Saturday 9 October 2021

A Contemporary Opinion of the Ottley Collection of Illuminations

In the English journal The Athenæum, founded in 1828 [Wikipedia], is a contemporary account of the  items offered for sale in the 1838 Ottley auction of illuminated cuttings.

It begins:

"An exhibition, more rare than precious in the public eye, to judge from the small number of visitants, took place this week at Sotheby's,—where the late W. Y. Ottley’s collection of Miniature Paintings and Drawings are to-day on sale. Among the former were Illuminations from Choral Books, &c., of which our countrymen seem as careless as the monkish perusers themselves."

The writer remarks on the small number of people at the pre-sale viewing, and the public's apparent lack of appeciation for this form of art.

"We shall, therefore, only say, that several of the miniatures are exquisite for colour, finish, and feeling; particularly some by the older Illuminists, whose fault, being occasional uncouthness, is often less offensive than risible; while that of the famous Clovio and his contemporaries, being affectation, finds little favour except with the affected."

The writer clearly has an appreciation for illumination, admiring the earlier works, while mocking those who profess to admire (the highly fashionable) Giulio Clovio.

"Eight pieces by Don Silvestre Monacho, about 1530, would prove that the antique style of Fra Beato subsisted much beyond its age, at least in the cloisters,—perhaps from their seclusion, perhaps also from the posthumous influence of that amiable monk and superlative illuminist."

Here the writer has not realised that "1530" in the catalogue is a typo for "1350", and therefore sees these illuminations as evidence of the persistence of Fra Angelico's style!


"Four miniatures, apparently Saxon, are amongst the most curious,—we might add useful; verifying the costume and various manners of the ante-Norman period."

 These are the four mid-12th-century leaves from the Eadwine Psalter, now at the V&A, BL, and Morgan Libraries.

"A Psalterium, once studied, to very little purpose, by Diana of Poictiers, is valuable too, as affording specimens of French illuminative art about the thirteenth century."

This is the late 13th-century Psalter-Hours of Yolande of Flanders, now also at the Morgan Library (MS. M.729), which has an inscription (fol. 434v) of Charles of Poitiers, who became bishop of Poitiers in 1390. The Ottley cataloguer had misread, or only partially read the inscription, which ends "[...] ie vous raconte K. di Poitiers evesque et comte".

Overall, the account is interesting for the emphasis it places on the pre-15th-century and the non-Italian illuminations; the opposite of what we might have expected. It would be interesting to know who wrote the anonymous account.

The relevant issue is online at Google Books here. Here is the whole passage:

[Click to enlarge]

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