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Illuminated manuscripts

An exhibition at the Getty Museum and the V&A reveals how an illuminated manuscript mystery was solved

Scholars have reassembled the Hours of Louis XII

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (V&A) have reassembled one of the most important French illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance. Fifteen of the 16 known miniatures of a Book of Hours are being brought together for an exhibition opening at the Getty in Los Angeles this month and then travelling to London.

The rediscovery of these miniatures represents an astonishing piece of scholarly detective work, led by British Library curator Janet Backhouse.

It began in 1973, when she recognised that seven full-page miniatures came from a Book of Hours, the text pages of which were in the library. The 51 text leaves had been acquired by George II, after 1734, and in 1757 they were presented to the British Museum (later British Library).

In recent years, Ms Backhouse and other scholars have identified more miniatures: two in 1983, two in 1993 and four in 2001. The key discovery in 2003 was the realisation that the miniature image of Louis XII at prayer was almost certainly the first in the Book of Hours. This miniature had had a particularly chequered 20th-century history, having been looted by the Nazis and later restituted to the Rothschild family. It was bought by the Getty in 2004. Sadly, Ms Backhouse died last December, having completed her catalogue essay just days before her death; the show will be a remarkable tribute to her work.

Which king?

The Book of Hours was compiled in 1498-99 and illuminated with miniatures by Jean Bourdichon of Tours (1457-1521), court painter to four kings of France. Until very recently scholars had assumed that it had been made for Henry VII, since the main text in the British Library is in an early 19th-century binding inscribed “H.vii.R.”.

However, this exhibition argues that the Book of Hours of Henry VII now needs to be renamed the Book of Hours of Louis XII, because of the miniature of Louis XII kneeling in prayer. The catalogue argues that the manuscript was clearly made for the French monarch, possibly for his coronation in 1498. It is then likely to have been brought to England by Mary Tudor, third wife of Louis XII, who presumably inherited it after his death in 1515.

The Book of Hours was broken up shortly before 1700, which is unusually early (miniatures were more often removed from manuscripts in the period around 1800). We know the date because in 1700 Samuel Pepys assembled an album of calligraphy with a leaf from the text of the Book of Hours; the album still remains at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Another surviving fragment of text was owned by dealer John Bagford (1650-1716) and later passed to the British Museum in 1753. It now seems that Bagford probably owned the entire manuscript and sold off the miniatures just before 1700.

Although the painted leaves were removed from the Book of Hours over three centuries ago, their present condition is relatively unfaded. This suggests that for much of the time they were kept together in a portfolio, and may well not have been dispersed until the late 19th century.

V&A paintings curator Mark Evans remains “optimistic that more miniatures from the Hours of Louis XII will appear”, perhaps as a result of the coming exhibition. Collectors and curators are therefore being encouraged to look out for the missing leaves, the paintings of which would be around 24 x 17 cm. Scholars have worked out that logically it probably included a further 20 miniatures, along with an unknown number of text pages. Since the miniatures may well have been kept together until the late 19th century, there is a good chance that many survive, unrecognised.

Largely by chance, six of the surviving 16 miniatures came onto the market in 2003-2004. Three ended up at the Getty, one at the V&A, one at the Louvre and one in a London private collection. The price of only one of these is known, the Nativity bought by the V&A for £250,000 in 2003, which is probably typical of what the others fetched (some were more important and others less so).

Only one of the six miniatures sold had remained in the UK, thereby requiring an export licence. In 2003 the Getty had bought the Nativity from London dealer Sam Fogg, offering £250,000, but when an export licence was deferred the V&A managed to match the price, with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.

Despite some rivalry to acquire the Nativity, V&A curator Dr Evans and Getty curator Thomas Kren have worked closely on this exhibition. Eight owners, with 15 miniatures, have agreed to lend their works. The only sheet not being shown is the Arrest of Christ, in the collection of the Marmottan Museum in Paris, which has a policy of never lending works to other institutions.

o “A masterpiece reconstructed: the Hours of Louis XII” is at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles (18 October-8 January 2006) and then at the V&A (2 February-1 May 2006).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How an illuminated manuscript mystery was solved'