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Henry Yates Thompson’s illuminated manuscripts

Introduction Dispersal The British Library's collection Bibliography

100 illuminated manuscripts

Thompson’s collection of illuminated manuscripts began with a bequest of ten manuscripts from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Yates Brooks (1780-1856), when Thompson was eighteen. It was not for another twenty years or so that Thompson added to this collection, beginning with a single purchase in 1879 but accelerating rapidly from the early 1890s.

With encouragement from dealers in Paris and London (especially Bernard Quaritch), Thompson quickly developed a taste for manuscripts of the highest quality. He purchased from Quaritch in 1893 the Fécamp Bible (Yates Thompson MS 1); and in 1894 Ellis and Elvey sold him the Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3), a petite French masterpiece of the mid-15th century. The Ottenbeuren Collectar joined his collection in 1895 (Yates Thompson MS 2), and in 1896 he acquired the Breviary of Reynaud de Bar (Yates Thompson MS 8). While many of Thompson’s purchases in these years were in step with current taste, at least one of his purchases reveals connoisseurial precocity. In 1895 he purchased the Tilliot Hours (Yates Thompson MS 5), illuminated by the great sixteenth-century illuminator Jean Poyet, whose work was distinctly under-appreciated in the 1890s.2

Thompson’s collection was established in scope and stature with his purchase in 1897 of approximately 210 manuscripts from the fourth Earl of Ashburnham (1797-1878), whose shrewdness, tenacity, and fortune had allowed him to amass an extraordinary library. Ashburnham had purchased three more or less complete libraries (Libri, Stowe, and Barrois); other manuscripts, which he purchased singly, were classified in his ‘Appendix’. It was the Appendix that Thompson purchased in its entirety for £30,000, with the sole exception of the Lindau Gospels, with its splendid early treasure binding, which was sold separately to J. Pierpont Morgan (New York, Morgan Library, MS M.1).

Immediately upon acquiring the Appendix, Thompson began to sort through the manuscripts with a critical eye, deciding which to keep for himself and which to sell. Thompson’s ultimate aim was to have a collection of one hundred of the finest manuscripts he could acquire, explaining:
My plan has been never to buy any additional volume unless it was decidedly superior in value and interest to at least one of my original hundred, and upon its acquisition pitilessly to discard the least fascinating of the said hundred. (Descriptive Catalogue, 1907, p.iii)
Thompson’s sole criterion for retaining Ashburnham manuscripts was their quality and interest, with particular emphasis on their illumination. (Thompson was also interested in the provenance of his manuscripts, and was particularly drawn to books whose previous owners were famous, glamorous, or ennobled.) Appendix manuscripts that did not make the grade were sold, principally in two sales at Sotheby’s in 1899 and 1901.

Among the Ashburnham manuscripts that Thompson kept were the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri (Yates Thompson MS 29), which includes a signed miniature by Perugino, and the St Omer Psalter (Yates Thompson MS 14). These manuscripts were retained at the expense of other manuscripts of great interest, though admittedly unremarkable decoration, including the York Mystery Plays (Add. MS 35290) and a fourteenth-century copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Add. MS 35286).

Thompson documented his collection in a series of four privately printed catalogues, supplemented by seven volumes of plates. Prepared by such distinguished scholars as M.R. James, S.C. Cockerell, Edward Maunde Thompson, and George F. Warner, these catalogues offered detailed, scholarly descriptions of the manuscripts that paid meticulous attention to illumination.

The first two of these catalogues, published in 1898 and 1902 respectively, described 100 manuscripts. The publication of these 100 manuscripts by no means halted the refining of the collection: as Thompson acquired better manuscripts, he weeded from his collection those he considered less worthy. Two subsequent catalogues, published in 1907 and 1912, describe thirty-four manuscripts acquired after the publication of the 1902 catalogue, and assign to them roman numerals to distinguish them from the original Hundred, which had been assigned Arabic numerals. Lists of the discarded manuscripts and the final Hundred preface the 1912 catalogue.

The new manuscripts described in the 1907 and 1912 catalogues include the magnificent Life of St Cuthbert (Yates Thompson MS 26), the Hours of Yolande of Flanders (Yates Thompson MS 27, tragically damaged in a flood of 1846), and a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Yates Thompson MS 36). These remarkable purchases forced out less deserving members of the top Hundred. Yates Thompson MS 52, a fifteenth-century Primer in English, was one of the manuscripts discarded in a sale of 1902 to make way for finer books.

Thompson’s distinction as a collector was affirmed in 1902, when he delivered the Sandars lecture to the University of Cambridge. He published his lecture privately, accompanied by fifty plates illustrating manuscripts from his collection. In 1906, he gave his volume of Les Antiqutès judaïques (then attributed to Jean Fouquet) to the French people so that it might be reunited with its companion volume (the manuscript is now Bibliothèque nationale de France, départment des manuscrits, NAF 21013).3 For this act of generosity, intended to mark the Entente Cordiale between France and England, he was awarded the legion of honour. In this period, Thompson sat on the exhibition committee for the celebrated manuscript exhibition of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, staged in 1908. Thompson’s collection was well represented in the exhibition, with sixteen of his manuscripts on display.

Illustrations


YT 3, f. 1
Hours of Jean Dunois. France (Paris), 1436-1450.
YT 3, f. 1


YT 2, f.21v
Ottenbeuren Collectar. Germany (abbey of Ottobeuren, in Swabia), 1150-1200.
YT 2, f.21v


YT 8, f.7r
Breviary of Renaud de Bar. France (Verdun), c.1303.
YT 8, f.7r


YT 5, f.70v
Tilliot Hours. France (Loire School), c.1500.
YT 5, f.70v


YT 29, f.132
Leaf from the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri. Italy (Bologna), c.1500.
YT 29, f.132


YT 14, flyleaf
Flyleaf from the St Omer Psalter showing two bookplates.
YT 14, flyleaf


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2 J.M. Backhouse, "A Book of Hours by a Contemporary of Jean Bourdichon: A Preliminary Note on British Library Yates Thompson MS 5," Manuscripts in the Fifty Years After the Invention of Printing, ed. J.B. Trapp (London, 1983), pp. 45-49.
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3 The illuminations are now attributed to the Master of the Munich Boccacio and Jean Bourdichon: F. Avril, Jean Foquet: Peintre en enlumineur du xve siècle (2003), cat. no. 34.



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