The collection of Denys Spittle
The Preface of the book by the editor.
Medieval manuscripts have always been and still are eminently collectible. They come in all shapes and prices, from deluxe princely commissions to hurriedly copied reference texts. They commend themselves to all kinds of collectors - from those bewitched by the shimmering gold and rich pigments of their paintings to those fascinated by the insights they offer into medieval history, literature, science and life.
Some collections are formed over long periods of time by generations of bibliophile family members, for instance the Dukes of Burgundy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or the Rothschilds in the nineteenth.
Others are the creation of single individuals, such as Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792 - 1872), the greatest manuscript collector of the nineteenth century.
It was a namesake of Phillipps, Sir Thomas Watson (1851 - 1921), who brought together the manuscripts displayed in this exhibition. Indeed three of them came from Phillipps' shelves. Although Watson's twenty-five volumes arc hardly a match for those amassed by Phillipps (over 23,000), they reveal patterns of collecting observed in numerous small collections throughout the nineteenth century First, they gather a representative selection of literary; historic and artistic traditions that nourished from the tenth to the twentieth centuries across geographic and cultural boundaries, ranging from a Byzantine Gospel book to an Ottoman Koran, from Flemish Books of Hours to Nizami’s Khamsa, and from Cicero's rhetoric to Paul Verlaine's poetry Second, they contain a large proportion of Books of Hours, the standard devotional book of the late Middle Ages and the staple of the manuscript market since the eighteenth century.
Sir Thomas never went to school, but after becoming a successful industrialist in South Wales taught himself Latin and Greek. This awakened his interest in the history of printing and kindled a passion for collecting fine books and manuscripts. On his death, they passed to his son, Sir Geoffrey Watson (1897 - 1961), who left them to his daughter, Daphne (1907 - 1998). Mrs Daphne Southwell bequeathed the collection to her cousin, Denys Spittle (1920-2003).
Denys Spittle was born in Cambridge and in 1939 came to read Architecture at Pembroke College. He became a life member of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum founded in 1908 by Sir Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Museum (1908 - 1937) and one of the most distinguished manuscript scholars of the twentieth century. A disciple of William Morris, Cockerell was also a key figure in the revival of calligraphy, encouraging and criticising aspiring masters of the pen. We can be certain that Denys Spittle would have won Cockerell’s approval. One of the most striking and delightful aspects of Denys5 letters was their elegant Italic script, still immaculate in his eighties. In an age of electronic correspondence, Denys’ letters remain a valuable example of the art of writing cultivated for centuries and represented in the manuscripts on display here.
Throughout his busy and fruitful life, serving the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (as its Principal Investigator and Head of the Cambridge Office), as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and President of the Royal Archaeological Institute (1979-1982), Denys Spittle remained closely attached to Cambridge, to his College and to the Fitzwilliam Museum. In 2000 he attended an inspiring lecture on illuminated manuscripts which Professor James Marrow, then Acting Keeper of Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, gave to the Friends. This was the beginning of a new friendship.
Among the most cherished memoriesof my early days at the Museum was a visit with Professor Marrow to Cheshunt. Denys and Margaret Spittle welcomed us warmly and laid out a magnificent feast of manuscripts and rare books. The idea of an exhibition was born and it began to take shape during Denys’ subsequent visits to the Museum. On one of them, he brought his copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle for a 'check up’ with our Conservator, on another he left behind one of his manuscripts for me to study ‘at leisure’. Denys was the kind of collector every manuscript scholar dreams of. It was his generosity and eagerness to share his treasures that we decided to celebrate with this exhibition. And then, most unexpectedly, Denys left us. At the time of his death on 6 December 2003, he was the oldest and longest serving Friend of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
That the exhibition is taking place now is due to the vision and devotion of Denys Spittle's daughters, Jane Wickstead and Kate Wallace, and to the wholehearted support of the Trustees of the Denys Spittle Grandchildren's Settlement who lent the manuscripts to the Museum until the end of the exhibition and funded the catalogue generously. A team of scholars gave their precious time and knowledge in a way Denys used to do. Professor James Marrow not only provided the initial stimulus, hut also studied and photographed the whole collection for the catalogue. Dr Kay Sutton offered both her expertise as a manuscript scholar and practical support in organising the move of the collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Dr Christine van Ruymbeke kindly accommodated this project among her demanding schedule of research trips and publications. We are indebted to Cantellday for the lively and engaging design of the catalogue, to Thibault Catrice for overseeing the publication process with unrivalled patience and diplomacy, and to John Lancaster and Jessica Berenbeim for yet another elegant display. We are also grateful to Francois Avril, Patricia Easterling, Richard Linenthal, Margaret Manion, and Patricia Stirnemann for advice on various manuscripts. It was this kind of free exchange and exciting collaboration that Denys Spittle wanted his manuscripts to inspire. Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books
Bookseller’s comments :
Beautiful reproduction on good quality paper really sets off the 135 examples of these ancient and unique Manuscripts. The diversity of this collection is another feature: from Greek Gospels for the Byzantine Empire of the second half of the ten century to a piece created by Alberto Sangorski in 1917. It explains that different categories of the church’s manuscripts. The Ritual set for example contains books called The Missal that contains the text of the Mass while the Gradual covers its music and chant and this is divided into two parts: the Temporal, which covers the major feasts and the Senatorial which covers the holy days of the saints and the Holy Mary. Breviary is a service book for the Divine Office and so on. There are many examples from Books of Hours from Europe and England. All this and extracts from various Persian Manuscripts and the Koran means that there is a huge range of study material here for any serious calligrapher or illuminator.
This book ‘pretends’ to be an exhibition catalogue but it is packed with information and you will find it very educational and well as a joy to look at. You know that phrase “you can’t tell a book by its cover”? It was written for this one!!
1st edition 2013, hardback, 78pp, full colour throughout. 23 x 29cm