Thursday, December 8th, 2016...9:30 am

Footprints of a Bibliographical Ghost

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Seymour de Ricci created this bibliographical ghost in his Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York, 1935), in an entry on the library of the late Harvard University Professor Charles Eliot Norton (I, 1059).  de Ricci described there three leaves from the Psalter and Hours written probably in the 13th century for Isabelle of France, sister of St. Louis, that were given to Norton by the manuscript’s then owner, John Ruskin, as possibly “still in the possession of some member of his family” and asserts that “Ruskin had given away several leaves, including the 3 mentioned here and 6 which he gave to his school of painting in Oxford.”

De Ricci’s entry on Norton, who died in 1908, cites Sydney Carlyle Cockerell’s A Psalter and Hours executed before 1270 for a lady … probably … Isabelle of France (London, 1905), where Cockerell asserts that Ruskin’s “six leaves subsequently placed by him in his Drawing School at Oxford, and three that he gave to Professor Charles Eliot Norton, have been restored to the book.”  Thus it would appear that de Ricci knew of Cockerell’s work, but failed to read it carefully.  It is also unclear how de Ricci knew the folio numbers of the missing leaves which are not given in Cockerell.

The bibliographical ghost created by de Ricci continues to live on, however, in Melissa Conway and Lisa Fagin Davis’s “Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings” (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109:3 (2015): 273-420) which is a continuation of de Ricci and where the three Norton leaves are described as “currently untraced” (334).

Stella Panayotova attempted to put this ghost to rest in a masterful account of the restoration of these leaves to the manuscript, now MS 300 in the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University, and of Cockerell’s later campaign to acquire the manuscript from Yates Thompson for the Fitzwilliam in her “A Ruskinian Project with a Cockerellian flavour” (The Book Collector 54.3 (2005), 357-374).  She demonstrates that Cockerell’s 1905 statement “conceals, behind a brief mention of some recovered leaves, a fascinating story about loyalty, skillful diplomacy, the passion of collecting, and the triumph of scholarship.’ (359).

Panayotova makes excellent use of letters now in the Houghton Library.  The story begins on 25 February 1861 when Ruskin wrote to Norton:

I should like you to have two leaves from the St. Louis missal; it is imperfect, as it is – (wanting three psalms), so that there is no harm in its losing two leaves more, since they will give you pleasure & be more useful in America than here.  If these sink on the way, I will send two others, but I hope they won’t sink.  One – from the later part of the book – is all charged with St. Louis’s crest.  The other is an exquisite example of 13th century various linear ornamentation.  The book – I grieve to say – was in all probability never in his hands: not only it wants three psalms, but some of its leaves are unfinished. (By the way, I will send an unfinished one as well – so that will be three.)  MS Am 1088 (5913)


On 4 December 1902 Henry Yates Thompson, who by then owned the manuscript, wrote to Norton:

One of my most recent acquisitions in this connection [i.e., the study of medieval illuminated manuscripts] is the St. Louis Psalter which belonged to Mr. Ruskin.  How much I should like to have photographs of the three leaves which that noble vandal tore out of it and presented to you.  If you come here do bring them with you and I will try and find some equivalent to exchange for them.  It seems a pity they wander about far from their fellows.  Six more pages got somehow to Oxford & I have some hopes (rather faint) of recovering them.  MS Am 1088 (7342)

The copy of Yates Thompson’s lecture inscribed to Norton is now Houghton Library Nor 1204.  Norton clearly had the three leaves photographed and on 25 May 1903 Yates Thompson responded: “Very pleased to get the photos & shall be equally so if you can have the other sides of the pages done for me & if the photographer can send over the negatives with his account.  ¶ I believe Mrs. Severn has happily succeeded in recovering the Oxford pages which delights both her and me.”  MS Am 1088 (7343)

Cockerell had earlier persuaded Norton to return his leaves, on the condition that Cockerell and Joan Agnew Severn (Ruskin’s cousin and heir) were also successful in obtaining the Oxford leaves. Yates Thompson knew this, and on 15 July 1903 he wrote again to thank Norton for returning the leaves to Mrs. Severn: “I am much obliged by your note of June 25.  Mrs. Severn has sent me the leaves and I need not say what a valuable addition they are to the volume which is now as complete as we can hope to make.” MS Am 1088 (7344)

Recent shelf reading has brought to our attention three photographs, Nor 2286, accessioned in 1919 as the gift of Sarah Norton, Charles Eliot Norton’s daughter.  An annotation on the back of one of the photographs is in the hand of Charles Eliot Norton and reads: “Photographs of three leaves from the ‘St. Louis’ Service-book.  The original leaves were given to me by J[ohn] R[uskin] & long years afterwards given by me to Joan Agnew to perfect the ms. volume from which they had been taken, & which she sold to Yates Thompson.”

It would appear that ff. 117 and 118 were the leaves originally selected by Ruskin; f. 118 does indeed have small gold fleur de-lys in the line fillers which Ruskin took to be a sign of the books royal connection.  The third leaf, f. 65, might be interpreted as “unfinished.”


f. 117, Isabella Psalter. Nor 2286


f. 118, Isabella Psalter. Nor 2286


f. 65, Isabella Psalter. Nor 2286

These photographs must, therefore, be copies retained by Norton when he sent photographs of his three leaves to Yates Thompson.  Photographs of the other sides, requested by Yates Thompson, were apparently never made since shortly after these photographs were made the originals were on their way to him.  They are, however, evocative footprints of a long-lived bibliographical ghost.

William P. Stoneman, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, contributed this post.

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