Saturday, 7 March 2015

"A Thousand Years of French Books" (1948)


I recently had a question from a MSS curator friend: Exactly when and where did the 1948 exhibition called "A Thousand Years of French Books" take place?

It sounded like a simple question. I knew that some major manuscripts were included in the exhibition, and so felt sure that it would be easy enough to find the answer on the web. A straightforward Google search produced links to dozens of copies of the exhibition's catalogue for sale on Amazon and eBay, or in libraries. These provided me with the full title: A Thousand Years of French Books: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Manuscripts, First Editions and Bindings, and the further information that the exhibition was "arranged by Desmond Flower for the National Book League", and that the catalogue was published by Cambridge University Press.
But none of the Google links that I followed told me the venue or dates of the exhibition.

I next tried the Bodleian online catalogue, because it has features that make it more useful than other OPACs; for example, it often provides reliable birth and/or death dates of authors, which can be very useful in provenance research. I thought that the cataloguers who received the book in 1948 would probably have added some information about the exhibition itself, but I was out of luck.

I tried a few other things and then hit on the answer: The Times newspaper carried a report of the exhibition on Wednesday, 29 September 1948, which reveals that it was held a the National Book League's headquarters at 7 Albermarle Street, London, and was open to the public from 31 September until 27 November.

This photo taken in 1957 gives a good idea of the League's elegant building in Mayfair:

Another report followed in The Times on 1 October, following the opening, with a picture:
A series of advertisements tell us the opening-hours and entry-prices:
(In 1948 2s.6d. was the cost of a dozen eggs, and The Times cost 3d.; before 1971 there were 12 pence "d." in a shilling, and 20 shillings "s." in a pound).

Some years later, when the National Book League was in financial difficulty, The Times (22 December, 1952) reported that the exhibition had been visited by 4,376 members and 11,850 non-members.

The show itself must have been amazing. Only about twenty-five of the 337 numbered items were medieval, but they opened with:
  • No.1: a bifolium of an 8th-century Sacramentary written in Uncials (lent by Wilfred Merton — who deserves a blog-post at some point)
  • No.2: an early 9th-century Cicero from Cluny (Holkham Hall, MS. 387; now BL, Add. MS. 47678)
  • No.3: the 13th-century Psalter of St Louis (BnF, ms. lat. 10525; digitized on Gallica)
  • No.4: the Petites Heures of the duc de Berry (BnF, ms. lat. 18014; digitized on Gallica)
  • No.5: the "Ruskin" Hours (lent by Dudley Colman, now Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig IX.3)
  • No.6: one of two full-page miniatures from a Missal (lent by the royal collection at Windsor Castle; image below)
  • No.7: the "Balfour" Hours, illuminated in the style of the Boucicaut and Rohan masters (lent by A. Zwemmer; now Getty MS. 22)
  • No.8: Lady Margaret Beaufort's Hours (St John's College, Cambridge, MS. N.24)
  • No.9: a Book of Hours with the arms of Michel Jouvenal des Ursins and his wife Yolande de Montboron (lent by Harvey Frost)
  • Nos.10–11: two leaves with full-page miniatures from the Hours of Etienne Chevalier, illuminated by Jean Fouquet (one of which depicts St Michael, and is at the top of the post)
  • No.12: a Premierfait translation of Boccaccio: Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes (lent by Messrs W.H. Robinson)
  • No.13: an unfinished Livre des vices et vertus with the arms of Charles VIII (lent by Messrs W.H. Robinson)
  • No.14: "Catherine of Aragon's Hours" (lent by Dudley Colman)
  • No.15: Les douze Césars en mignatures, illuminated by Jean Bourdichon (lent by Harvey Frost)
  • plus various other French texts and translations, including a Roman de la Rose, a Christine de Pizan, a Chrétien de Troyes, a Froissart, a Gerson, and so on, mostly in lavishly illuminated copies.

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