in 1996, this will offer the first public insight into the Wormsley collection as a whole. Little has been published about the library, but The Art Newspaper can name some of the key works which will be exhibited and has tracked down how they were acquired.

Sir Paul started collecting twenty-five years ago when he was living in Dante Rossetti’s house in London’s Cheyne Walk. His library was established in the artist’s former studio, and initially the emphasis was on illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1985 Sir Paul bought Wormsley, an estate on the edge of the Chilterns. The house, dating from 1720, was in very poor condition and had to be rebuilt, but the main change was the addition of a large purpose-built library, erected as a new wing. By this time the scope of the collection had expanded, covering early manuscripts and incunabula.

Designed by Nicholas Johnston, the Wormsley library is a steel-framed concrete structure with a flint façade, looking like a mock medieval castle. Inside it has state-of-the-art climate control and security, but the main room is oak-lined. The ceiling is decorated with a map of the stars as they were on the night of 7 September 1939, when Sir Paul was born. Some visitors have described the interior as “a secular chapel”.

In developing his collection, one problem Sir Paul has never suffered is lack of funds. In 1984 he inherited a $750,000,000 trust fund left by his grandmother, Sarah Getty (although he only has access to the income). Sir Paul also has some of the best advice. He has developed a close relationship with the London dealers, Maggs Brothers, particularly with Bryan Maggs and Robert Harding. The company has bought many of the works for his collection.

Sir Paul has become increasingly involved in studying books and manuscripts, becoming something of an expert himself. “He has a very good connoisseur’s eye,” says Mr Fletcher.

Sir Paul has had a difficult past, with a series of family tragedies, but his friends now say that he has only two addictions: cricket (to which he was introduced by Mick Jagger and for which he has created beautiful grounds on his estate) and books.

Although born American, Sir Paul has lived in Britain for nearly thirty years and has been granted citizenship. This meant that in March the Queen could at last dub him a knight, converting the honorary knighthood which he received in 1986 for services to charity. This rewarded his donation of a £50 million endowment to the National Gallery (The Art Newspaper, No.57, March 1996, p.13). Among his recent donations has been a contribution towards the Lottery-funded extension of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Some of the Getty treasures

o William Caxton’s 1486 edition of The Canterbury Tales, bought at the Wentworth sale at Christie’s on 9 July 1998. The price was £4.6 million, the highest ever paid for a printed book.

o The Byland Bede, with one of the very few early surviving bookbindings. The manuscript was made and bound in Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, in around 1160. It was last auctioned in New York in 1911 and then lost to scholarship. In August 1997 the book was bought in a private sale.

o Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium, the French translation published in 1476 by Colard Mansion. The earliest printed book with engraved illustrations. Bought at Sotheby’s on 1 November 1995, for $625,000.

o The Ulm Ptolemy, with maps on vellum, printed in 1482. Bought at Sotheby’s on 14 June 1990, price $1,750,000.

o Six leaves from the Life of St Thomas à Becket, illuminated in the 1230s. Bought at Sotheby’s on 24 June 1986, for £1,250,000.

o Fragment of the earliest surviving English manuscript, made in Northumbria in around 640. It was sold at Sotheby’s on 25 June 1985 for £75,000 and acquired by Sir Paul Getty four years later.

o Anne Boleyn’s Psalter, bought at Sotheby’s on 7 December 1982, price £140,000.

o The Ottobeuren Gradual, a magnificent example of German illumination, dating from 1164. Bought at Sotheby’s on 18 May 1981, for £700,000.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cricket and books - and what books'

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