Pride in national treasures
B.N. Goswamy

Madonna and Child with St. Rach by Andrea Solario, 15th century Italian painter
Madonna and Child with St. Rach by Andrea Solario, 15th century Italian painter.

IT is unlikely that the Macclesfield Psalter has been the subject of much talk here lately. Very few might, in fact, have even heard of it. For one thing, a psalter is a Biblical book of psalms, and not many might be familiar with the work. For another, this particular psalter is a long way off, both in respect of time and space, being a 14th century object that was written and illustrated in the East Anglia region. But, in England, these last two months, the Macclesfield Psalter has been a cause celebre of sorts, the subject of wide talk and discussion, research and speculation, and of course of considerable anxiety.

For after its recent discovery in an English country house library, the exquisitely illuminated Psalter went on the market, was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in the USA, acknowledged to be the richest museum in the world. And then stopped from leaving England by a wave of protest and feverish activity on the part of those who wished to keep it in their own land. Finally, it is now in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which recently announced, with pride and relief, that it has succeeded in acquiring the great manuscript for itself. The Director of the Museum issued public statements, offering grateful thanks to the countless people and institutions that helped save it for England. The story is of great interest.

The Getty Museum reportedly purchased the Psalter for the sum of $3.2 million, but, according to law, it had to apply to the British Government for permission to take it out of the country. A committee of the government for the export of works of art takes decisions in this matter, and it generally concerns itself only with works that have been in the country for more than 50 years and are of exceptional beauty or significance.

On these counts, the Macclesfield Psalter clearly qualified. However, the Government does not impose a blanket ban on exports even of things belonging to this category; nor does it make decisions in advance. Only when an object has been sold, and some national institution in the country comes up with funds that would match the price at which it was sold, is the export stopped. In this case, the English equivalent of the price paid by the Getty worked out to £ 1.7 million and the money had to be raised within a stipulated time. At this, the nation sprang into action, as it were.

This was not the first time that the cause of keeping a ‘national treasure’ at home was being taken up: other, and more famous cases, like that of a Leonardo da Vinci work which was saved several years back, are known. But the campaign launched to raise funds to match the Getty’s price for the Macclesfield Psalter, somehow took off. The Fitzwilliam Museum, repository of some extraordinary works of art even though only a University Museum, had some funds of its own; the National Art Collections Fund joined in; the Friends of the National Libraries became involved; the Cadbury Charitable Trust put in some money. Appeals at the national level were issued in newspapers, some of them signed by respected art historians, and other public figures. Michael Palin, the celebrated actor, said that "if anything deserves to stay in the country of its origin, this is it".

David Starkey, journalist and broadcaster, wrote: "I do not automatically support campaigns to keep works of art in England. But for the Macclesfield Psalter the case is open and shut: the Psalter was created in East Anglia, and it will lose half its meaning if it is torn from its native roots." The Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum spoke of the Psalter rivalling "anything produced in Europe at that time."The appeal was to English sentiment, and pride. And money poured in, not only from the institutions mentioned above, but from 2,000 individual donors. The result? The amount of £1.7 million was raised; the export licence was denied; the Getty was deprived; the psalter is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. There is excitement in this story, but also a moral. And the inevitable question: given a similar situation in India, how would we, as a people, have acted, or reacted? There is no point in waiting for an answer, I think.

Getty upstaged

The Getty Museum, rich but relatively recently founded, seems to be at the centre of many incidents of this kind. While, being able to pay the prices that it does, it has succeeded in acquiring major works from across the world, there is also some delight that some nations and museums take in upstaging the Getty. And cases are constantly being cited of works like the Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael, or the Darmstadt Madonna, which the Getty so much wanted, but could not get. All because laws, or national pride, came in the way.