This month’s object (coming in just under the wire again – I blame (paradoxically) both my holiday and my new, blissful, part-time job!) may well look familiar. This is because it is one of the ‘Marlay Cuttings’ in the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the glorious details of the flowers in the margin, as well as the tiny Annunciation scene itself, are frequently reproduced.
The Marlay Cuttings are part of the Marlay Bequest, made to the Museum on the death of Charles Brinsley Marlay (1831–1912), a wealthy collector cultivated (as were so many) by the dynamic Director Sydney Cockerell (disciple of Ruskin, friend and executor of Morris), who famously claimed to have found the Fitzwilliam a pigsty and left it a palace. Marlay’s life is succinctly summed up by the notes on his archival materials held in the University of Nottingham: ‘The elder son of Lt.-Col. George and Catherine Marlay, Charles Brinsley Marlay, was educated at Eton College, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He remained a bachelor and lived into his eighties, dividing his time between his Irish estates (Belvedere in Westmeath, inherited from Lord Lanesborough through his father), his London residence and travelling on the Continent.’
Cockerell persuaded Marlay to leave the Museum not only his collections (‘paintings, prints and drawings, rare books and precious bindings, European and Oriental pottery and weapons, silver, bronzes, glass, ivories, enamels, jewellery, Japanese lacquer and netsuke, furniture, carpets, and tapestries’, illuminated manuscripts) but also £80,000 – and the lease of his London house – to fund the building of a new gallery to house the treasures.
Even more extraordinarily, Marlay agreed that Cockerell could sell off what he considered to be the less desirable items in the bequest to further boost the Museum’s purchasing fund. A biography of Cockerell written soon after the end of his very long life (1867–1962) gives the credit for this initiative to Marlay himself: a more recent account suggests that Cockerell proposed the sale and that Marley was in fact upset at this disparagement of his own taste.
Either way, the new gallery was opened (with over a thousand visitors attending), on 18 June 1924, and was praised as a ‘marked advance upon anything that had been done before in England in designing rooms for the exhibition of pictures’, especially in regard to its innovatory lighting system.
The ‘Marlay Cuttings’ consist of 240 leaves taken from medieval illuminated manuscripts. In The Enemies of Books, William Blades lists the following scourges of the bibliophile: ‘Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance and Bigotry, the Bookworm, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, Collectors, Servants and Children’. But he saves especial opprobrium for destructive collectors such as the ‘wicked old biblioclast … John Bagford [1650–1716], one of the founders of the Society of Antiquaries, who, in the beginning of the last century, went about the country from library to library, tearing away title pages from rare books of all sizes’, ruining the books to create albums of comparative samples of printing.
This type of destruction (and for profit, rather than for bibliographical study) continued with the splitting of illuminated manuscripts to sell the most attractive leaves separately, and continues today in (for instance) the sale of colour plates stripped from nineteenth-century books, like these two delightful birds I was given recently.
Our object consists of one of four leaves taken from a Gradual (a book containing the musical elements of the Mass), written by the scribe Francis Weert and illuminated by an artist in the circle of the ‘Master of Cardinal Wolsey’, in Antwerp (then in the Province of Brabant), about 1524. The Gradual was created for Marcus Cruyt, the 28th abbot of the Cistercian monastery of St Bernard at Hemiskem, near Antwerp, from 1518 to 1536.
Cruyt was an important man – the ambassador of the emperor Charles V to Denmark – and it is known from the records of the abbey that he ordered three other works from Weert (who worked in Leuven/Louvain). One of these, a Missal, also illuminated by one of the circle, is now in a private collection, and some other leaves of the Gradual itself are known to have survived, including some bearing the arms and motto (‘Spes mea in Domino’ – ‘My hope is in the Lord’) of Cruyt.
The text and music on the verso page are the opening of the Introit for the Feast of the Annunciation: ‘Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum’ – ‘Drop down, ye Heavens, from above’, in the conventional English translation. But it is the marginal decoration which immediately draws the eye: on the 365 x 270 mm (14 x 10.5 ins.) verso page are displayed flowers, fruit, vegetables, a moth and a butterfly, caterpillars, snails and a very reduced-scale peacock with three peahens.
All the plants sprout from a maiolica-style jar (see top) which echoes the vase of lilies which (as is traditional) stands on the paved floor between the Virgin and the Angel: it carries the inscriptions ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Ecce ancilla Domini’ – ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’.
The flowers include roses, a lily, a viola, aquilegias, peas (and pods), a strawberry (and fruit), blue love-in-the-mist (I think), and pinks or gillyflowers. The butterfly may be a meadow brown (?), but the moth is (fairly) unmistakably a magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata).
In the almost 400 years between its first owner, Abbot Cruyt, and its most recent, Charles Brinsley Marlay, nothing seems to be known of the Gradual’s adventures – except that, evidently, at some point it was broken up and the individual leaves sold to collectors: some ended up in public collections in Britain, France and Belgium, but many are presumably lost or languishing unrecognised. Thankfully, these four leaves found their way into the discriminating hands of Marlay; and we may also be thankful that Cockerell too recognised their quality and kept them among the sheep for the Museum rather than the goats which he sold off.