Keeping Beatty’s bequest
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chester Beatty’s extraordinary bequest to the Irish State, writes Rosita Boland
Ihave my hands behind my back in the reference library of the Chester Beatty Library, pen in my hand. I have some terrible irrational fear that I will topple over and fall on top of the priceless 1,000- year- old illuminated Qur’an laid out on the table in front of me. Even though the top of my pen is firmly closed, I am picturing a scenario where it explodes black ink all over these open pages, which are usually displayed safely behind glass.
These things do not happen, I am relieved to report. I did not damage or destroy any of the rare and precious objects that will be featuring in the Library’s newest exhibition, Gift of a Lifetime, Treasures from Chester Beatty’s Collection. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his extraordinary bequest to the Irish State; some 20,000 pieces, that include manuscripts, paintings, objects, scrolls, textiles, woodblocks and books.
The library is keen to draw attention to the fact that 28 members of its 44 staff are female, including several of the curators, and those who put this exhibition together. Julia Poirier is a book conservator, and it is she who is so carefully turning the pages of this Qur’an that I fear I will somehow destroy. The Qur’an is out for me to see because it is director Fionnuala Croke’s personal favourite item in the forthcoming exhibition. Five of the women who work in the library have each chosen a piece from the exhibition, so they can explain why each one is important.
Why has Croke chosen this manuscript? “We have 270 Qur’ans, and many of them are much larger and more elaborately illu- minated than this one. I call it a discrete treasure,” she says. “It was both copied and illuminated by one of the great Islamic calligraphers, Ibn al- Bawwab, in Baghdad between 1000 and 1001. It sings as you turn the pages.”
Each of the pieces in the exhibition have been selected to showcase the range and quality of the collection. “It’s the crème de la crème. Quality and rarity were the hallmarks of what Chester Beatty acquired. Each of the works selected could be justly regarded as a world- renowned piece. But do the public realise that we only show 1- 1.5% of the collection at any one time?”
Mary Redfern is the library’s curator of its East Asian Collections. The pieces that are her favourite in the exhibition are three “folios” from a book made of nephrite jade. Three pieces of carved jade in a green so dark it looks almost black lie on a cushion in front of us. The carved pieces date from 1745, and almost 300 years on, jade remains the most prized and expensive of all materials in China, and carries enormous cultural significance.
“Instead of using silk or parchment to write on, they wrote on jade,” Redfern explains. The text is a poem written by China’s Qianlong Emperor, about a beautiful jade bowl he possessed. Take a moment, to consider an era where a poem was immortalised – literally – in jade, at an incalculable expense.
Craftsmen carved the emperor’s handwriting into the jade, and decorated the “covers” with images from the poem; one of the pieces I see is a magnificent sea- monster dragon. All the etched words and imag-