World Book Day: judging a book by its cover

The Chester Beatty Library is home to some of the most beautiful and famous books in the world, so to celebrate World Book day here in Ireland, we thought we’d set ourselves an impossible task. To mark the occasion, conservation staff have selected just one favourite book that is currently on display to share with you. We do hope you enjoy them and that you’ll come and choose your favourite book next time you visit.

Cécilia, Heritage Council Intern

Selecting a favourite book from the Chester Beatty Library collections is not an easy task. After wandering around the galleries and thinking deeply about how to solve this problem, I finally decided to present a book from the East Asian Collection. Indeed, it is likely one would not think of this object when first thinking of a book structure.

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CBL Thi 1301: the closed manuscript (left) and its beautiful inlaid cover (right)

CBL Thi 1301 is an Elephant Treatise from Thailand. The first folio of the book is dated 1816 A.D. This folding book includes 144 folds, with covers made of wood and inlaid with white, red and green glass in a floral and cross design.

This beautiful object brings together my two interests and my love for both book and painting conservation. The binding structure -a concertina- is a book form that was developed in Asia between the eighth and the twelfth centuries. In these books, the sheets are folded back and forth, forming the same shape as the musical instrument by the same name. Throughout the manuscript the Thai script is painted in gold on different coloured grounds.  The brightly painted folios are well preserved and the colours are still vibrant. The palette is varied with yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, green, blue, white, black and earth colours. And let’s not forget one of the most beautiful aspects of the book- the elephants! The animal design is simply fascinating.

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Colourful decorated elephants throughout the textblock

If you haven’t already had the chance to see it, don’t forget to stop by and admire the Elephant Treatise in the Arts of the Book Gallery next time you come to the Chester Beatty Library!

Julia, Book Conservator

We have all said it, but I must reiterate that it is an impossible task to select a favourite book currently on display in the galleries. All are unique and absolutely beautiful for different reasons. Some are rare, others are lavishly decorated and stunning to look at. Most of them are both at once! However, for World Book Day I thought I would select a manuscript and it’s binding rather than the opening of a book alone. As a book conservator, I think the book structure is as important as the manuscript itself and informs us of the manuscript’s usage.

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CBL Ar 5570 preparing the manuscript for display, and detail of the selected opening.

This late 18th/early 19th century North West African prayer book (CBL Ar 5570, Kunuz al-asrar fi al-salat ‘ala al-mukhtar or The Golden Treasure of Prayers for the Prophet) is written in the beautiful Sudani Maghrebi script with light black and red ink on highly burnished Islamic paper. The square format and the loose paper leaves are typical of the region and display a different binding format and structure from the majority of the books in the Islamic collection.

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CBL Ar 5570 on display in the Sacred Traditions gallery

A leather wrapper with envelope flap protects the loose leaves. The wrapper is inserted into two leather wallets for full protection of all four edges. The manuscript is even further protected when placed in its leather satchel, secured by long leather straps and impressive braided toggles. This system allows the manuscript to be carried around the waist by the owner. The portability of this object, as well as the care that went into decorating and painting the leather on the slipcases and satchel, highlights the importance of spreading the written word in Muslim West Africa.

The beautiful pages on display are characteristic of this region with the strict geometrical ornamentations painted in brown, blue and red pigments as well as the absence of gold. The pages of the manuscript on display show well known symbols of the Prophet’s mosque and the city of Medina. Come see it on display in the 2nd floor Sacred Traditions Gallery!

Kristine, Senior Conservator

My choice for World Book Day is a Coptic manuscript (CBL Cpt 815) currently on display in the Arts of the Book gallery. To me it is no exaggeration to say this is one of the most exciting artefacts in the world. Not only is this manuscript one of the earliest surviving examples of the book in its most familiar form- that is a multi-quire textblock- but its treatment in the 1930’s represents one of the first examples of modern book conservation.

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Above left: A folio from CBL Cpt 815; above right: the manuscript on display, together with Lamacraft’s model, and 15 late-6th century coins from Alexandria which were found with it.

Cpt 815 is a Psalter and gospel of St Mathew dating to c.600 A.D. Chester Beatty purchased this manuscript, along with two others, in the mid 1920’s from a dealer in Cairo. Comprised of 160 folios in 20 quires of fine parchment, it was conserved along with its sister volumes by eminent bookbinder Charles T. Lamacraft in the 1930’s.

Lamacraft’s work was decades ahead of its time. He kept and preserved everything, documenting each detail of these precious manuscripts and making model bindings of each structure to capture his observations fully. His 1939 article, ‘Early book-bindings from a Coptic monastery,’ is still a very relevant read to anyone with an interest in the history of the book and its conservation.

As a conservator fascinated by the development of the codex structure, and the earliest roots of book binding traditions, this little manuscript represents one of the most important steps towards a recognisably book-shaped machine. In terms of our profession, it is conservation heritage.

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A detail of Lamacraft’s model of CBL Cpt 815.

Jessica, Head of Collections

I have most definitely gone for the ‘WOW’ factor with my choice. I’d like to present this seventeenth century Armenian jewelled binding (CBL Arm 584). The four gospels are among the most copied texts in Armenian; this copy is written on parchment and bound in red leather covered wooden boards. The front board is covered with silver-gilt filigree work and studded with silver bosses and green and red stones; in the centre is Christ in relief. While the back cover is silver gilt with the crowned Virgin and child and the heads of the angels in the four corners.

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Upper and lower jewelled boards of CBL Arm 584

What I love about this book is not just the splendour of its binding, but the fact that the manuscript it contains is also exquisitely decorated. As the spine is made from one piece of silver which makes it very difficult to open more than 40 degrees, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share two beautifully illuminated openings from the manuscript. I first visited the Library soon after it opened at Dublin Castle in 2000 and ended up spending over two hours in just one gallery. I vividly remember seeing this binding on that day. Since then I have been lucky enough to handle it on a number of occasions, most recently for photography, and it still takes my breath away. For once you really can judge a book by its cover.

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Opening details of CBL Arm 584. Above left: Folio 16r, showing the Last judgment; above right: folio 92r, a portrait of St Mark.

 

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