The Wallace Collection’s library holds a number of rare books, which our visitors can view on request. In this blog by Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer, she explores Les arts au Moyen Age by Alexandre Du Sommerard, possibly the most famous collector of medieval art in France in the nineteenth century.
Born in 1779, Alexandre Du Sommerard was an auditor, an amateur archaeologist and an art collector, with a particular interest in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although he worked for the Cour des comptes, the official French body ensuring good accounting and proper handling of public money, his main passion and great legacy was his large collection of medieval art objects of all kinds. Eventually, he housed them at his home, the Hôtel de Cluny in Paris, which he had purchased in 1832. This large property – the only remaining medieval palace in Paris – was a very appropriate home for the collection. Built in the fourteenth century next to the ruins of a complex of Roman baths, it had once been the town house of the Abbots of Cluny, and was then rebuilt by Jacques d’Amboise, Bishop of Clermont, in the late fifteenth century. After Du Sommerard’s death in 1842, his collection and the Hôtel de Cluny were acquired by the French state and became what is now known as the Musée national du Moyen Age. It now houses one of the finest collections of medieval art in the world, including the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, purchased for the museum by its first director, Du Sommerard’s son Edmond.
Du Sommerard’s other legacy was his great publication depicting works of medieval art which he worked on until his death. Entitled Les Arts au Moyen Age, it runs to five text volumes and twelve (our copy bound in six) volumes of plates, many of which are in colour. The publication of this work continued beyond Du Sommerard’s death, so he never saw his life’s work completed. The images and text are mainly based on his own collection, as shown in the subtitle given in the text volumes: “en ce qui concerne principalement le Palais Romain de Paris, l’Hôtel de Cluny, issu de ses ruines et les objets d’art de la collection classée dans cet Hôtel” (“chiefly regarding the Roman Palace of Paris, the Hôtel de Cluny which originated from its ruins and the art objects of the collection kept in this Hôtel”).
Du Sommerard was a genuine scholar, who was aware that at the time he began his collection, the Middle Ages was a neglected period of history, especially as far the arts were concerned. His main aim was to bring the beautiful art objects to people’s attention once more and to encourage scholarly engagement with the subject. His fascination with the Middle Ages was timely; the nineteenth century saw a great revival of interest in all things medieval, as can be seen in all the arts of the time. He quotes another French historian, Augustin Thierry, who gives much of the credit for this revival of interest to Walter Scott and his novels “C’est à Walter Scott que nous sommes redevables de ce retour vers le moyen age dont naguère on s’éloignait avec dédain …” …” (“It is Walter Scott to whom we are indebted for this revisiting of the middle ages, which were previously dismissed with disdain …”) (Lettres sur l’histoire de France, 1820), and states that interest in the period had not waned since this time.
The text volumes and volumes of plates differ fairly majorly in size; the text volumes being a mere 25 cm tall while the volumes of plates can be considered oversize by any standard at 56 cm. This size difference meant that they were separated at some point after being purchased for the Wallace Collection Library in 1946. The volumes of plates were housed in one of the curator’s offices while the text volumes ended up in one of the small Boulle cabinets on the first floor landing. The volumes of plates were catalogued several years before a survey of the gallery furniture housing Library books brought the text volumes to light once more. The entire publication is now housed together again for the first time in decades and it is this happy rediscovery that has prompted a closer examination of the volumes.
Our copy of this magnificent publication was previously owned by Christopher Turnor (1808-1886), of Stoke Rochford Hall, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and all the volumes bear his armorial bookplate. He could well have been the original buyer as he certainly would have been the right age to purchase the books in the mid-nineteenth century when they were published. Stoke Rochford Hall passed from family ownership around 1940, so it is entirely possible that the contents of the library were disposed of at that point. The Wallace Collection Library’s accessions’ register records that the books were only purchased from an E. Joseph in 1946 so they may have gone into storage for the duration of the War or may have passed to another owner before they came to the Wallace Collection.
All the volumes are beautifully bound in red leather and decorated with gold tooling on the spines, the front covers and even inside the front covers where the leather meets the marbled endpapers. The page edges are gilded and paper is a fine quality that shows only traces of foxing. It is likely that the books were bound to Christopher Turnor’s specifications, possibly even to match the style of bindings of other books in his library as this was a common practice at the time.
The production of such a work would have been extremely expensive, especially considering the cost of the plates. Given the number of names attached to the plates, they seem to have been drawn, engraved and printed by a variety of different people and firms. The author himself makes it clear how much work was involved in the preface, where he describes the processes necessary to produce the plates: “… malgre les difficultés que nous nous sommes créées en sommettant, pour la première fois, l’exécution de certaines planches à quatre opérations successives : la réduction diagraphique très minutieuse, pour l’exactitude parfaite de la reproduction, la gravure sur cuivre ou sur acier du trait ainsi réduit et épuré, le transport de la gravure sur pierre et la coloration et le modelage du trait par le crayon lithographique …”. (“… despite the difficulties we have created for ourselves in achieving, for the first time, the execution of certain plates in four consecutive stages: the meticulous diagraphical reduction, for perfect accuracy of the reproduction, the engraving on copper or steel of the thereby reduced and cleaned line, the transfer of the engraving onto stone and the colouring and modelling of the line by the lithographic pencil … “). Colour printing, and more specifically, chromolithography, was at this stage in its infancy, so it is likely that some of the plates were finished by hand.
The text volumes were printed in Paris and published at the Hôtel de Cluny which must mean that the author published them himself rather than handing the publication over to one of the Paris publishing houses. The cost of publishing such a work is such that he could really only have done so by subscription, that is, by asking future readers for money in exchange for a promise of a copy once the work was completed. It could be regarded as a very early form of crowd-funding. That this was in fact the case can be seen in the preface, where he mentions his subscribers, and beneath the table of contents in the first text volume on p. [xiv], where he states that it is still possible to subscribe to the publication and gives all the details necessary to do so.
All the plates, whether black and white or in colour, are magnificent and make the volumes regular favourites when some of the Library’s treasures are displayed for visitors. They include images of exteriors and interiors of medieval buildings, religious art of all kinds, manuscript illuminations, wood and ivory carvings, furniture and so much more. The illustrations provide a real insight into the beauty of medieval art, which is of course what the author intended.
By Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer