Dr Laura Cleaver, senior lecturer in manuscript studies and principal investigator of the European Research Council (ERC)-funded CULTIVATE MSS project at the Institute of English Studies, explores what Charles Dyson Perrins’ collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts reveals about the rare books trade in the early 20th century.

If the name Charles Dyson Perrins (1864–1958) strikes a chord of recognition today, it is probably in connection with the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce developed by his grandfather, which helped create the family’s fortune. In Worcestershire, Perrins’ name remains associated with his many philanthropic projects, from hospitals to the Dyson Perrins Church of England Academy. But for scholars of manuscripts he is known because of the imposing catalogue of 135 volumes written for Perrins by George Warner, retired keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, published in 1920.

As with most early 20th-century collections, however, the catalogue only includes a selection of the manuscripts that passed through Perrins’ hands – those deemed most significant. Tracing Perrins’ collecting habits through dealers’ records, meanwhile, builds up a fuller picture. This sheds a revealing light on the ways in which lavish publications such as Warner’s catalogue have helped reinforce ideas about what is considered ‘important’ manuscript material – and in turn influenced the shape of medieval studies as a discipline.

The varying values placed on medieval manuscripts by wealthy collectors like Perrins, scholars like Warner, and other individuals involved in the early 20th-century book trade is the subject of the Institute of English Studies’s ERC-funded CULTIVATE MSS project. Running for five years, it explores how a small community of collectors, scholars and dealers has had an outsize impact on the ways in which the middle ages have been perceived, both within the academic community and by the wider public.

Perrins’ first major purchase of a manuscript became a legend of the book trade. The story goes that in July 1904 Perrins went into a bookshop in search of something to read on the train. He came out with a large and richly illuminated, 14th-century Psalter, which he took home for inspection. The asking price was £5,250 (very approximately £500,000 today), so Perrins sought the opinion of an expert, Sydney Cockerell, a former secretary to William Morris, who was then earning a living writing catalogues for collectors. Grasping the opportunity, Cockerell advised Perrins to buy, and went on to write a monograph on the Psalter (now British Library, Add. MS 49622) and include it in his 1908 exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.

Although the purchase of the Psalter represented a huge increase in his spending on manuscripts, Perrins had previously bought medieval manuscripts as an extension of his interest in early printed books. Only part of his collection of early printed material was ever published, and this, together with the treatment of books and manuscripts in separate publications, has helped focus attention on his manuscript collecting.

In 1907 Cockerell began work cataloguing Perrins’ growing collection of manuscripts, and Perrins sent 43 manuscripts and more than 400 printed books for sale anonymously at Sotheby’s. Some of these manuscripts sold for less than Perrins had paid for them, indicating both the capricious nature of the market and his relative inexperience at the start of his collecting. Moreover, the sale indicates that manuscripts were not necessarily valued more than printed books. The top two prices were for manuscripts (copies of Ovid’s fables and the 13th-century French poem Le Roman de la Rose), but the next highest price was for a 15th-century printed Psalter, and a printed Book of Hours sold for more than any of the manuscript Hours. The printed Hours was described as ‘extremely rare’, but any manuscript Hours was, as a hand-made object, unique.

Following the success of the Burlington exhibition, Cockerell was appointed director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The task of cataloguing Perrins’ still-growing collection of manuscripts then passed to Warner. The publication of the exhibition catalogue and Warner’s catalogue, complete with large black and white illustrations, made parts of Perrins’ collection accessible (if only through reproductions) to a much wider audience and consolidated his reputation as a collector. These, and the other publications sponsored by Perrins, became important reference works as studies of manuscripts developed.

Although Perrins’ acquisitions of manuscripts decreased dramatically after 1920, he retained the collection until his death in 1958. His will directed that two manuscripts (including the Psalter bought in 1904) be given to the British Museum, two more to his widow, and the rest sold. The first of the sales in 1958 set a record total for a one-day sale of books or manuscripts.

As the CULTIVATE MSS project unfolds over the coming years, stories such as Perrins’ serve as important reminders of the socially-embedded nature of collecting. The tastes and financial resources of individual collectors, and the collections they built up, often mediate our access to the past as much as the objects within them.

The full article on this topic is available here.

Image: ‘The Magnet’. Editorial cartoon by Joseph Keppler, Jr., Puck magazine, New York, vol. 69, no. 1790, 21 June 1911. Pierpont Morgan Library Archives, ARC 2650, 278059.  https://www.themorgan.org/collection/archives/item/278059