Keep­ing Beatty’s be­quest

This year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of Ch­ester Beatty’s ex­tra­or­di­nary be­quest to the Ir­ish State, writes Rosita Boland

The Irish Times Magazine - - CHESTER BEATTY -

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-

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