Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

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Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, British Library, 11 November 2011-13 March 2012.

Scot McKendrick, John Lowden, and Kathleen Doyle with Joanna Frofiska and Deirdre Jackson, RoyalManuscripts: The Genius of Illuminalion (London: British Library, 2011). 448 pp. ISBN 978-0-7123-5815-6, 25.00[pounds sterling] (p/b); ISBN 978-0-7123-5816-3, 40.00[pounds sterling] (hard covers). The British Library has shown, once again, that it can put on a blockbuster. Its exhibition tested the stamina of visitors with over 150 items on display, drawn mainly from the Royal collection which has received the attentions of the latest stage of the on-line Illuminated Manuscripts Catalogue. The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue, giving a double spread, including illustrations, to each item--nearly all are manuscripts, though some genealogical and prayer rolls are also on show--and introduced by three relatively brief essays, each by one of the curators of the display.

The exhibition is wonderfully relaxed about the definition of what constitutes a 'royal' manuscript. The display opens (in the catalogue it is the second section) with books produced during Edward IV's Burgundian spending spree, an event that is put in context in the catalogue by Kathleen Doyle's overview of the development of the royal library. But this exhibition is not just about books commissioned by or made for kings. There are books that reached medieval princely hands with already some of their life behind them (e.g. MS. Yates Thompson 14); resplendent volumes not in the King's Library until the disruptions of Henry VIII's reign (e.g. MS. Royal 10 A.xiii) or the collecting of Henry, Prince of Wales (d. 1612) (e.g. MS. Royal 12 C.v) or, indeed, after the Restoration (e.g. MS. Royal 2; manuscripts which never quite made it to their intended crowned recipient (e.g. MS. Arundel 317); and books for which a royal association has been proposed but not proven (e.g. MS. Lansdowne 383). In short, a volume does not have to be very royal to be in 'Royal Manuscripts'. That, it must be said, is part of the stimulation of the exhibition: it has no thesis it wishes to expound, and so leaves the visitor and the reader to create their own set of associations and distinctions.

What is on display is the masterful artistry of illuminators across the medieval centuries. The books are presented as art objects for their painted pages, though, of course, the 'genius' of a manuscript did not inhere solely in its images and initials. …