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Henry Yates Thompson’s illuminated manuscripts

Introduction 100 illuminated manuscripts The British Library's collection Bibliography

Dispersal

By the time of the publication of his final catalogue in 1912, Thompson was 74 and his eyesight was failing. Over the next years, he resolved to sell his collection at auction. This news provoked strong feelings from many, including his wife. An inscription in the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson MS 13) reveals the depth of her feeling, and Thompson’s sympathy for it:
This volume one of the choicest of my English MSS I gave to my dear wife on her birthday Jan'y 10th 1917 to mitigate her grief at the news that I intended to sell my collection of 100 illuminated MSS.
During the twenty-five years that Thompson built up his collection, he was supported in the endeavour by his wife, by all accounts an enthusiastic and knowledgeable collaborator. The Thompsons clearly shared an interest in the collection, and she actively participated in its development. Mrs Thompson gave to her husband an important fifteenth-century Book of Hours in 1911 (Yates Thompson MS 37). He presented the Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3) to her on her birthday in 1917, in addition to the Taymouth Hours. Mrs Thompson’s friend Elizabeth Robbins recalled interrupting the couple poring over a Dante manuscript (doubtless Yates Thompson MS 36) before breakfast one morning.

Thompson’s decision to sell his Hundred manuscripts prompted howls of protest from Cockerell and James, who pleaded with him to ensure that his manuscripts remain together, in the UK, and in a public collection. On 24 January 1918, Cockerell wrote:
Since I saw you and last heard from you, what you have told me of your intention to sell you manuscripts has been a constant weight and dragging oppression on my mind - a sort of wound of which I am almost never unconscious. ...

Your collection as it stands, gathered together with rare taste and judgement during a quarter of a century which has been rich in opportunities, is now splendidly complete. … Kept together it is one of the great artistic and spiritual assets of England. That you should be willing to scatter it, unless for good reasons that you have not disclosed, seems to me … lamentable in the extreme.4
Cockerell’s letter concludes with the plea that Thompson should at least ‘give me the chance of raising the money and securing them for the country and Cambridge at the price you paid for them.’5 M.R. James joined in the epistolary campaign:
S.C.C. [Cockerell] has told me now the dreadful news that you mean to sell your books. I can’t say what a grief this is to me. … If I were by you I would go down on my knees to beseech you to give up the idea.
Thompson was unmoved by the arguments and pleadings of his old friends. A draft of his reply to James survives:
If like you I were a scholar and an expert in history & art I should probably agree that the B. Museum was the only place for the mss. at any cost. I am however only a Collector of art bijoux, and after some little experience and much consideration I don’t want to see mine merged in any public institution however great.
Perhaps in part to appease Cockerell and James, in 1918 Thompson gave to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge the Metz Pontifical (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 298) and to the British Museum the St Omer Psalter (Yates Thompson MS 14). These were two of his finest manuscripts, and perhaps went some way to assuaging his friends’ defeated hopes.

Mrs Thompson did not accompany her husband to the sale room, so distraught was she at the prospect of hearing their library dismantled by the auctioneer’s hammer. Thompson himself did not conceal his feelings about the dispersal of his collection, recording in the 1919 sale catalogue (which he wrote himself), ‘The sale catalogue is a sort of funeral of my MSS…’6.

Two sales, on 3 June 1919 and 23 March 1920, were hugely successful and well-attended. On 23 March 1920, Cockerell recorded in his diary that ‘Everyone interested in such things, or nearly everyone, was in the crowded rooms.’7 However, the third sale on 22 June 1921 coincided with an economic downturn, and it was not so great a financial triumph as the first two. In the intervening time, an operation on Thompson’s eyes had improved his vision sufficiently for him to enjoy his library once again. Thompson therefore never carried out his plan to sell all of his manuscripts by auction, and indeed bought back some of the manuscripts that he had sold, including a copy of William of Tyre’s History of the Crusades (Yates Thompson MS 12). In a note dated 23 July 1923, now in the manuscript, Thompson explains that the manuscript had been bought at the 1919 sale by the booksellers Pickering and Chatto, and that having seen it languishing in their catalogues for some time he resolved to buy it back because ‘I had liked it so well.’ ‘It is lamentable,’ he adds, ‘that the picture to book 1 is gone.’

When he died in 1928, just a few months short of his ninetieth birthday, Thompson’s library still held many of its most precious volumes. Several purchases demonstrate that even as a nearly blind octogenarian he had not lost the acquisitive impulse. In 1920 he purchased a copy of John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund (Yates Thompson MS 47), and in 1924 a fifteenth-century copy of English statutes (Yates Thompson MS 48). Other acquisitions of this period are conspicuously out of step with the aesthetic standard of the Hundred, and suggest that different motivations were behind their purchase. Perhaps a rekindled interest in Greek literature is evident in his purchase of a fifteenth-century Aristophanes (Yates Thompson MS 50). Even more unusual is a Cyrillic MS (Yates Thompson MS 51). The most remarkable purchase of these years is a sumptuously illuminated Book of Hours of the early fifteenth century (Yates Thompson MS 46), which can be connected on stylistic grounds to the workshop responsible for the Bedford Hours (Add. MS 18850). Unlike his earlier purchases that gained fame through exhibition at Burlington House in 1908 and the collections’ catalogues, many of these later acquisitions have remained comparatively unpublished despite their great interest.

During Cockerell and James’s campaign to convince Thompson to keep his collection together, Thompson wrote to James that it was his desire ‘that the MSS should go into private hands. Personally, I have greatly enjoyed their possession because they were mine and because I could handle them whenever I wanted.’ And indeed, of the approximately 150 illuminated manuscripts that were at one time or another part of Thompson’s Hundred, a great many were sold to private collectors such as Chester Beatty, C.W. Dyson Perrins, and Thompson’s old friend S.C.Cockerell. (A few remain in private hands, and occasionally a Yates Thompson manuscript still appears for sale.) In his own lifetime, Thompson was reluctant to create a permanent memorial to himself by leaving his collection of manuscripts to a national collection. His wife, however, did not share this hesitation and bequeathed the forty-six manuscripts that remained of his collection to the British Museum when she died in 1941.

Illustrations


YT 26, f.45v
Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert. England (Durham), c.1175-1200.
YT 26, f.45v


YT 52, f.10
Primer and Psalter. England, c.1400-1425.
YT 52, f.10


YT 12, f.90
William Tyre’s History of the Crusades. France, c.1250-1260.
YT 12, f.90


YT 47, f.21v
John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund. England (Bury St Edmunds?), after 1461.
YT 47, f.21v


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4 Add. MS 52755, ff.209-212.
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5 Quoted in W. Blunt, Cockerell, pp.145-6.
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6 Catalogue of Twenty-Eight Illuminated Manuscripts and Two Printed Books, the property of Henry Yates Thompson (Sotheby’s sale catalogue, 3 June 1919), p.59.
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7 British Library Add. MS 52656, f.18v.



Introduction 100 illuminated manuscripts The British Library's collection Bibliography

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