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The ‘Greatest of all Bibliophiles’: Baysunghur in the Collection of Chester Beatty

In 1959, the Dublin booksellers Hodges Figgis & Co. published the first volume of A Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts and Miniatures from the collection of Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968). The second and third would follow in 1960 and 1962. The three-volume set describes 398 manuscripts (or detached folio groups) written in Persian, in approximate chronological order. Most were produced in Iran, or in centres now part of the neighbouring modern states of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iraq. Additional acquisitions would follow before Beatty passed away in 1968.

These works on paper range from the 13th to the 19th century, and as James Vere Stewart Wilkinson (1885–1957) noted in the introduction to volume I, they represent important Persian intellectual traditions, including poetry, history, science, religion and even advice literature. Closer to Beatty’s own interests as an art collector, his remarkable Persian collection also represents a very substantial account of the arts of the book in Iran, with significant dated or signed examples of painting, calligraphy, illumination and bookbinding, all in generally excellent condition. He did not read Persian himself, but he employed numerous specialists who did. Beatty’s focus had long been aesthetic rather than textual: as he declared of his Persian manuscripts in the catalogue foreword, his ‘special interest’ lay in ‘the delicacy of their ornament and the beauty of their miniatures’ (Arberry, Blochet and Minovi, 1959, p. v). This preference was largely typical of early 20th century art collecting in Europe and America, when Persian manuscript paintings (referred to then as ‘miniatures’) began to be admired, pursued and discussed for their formal qualities alone.

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May/June 2020
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