To the ends of the earth: Bibles in the Alexander Turnbull Library

On the 26 November 2012 the exhibition ‘To the ends of the earth’ opens with a visually stunning set of items ranging from a medieval illuminated French Book of Hours, to an Ethiopian Anaphora and an Eastern Qur’an. As with most shows of this kind, many items had to be left out, and some of these will be highlighted in this blog.

Bibles have travelled to all parts of the globe and 19th-century New Zealand was no exception. For missionaries they were essential tools of the trade, and for the ordinary emigrant, they provided an easily-transported link with Home. New Zealand’s early book collectors continued to add bibles to their libraries, most collected purely for their antiquity or beauty rather than for their textual content. Over the years these bibles have made their way, often via rather circuitous routes, into the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

One significant route was the Bible Society in New Zealand. The Society started collecting historical material in 1932, when a valuable collection of Bibles and medieval manuscripts belonging to Masterton collector Albert Clemas (1880-1956) was offered to the Society for £250. A national fund-raising campaign was organised in order to raise the money. Further Bibles were soon donated, and from 1933 the Bible Society’s library formed the basis of a travelling display at agricultural and pastoral shows around New Zealand. Eventually, the collection became too valuable to be shown in this way and was kept at the Wellington office; its existence known only to a few. In 1978 a large proportion of the collection was deposited in the Alexander Turnbull Library for safe-keeping. A number of these items will be on show in the exhibition.

Pentecost, Book of Hours. Pentecost, Book of Hours. Ref: MSR-07, f.91v

The volume above is one of five illuminated manuscripts presented to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1958 by another major New Zealand collector Sir John Ilott (1884-1973). This Book of Hours was copied in Eastern France in the mid-16th century. The miniature of the Pentecost marks the beginning of the Hours of the Holy Ghost.

Sir John Ilott was born in New Zealand at Te Aroha and educated at Wellington College and Victoria University of Wellington. He was a well-known bibliophile, art collector, and company director. In the 1950s, when the New Zealand Ex Libris Society was compiling a Register of Book Collectors, Ilott reported that his library contained approximately 7000 titles, and that the notable parts of it included incunabula (books printed in the 15th century) and early illuminated manuscripts. Ten of these incunabula were purchased by the Library in 1952.

Modern illuminated manuscript, detail. Modern illuminated manuscript, detail. Ref: MSRM-01

The medieval manuscript tradition with its exquisite decoration is still practiced today for special items. This Anglican service book took its creator 10 years to complete. It was copied, illuminated and bound in England between 1925 and 1935 by Alec V. Hughes and presented to Rt. Revd. Herbert St. Barbe Holland who left England to become Bishop of Wellington from 1936 to 1946. This manuscript was offered to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2008.

Bishop Herbert St Barbe Holland and family (28 July 1936). Bishop Herbert St Barbe Holland and family (28 July 1936). Ref: 1/1-018495

Biblical texts have also been set to music and the psalms are a well-known example. The Reformation which arrived in Scotland in 1560, brought with it new musical forms including a repertoire of internationally current psalm tunes. These were harmonized by Scottish composers who also composed some of their own melodies, but they remained in manuscript. It was not until 1635 that a Scottish psalter with harmonized settings was printed.

Included were eight ‘psalms in reports’. The meaning of the words ‘in reports’ has been lost over time, but is possibly from the French reporter – to carry over, to make continuous. In this style, each vocal line moves independently in counterpoint, rather than at the same time.

Psalms for singing around a table. Psalms for singing around a table. Ref: REng BIBLE 1635

The image above shows Psalms 6 and 12 set for four voices: the Church Part or tune (Tenor) and Contra facing in one direction, and the Trebble and Bassus facing in the opposite direction. This was probably intended for a domestic setting where four singers could stand two on each side of a table, in order for all to read their parts easily. The position of the moveable C and F clefs on the musical staves suggests a vocal combination of ATTB for Ps.6 and SATB for Ps.12. This volume arrived in the Alexander Turnbull Library by donation in 2007.

Silver treasure binding. Silver treasure binding. Ref: RGer GOBEL Jesum 1692

The main function of a book cover is to protect the text-block inside, but often bookbindings can be of interest in their own right. Bibles and devotional books, in particular, often inspired elaborate covers, and the exhibition presents an early 18th-century German silver treasure binding as one example of this.

Publishers’ bindings, designed and produced in multiple numbers as opposed to the hand-produced binding for an individual book, became popular in the 19th century. Cloth bindings were also introduced at this same time and these eventually overtook the traditional leather as they were more suitable for mass production.

Publisher’s binding, 19th century. Publisher’s binding, 19th century. Ref: qREng BIBLE 1861

The Victorians indulged in an unashamed mix of styles, the more elaborate the better, and the designs on book covers reflected this fashion. This binding designed by William Audsley and George Audsley for the publisher, Day & Son, is a pebble-grain cloth over bevelled boards. The decoration stamped in black and gold, includes glazed paper onlays; the lower cover repeating the gilt stamping from the upper cover but in blind. On the lower cover is the gold stamp of former owner, the General Assembly Library New Zealand. The binder was Leighton Son & Hodge, London.

If you are in Wellington, come and see what else the show has to offer.

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

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