Macclesfield Psalter saved for nation after public appeal raises £1.7m

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The Independent Online

One of the most exquisite medieval manuscripts created in Britain has been saved for the nation after a public appeal helped raise £1.7m to stop its sale to the United States.

One of the most exquisite medieval manuscripts created in Britain has been saved for the nation after a public appeal helped raise £1.7m to stop its sale to the United States.

The Macclesfield Psalter has been secured for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge three weeks before the deadline when it would have left for the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Although the Fitzwilliam tried to acquire the rare illuminated manuscript when it came up for auction in June, the museum was outbid by the far wealthier Getty museum. A temporary export ban by the Department for Culture gave a six-month window to raise a matching bid and save the work.

The National Art Collections Fund offered £500,000 and launched a public appeal, which eventually garnered £180,000 from 2,000 individuals, who gave between £1 and £15,000.

The Heritage Lottery Fund refused a grant because the manuscript did not meet the government's criteria for public access and education. But the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), which is a pot of government money regarded as the "fund of last resort" for national treasures, stepped in with a grant of £860,000.

The manuscript was produced in East Anglia in the 1320s when the region was the unrivalled artistic centre of Europe. Its 252 pages, painted in gold and rich colours, depict a riotous world of beasts, birds, monsters and men and include some images verging on the bawdy.

The manuscript was discovered two years ago, at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire, when Lord Macclesfield invited Sotheby's experts to view his extensive collection with a view to sale. The psalter, previously unknown to scholars, was found on one of the upper bookshelves in the library.

Duncan Robinson, the director of the Fitzwilliam, said: "We are very honoured and very proud to become the custodians of this national treasure. This is a masterpiece, an absolute gem of artistic production. In East Anglia, there were scribes and illuminators who were the match of anywhere in the Western world at the time."

He said that the manuscript would go on display as soon as possible. Then it would be restored for an illuminated manuscripts exhibition this summer.

The creator of the manuscript was also responsible for two others, the Douai and Gorleston psalters, the major surviving record of the work of the artists in pre-Reformation England, because English medieval wall and panel paintings were almost completely destroyed during the Reformation.

Although the museum, the Art Fund and the NHMF were all celebrating yesterday, the case of the psalter illustrates major problems in saving treasures. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) stresses its remit is much broader than simply saving works of art.

Stephen Johnson, head of the NHMF, which receives £5m a year, admitted it would not always have had enough money to help. David Barrie, director of the Art Fund, said the HLF appeared unwilling to support manuscripts and works on paper because of the difficulties of enabling public access to items that were unsuitable for permanent public display. In an ideal world, there would be a massive rise in the NHMF, he said.

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