Time to shine for these hidden treasures

The British Library's collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts are a glowing reminder of a rich artistic heritage

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As monarchism revives with the marriage of William and Kate, the British Library has stepped boldly forth with an exhibition which is royalist to its hilt, showing the taste, the interests and the ambitions of the Queen's mediaeval predecessors.

It's an exhibition which proves the English monarchs yielded nothing to their Continental cousins in the way of artistic taste and patronage, or indeed in the high view they took of the status and duties of a king.

It's also a show which reveals what a wealth of medieval manuscript lies in the British Library, the result of the beneficence of George II, who donated to the country in 1757 one of the most remarkable and well-preserved accumulations of royal manuscripts in Europe, kept whole through dynastic war, regicide and a succession of changes in the ruling family. Out of a total of 2000 books from the 9th to 16th centuries in the Old Royal Library, as it is called, the British Library has now put 154 works on display in an exhibition aimed as much at exploring the habits of Kings as the glory of their possessions.

Not that you should downplay the artistic worth. The illumination of manuscripts was one of the most skilled and creative of the arts of the Middle Ages, the means by which the secular as well as religious texts which every ruler was supposed to read and mark were brought alive. And the Old Royal Library contains some of the greatest examples of the time.

Anyone wanting to see and examine close up the glories of this art need only stop and stare at the quite extraordinarily vivacious psalter from 1310, rediscovered and presented to Queen Mary Tudor by an aspiring customs officer in 1553. It gives the lie to every presumption that the figurative art of that period was a static conservatism awaiting release by the Renaissance.

And once you get to the great works of the Paris and Burgundian schools of the later Middle Ages you are in a realm of rhythm and colour almost modern in its vitality of composition. The frescos of the period were meant to uplift and teach, manuscript illustration was meant to draw you in to the stories and the message, whether it was the teachings of the Bible or the deeds of Alexander and the rulers of the past.

The result was a freedom of expression, a joy in detail and a luxury of colour which can make these pages quite startling in their effect. Because they are from books kept closed for most of their lives, the colours have kept their freshness. The glitter of gold in the illuminated pages of works such as The Princess Joan Psalter, the Miroir des Dames and the Bedford Book of Hours of the early 15th century is as fresh as when the British monarchs took the books into their own possession.

It is unfortunate that, gathered by later monarchs on to library shelves, the books have nearly all lost the exquisite bindings that would once have adorned them. What they retain, however, in decorative terms, is the floral borders which surround the texts and illustrations, as great as anything produced in the geometric patterns of the Muslim world at the time. Reproductions inevitably tend to emphasise the pictures, but the weaving interplay of flower and stem that surround them is something else again. Given a bit more marketing fizz, the British Library shop ought to be overflowing with ties, notebooks, cards and bookmarks based on these endlessly captivating designs.

What does interest the Library – and understandably so – is the heraldry inserted, and sometimes changed, to show the arms and emblems of the monarchs into whose possession they came. Books were regarded as treasures in their own right and the stories behind them tell not just of the cultural aspirations of royalty but the history of their dynastic alliances and marriages, with the Burgundian court in the case of Edward IV and the French royal family in the case of his Lancastrian predecessors.

It was to Paris that most of the English kings looked for artistic leadership, through family and linguistic affiliation and the long period of rule over lands in France. Some of the finest works in the show were seized by Henry V's brother, the Duke of Bedford, from the French kings after the battles of Poitiers and Agincourt; others came by way of marriage. The Bedford Book of Hours was presented by Anne of Burgundy, wife of the Duke of Bedford, to the nine-year-old Henry VI before his coronation as King of France. The Shrewsbury Book, a masterpiece of Rouen illustration, was presented by that thug of a military commander, John Talbot, to Margaret of Anjou before her marriage to Henry VI and is packed with illustrations supporting his claim to the French throne.

Sadly the show suggests that the English royalty of the period seem to have hardly patronised English art or illustration as such, for all that places such as Winchester were once artistic centres for the whole of Europe and some aristocrats kept their own studios. In that, our monarchs were like their successors today. Helpfully, the British Library has devoted a whole section to Edward IV's glorious patronage of Burgundian art. Another section is directed towards the royal association with France.

If it is the art that you're interested in, these are the two sections to go for. If it is the provenance of the books and what they tell us about their owners, then it is best to wander amongst the earlier psalters, the books of instruction and the chronicles. There is too much to enjoy in detail to attempt it all.

You can argue (as I would) with the fact that the Library is charging £10 for entry to an exhibition which is, after all, made up entirely of works owned by the taxpayer. You can complain at the long queues at the cloakroom, the poor state of the toilets and the unhelpfulness of the staff. But as far as this show is concerned, the Library has gone out of its way to be visitor-friendly, with cases set at lower than usual heights to facilitate close viewing, the accompanying material clearly laid out, interactive displays introduced to enable you to follow certain works through their pages and (even more unusual for galleries these days) a reasonably priced accompanying booklet in addition to the heavier, more academic but excellent full catalogue.

An exhibition to be savoured in bits rather than trudged around as a whole. But then what jewels there are when you stop to take them in.

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, British Library, London NW1 (01937 546546) to 13 March