Dr Laura Cleaver (PI)

Laura is writing a book on the trade in medieval manuscripts in Britain c. 1900-45 and its impact on the study of manuscripts and ideas about medieval culture.

Uriah Maggs
Uriah Maggs, founder of Maggs Brothers

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the dispersal of many aristocratic libraries and the emergence of a new generation of collectors who had made fortunes in industry. The London market also attracted American collectors seeking to build libraries on along European lines. After the First World War the market for manuscripts boomed, with new record prices set repeatedly until the global economic crisis and the depression of the 1930s. Yet the trade in medieval and renaissance manuscripts was much larger than might be suggested by reports of record prices for individual items. In addition to well-known dealers catering to famous collectors, such as Bernard Quaritch Ltd. and Maggs Brothers, many other book dealers traded manuscripts to a clientele that included lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists.

In Britain, as elsewhere, interest in medieval manuscripts in this period was fuelled by exhibitions, some of which made the case for the study of these objects as works of art. Exhibitions such as the famous Burlington Fine Arts Club display of illuminated manuscripts in 1908 emphasised the quality of English illumination, and the place of manuscripts in conceptions of national history. Groups including the National Art Collections Fund advocated for manuscripts to be preserved in national collections rather than allowed to go overseas. Nevertheless, unlike in France, no legislation was passed to prevent the export of manuscripts in this period, and manuscripts were dispatched to Europe as well as America.

Books were also imported from continental Europe, with London becaming a major centre in the international trade in manuscripts. The movement of manuscripts was changed radically by the two world wars, which restricted access to the Continent. Laura’s research aims to contextualise the trade in manuscripts against this turbulent period for society, politics and the economy.

Dr Danielle Magnusson

J. P. Morgan in London, Bain News Service, c. 1910
J. P. Morgan in London, Bain News Service, c. 1910. No known copyright restrictions.

Danielle Magnusson’s research centres on the network of collectors, dealers and scholars that contributed to the golden age of American book collecting (1895-1930). Many of the best-known American collections were assembled during this period; several collectors, such as J. P. Morgan and Henry E. Huntington, left their libraries intact to the public in the form of significant scholarly institutions. Commercial conditions during these years were particularly suitable for book collecting, and a complex dynamic emerged between collectors, dealers and experts.

Danielle’s work explores these relationships, examining the processes by which rare and expensive books were identified and pursued by collectors. She is interested in the provenance surrounding the most desirable items chased by American collectors, and, in particular, the rhetoric of ownership used by these collectors to justify their costly acquisitions. Famous auction and private book sales from the period are particularly valuable starting points for identifying contemporary reactions, both public and private, to American collectors and their activities.

Alongside reconstructing pivotal sales, this project also looks for evidence of non-textual uses of books—to own rather than read—amongst prominent early twentieth-century collectors. Collaboration, sometimes uneasy, between American collectors, dealers and connoisseurs was one of the defining features of this period. Danielle will explore how these specific conditions influenced institutional collection-building, impacted public access to rare books, and shaped contemporary attitudes towards medieval manuscripts and early print.

Danielle’s research aims to highlight tensions between private collecting and public collecting, increasing awareness of how the activities of these early twentieth-century American collectors shaped public and scholarly perceptions of the books they came to own.