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Newly published catalogues of the illuminated manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Illuminating scholarship

The publication of two scholarly catalogues devoted to Western illuminated manuscripts, copiously illustrated and jointly weighing in at some 11.5kg, adds greatly to our knowledge of major British national collections. Both catalogues have the same short title, although the collections they cover are markedly different.

The impressive Cambridge University Library volume, the fruits of more than a decade’s research, surveys illuminated and decorated manuscripts over a period of 700 years, from the ninth-century prayer book known as the Book of Cerne to Italian Renaissance books of the 16th century.

Although the library can trace its existence from the early 15th century, most of its illuminated manuscripts were acquired later. It is a collection that can claim to be, as was once said of the Old Royal collection in the British Museum Library, “of respectable, though not of extreme, antiquity”. Many of the manuscripts arrived in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries. Following the dangerous years of religious upheaval, the library began to profit from the salvaging activities among the monastic spoils of such benefactors as the “mighty collector”, Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s first Archbishop of Canterbury. Manuscripts from the libraries of great and wealthy English religious houses—Canterbury, Bury, Durham, Norwich and Ely—are well represented: stately and beautiful Romanesque manuscripts of the 11th and 12th centuries with their elegantly decorated initial letters; a wealth of biblical texts, deluxe copies of the four gospels and illuminated psalters, chronicles and treatises of early medieval authors. Decoration ranges from miniatures in full colour and burnished gold to graceful line drawings (as in illustrations to a fine 13th-century bestiary, one of the library’s greatest treasures). The arrangement of the catalogue (in chronological order within regional categories) points up the predominance of manuscripts of British origin.

The most spectacular single addition to the library came in 1715 with the arrival of the vast collection of John Moore, the Bishop of Ely (whose library filled eight great rooms in Ely Place, his London house), presented on the bishop’s death by King George I. Among Moore’s books are some of the best known of the library’s holdings: the pre-conquest Book of Cerne; a Life of St Edward the Confessor by the great chronicler, Matthew Paris, made for the court of Henry III; a celebrated illustrated Chaucer; and the superb 15th-century Douze dames de rhétorique, with miniatures of fashionably attired figures set against backdrops of the streets and canals of Bruges and of the surrounding countryside.

Other books are much less grand, and it is in the close description of lesser known items that library catalogues such as this are arguably most valuable. Among the literary, medical and scientific manuscripts collected by Bishop Moore and others—often in Middle English and acquired, no doubt, mostly for their textual value, are many that contain innovative pictorial decoration, even though it may be limited to an opening initial, single border or pen flourishing. The illuminated Books of Hours that from the mid-18th century became increasingly sought after may not all be of high quality, but they are certainly not without interest. A Flemish Book of Hours, made in Bruges around 1400 and one of the earliest produced for a growing English market, has an appealing but standard set of miniatures inserted on single leaves in a “production line” fashion; nevertheless, as the catalogue shows, additions of heraldry, family notes, prayers and devotions vividly chart how the book was used by a succession of East Anglian families for more than 150 years.

The focus of the catalogue entries is understandably on the illumination, and all ornamentation is fully listed (although more about its relation to textual content would have been helpful). A concise, lucid account of the sources and art historical aspects of the collection introduces the volume and there are exceptionally useful subject indexes. Each manuscript entry is given an accompanying illustration, a welcome practice until recently more usual in exhibition catalogues, and the black and white images are supplemented by a generous quota of 200 full-page colour plates (too many, unfortunately, are disappointingly murky).

Three volumes have been allocated to the catalogue of what has been termed “one of the larger of the smaller collections” in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). This allows for a remarkably comprehensive treatment of every one of the 287 illuminated manuscripts included. Opportunities to publish in this lavish way do not often occur and the format outlined in Rowan Watson’s prefatory “Method of Description” offers a model guide for an ideal—but rarely accomplished—level of detailed manuscript cataloguing. There are superb colour plates for each manuscript (sometimes several), nearly all actual size.

The early aim of the collection, following the museum’s inception after the 1851 Great Exhibition, was an educational one, focusing on single leaves and facsimiles that could be handled by students. Complete codices were, however, acquired, some of them almost inadvertently, as in the case of the five Leonardo notebooks known today as the Codex Forster—these arrived unremarked (as for some time they were to remain) in the collection of “autographs” bequeathed in 1876 by the literary biographer John Forster.

The efforts of James Weale, the pioneering and forthright keeper of the National Art Library, secured the purchase in 1891 of a magnificent 14th-century French missal made for the royal abbey of St Denis—even this narrowly escaped a proposal to disbind it and keep the leaves separate for ease of use. The acquisition confirmed a change of direction in collecting, and from the 1890s, the museum’s holdings began more closely to reflect the art market and tastes of wealthy collectors of the day. Most important were the generous donations at the beginning of the 20th century of the textile manufacturer George Reid, a passionate collector (“more enthusiastic than expert”) with a fondness for late medieval illumination, mostly from France and Italy. His gift brought to the museum 50 of the richly illustrated Books of Hours that were produced in great numbers in the workshops of northern Europe in the 15th century and found such favour with Victorian connoisseurs.

From the outset, the museum sought to acquire good examples of the medieval book-making skills that survived the invention of printing and persisted into the modern period: writing books splendid with calligraphic ornament, bindings, diplomas, charters and heraldic documents. Prominent are the illuminated addresses that were so popular in mid-Victorian England with amateur and professional artists, and several thousand of which were received by Queen Victoria on the occasion of her jubilees. The latest dated document is an Austrian patent of nobility and grant of arms written and illuminated in Vienna in 1913, on the eve of the first world war.

An added pleasure in the catalogue is the amount of space given to the “afterlife” of manuscripts, how they were used and how valued at different dates before and after their arrival in the V&A. Watson uses the rich resource of the V&A’s own archives to good effect, even giving us descriptions of the manuscripts taken from the museum’s files and inventories under the rubric “acquired as”. What emerges from this and an informative introduction is a fascinating picture of the book trade in the 19th and 20th centuries and a history of taste and collecting. The three handsomely produced volumes in their own decorated linen slip case are themselves a collector’s piece.

Western Illuminated Manuscripts: a Catalogue of the Collection in Cambridge University Library

Paul Binski and Patrick Zutshi

Cambridge University Press, 532 pp, £175 (hb)

Western Illuminated Manuscripts: Manuscripts in the National Art Library, V&A, from the 11th to the early 20th Century

Rowan Watson

V&A Publications, three volumes, 1,316 pp, £250 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Illuminating scholarship'