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Millions needed to save Gothic treasure for nation



BY DALYA ALBERGE
ARTS CORRESPONDENT

BRITAIN is in danger of losing the finest English Gothic manuscript -
an illuminated prayerbook which scholars regard as the most
magnificent English work of art from the late Middle Ages. The
Sherborne Missal has been on loan to the British Library since 1983
but the owner, the Duke of Northumberland, has decided to sell it.
Delicate negotiations have been going on for up to a year about a
possible purchase by the nation. Art market sources said that the
prayerbook was worth well in excess of =A310 million. The duke confirmed
yesterday that he was in the process of negotiating a sale with the
Government to cover inheritance tax following the death of his elder
brother from an accidental drugs overdose. "When I inherited the title
[in 1996], we incurred a massive inheritance tax liability. "I felt
that doing an in lieu of inheritance tax transfer was the best
solution," he said. The missal was created for the Benedictine abbey
of St Mary at Sherborne, Dorset, and dates from 1396 to 1406. Nothing
compares to its scale - 2ft high and weighing more than 40lb - its
textual complexity and the extent of the illumination which covers
every space on nearly 700 pages. Brian Lang, director of the British
Library, spoke of a possible arrangement in which part of the cost
would be covered in lieu of tax and the remainder would be provided by
the Library. The Library said that a public appeal may be necessary to
raise the millions needed to save it for the nation. A donation may
come from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which said that it was
"sympathetic" to the cause. For the past decade, the missal has been
given pride of place at the British Library in a case with the
Lindisfarne Gospels. Exquisite depictions of flowers and animals,
including some of the oldest and most famous naturalistic depictions
in English art, fill every page. There are so many thousands of
miniatures that they have never been counted or listed. There are also
70 coatsof arms, including those of the King of England and the Prince
of Wales. The images include Moses receiving the Ten Commandments,
Christ sending out His disciples and the Crucifixion. Elsewhere, it is
peopled with saints, knights, priests, peasants and hermits. Figures
are shown, in the minutest detail, jousting, feasting, sleeping and
playing instruments. The missal is signed four times by the scribe,
the Benedictine monk John Whas, who inserted a note about working so
hard on the writing that by the end of a long day his body was
emaciated with effort. No wonder: there are about 40,000 lines of
text. The Library estimates that if he wrote a line in about two
minutes - the average speed of a skilful medieval scribe - and worked
six days a week, the writing alone would have taken him about 9 1/2
months. Most of the illustrations are by John Siferwas, a Dominican
friar, who is credited with having painted the earliest naturalistic
self-portrait in England. The missal remained in England, presumably
at Sherborne, at the Reformation. It is believed to have been smuggled
to France later, eventually entering the collection of a former
controller-general of finance under Louis XVI, who was exiled to
England in 1787. It was acquired by the 2nd Duke of Northumberland
(1742-1817). According to one report, Ralph George Algernon Percy, the
12th Duke, is master of 120,000 acres worth about =A3120 million. His
property includes Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, where the Percys
have lived since 1309.
Daily Telegraph






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