Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Macclesfield Alphabet Book bought by British Library

A rare medieval alphabet book will remain in Great Britain, after the British Library announced that it had raised the £600,000 needed to purchase the manuscript.

According to the Guardian newspaper, the British Library was able to match the price the Getty Library in California had offered for the Macclesfield Alphabet Book. The British government had earlier blocked the export of the manuscript to allow the British Library the time needed to raise money for the purchase.

This extremely rare manuscript, produced at the end of the fifteenth century, is written on parchment and has 46 leaves. t is held within an early 18th-century English calf binding and has been in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield since around 1750, and until recently its existence was completely unknown.

The manuscript contains 14 different types of decorative alphabets. These include an alphabet of decorative initials with faces; foliate alphabets; a zoomorphic alphabet of initials, and alphabets in Gothic script. In addition there are large coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings, as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold.

This manuscript is thought to have been used as a pattern book for an artist's workshop for the transmission of ideas to assistants, or as a 'sample' book to show to potential customers.

Only a handful of these books survive and as a result, the discovery of the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, filled with designs for different types of script, letters, initials, and borders is of outstanding significance and will contribute to a greater understanding of how these books were produced and used in the Middle Ages, as well as aid the study of material culture and art history.

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book sheds light on how such tomes were produced. They did not always rely on the creative expertise of the artist, since alphabets and illustrations similar to some of the Macclesfield examples have been found in earlier books and woodcuts.

Kathleen Doyle, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, described the acquisition as "tremendously exciting". "It is the most complete set of designs for manuscript decoration known to have survived from late-medieval Britain. The 'abcs' are wonderfully illustrated ‑ including letters formed using animals and people ‑ and I hope that those who go to see it on display at the British Library will be captivated by its inventiveness, and that researchers will begin an interesting debate on its origin, models, and function."

The manuscript will be available for the public to view in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery by the end of the week.