‘It was all a great adventure’…Alfred Chester Beatty & the formation of his library

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Volume 8

The history of private libraries in Ireland in the twentieth century tends to be a sad chronicle of loss and destruction; either by fires in turbulent times or, the auctioneer’s hammer in times of economic hardship. An exception was the unexpected arrival in 1950 of the American mining millionaire, Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) and his incredible collection of world famous books.
Beatty had assembled a small but choice collection of illuminated manuscripts, printed books and prints, ancient, medieval and modern, as well as the rare, unusual and even the bizarre from both the occidental and oriental worlds. Collected over sixty years, the Beatty collection was regarded in the 1950s as perhaps one of the finest private collections in the world and certainly one of the last great book collections to be assembled by one individual. In a press interview in 1956, describing how he obtained so many great works, Beatty said ‘It was all a great adventure’.
In many respects Beatty was an extraordinary man. He lived as the last days of the American Wild West were coming to a close and the great commercial adventure in Africa was beginning. Although a member of the Sons of the Revolution, he had moved to London in 1911 to be at the heart of world trade and he regarded himself as an adopted son of the British Empire, becoming a naturalised British subject in 1933. He had developed mining enterprises in the United States, Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and from the wealth created by these enterprises he endowed museums, sponsored academics, and built at his own expense hospitals and medical research institutes. He was a Republican and Tory in politics and a personal friend of Herbert Hoover and Winston Churchill. He was described in one account as having been ‘cast in a heroic mould’, with ‘a Churchillian sweep and a supreme contempt of every kind of socialist bureaucracy’. Reporting the news of his death in January 1968, The Times lamented that, ‘the world has lost one of its most romantic characters’.

Early life and background

Beatty was born in New York on 7 February 1875 into a family of Ulster-Scots, English and Irish ancestry. His schoolboy interest in minerals and some paternal advice from a family friend led him to pursue an engineering degree at New York’s Columbia University School of Mines (1894-98). After qualifying, he headed west for Denver, Colorado, situated at the head of many of the mining trails that made the area one of the most important mining centres in the United States. Mining settlements at the foot of the Rocky Mountains such as Leadville, Boulder, Cripple Creek, and Matchless had changed little in the fifteen years since Oscar Wilde had descended 300 feet down a mineshaft to deliver a lecture on the values of aesthetics to local miners in 1882. These towns were still full of people trying to make a fortune from the mineral resources of the area and Beatty was just another individual in search of such a fortune. At first, his academic qualifications were of little use and he was obliged to take a job for $2 a day as a ‘mucker’, clearing away rock and soil from the mine tunnels and living in the camp bunkhouse. Within a few months, however, Beatty was offered the position of mine superintendent but in the following year he decided to establish his own consultancy and thereafter spent most of his time exposing ‘salted’ mines and fraudulent deposit claims, often riding cross country between the various mines. Later in 1900 he headed for the gold mines of Cripple Creek, Colorado, then the largest gold producing area in the world. Gradually his earnings increased to $1,200 per year, prompting his observation, ‘I still have beer tastes but I hope to get to champagne some day’. By 1907, aged thirty-two, Beatty was a millionaire and a director of many American mining companies, who could have settled down to years of brownstone domesticity and New York society, a prospect which may have suited his wife but which in all probability did not appeal to him.
Beatty’s main collecting activity while he was in Denver (1898-1905) was philately, especially stamp covers. The stamp collection, contained in several hundred boxes, was no boyhood hobby but a definitive collection of early postal history and Beatty won many prizes for it. His passion for mineral specimens had also developed far beyond a childhood curiosity into an important scientific collection and it has been suggested that it was his interest in minerals that led him to collect Chinese snuff bottles, many of which were made from precious or semi precious minerals.
Although many book collectors, contemporary with Beatty, have left firm statements as to why they committed fortunes to their collecting passion, Beatty, even in later life, left no statement as to why he collected books as opposed to other artifacts. This lack of a definitive statement or even a casual remark has left it open to others to form conjectures regarding his motives. One contemporary book collector, Alfred C. Chapin (1848-1936), Speaker of the New York State Assembly, was determined to build ‘the most fully representative collection possible of those fundamental books and manuscripts, which constitute the great humanistic traditions so essential to a liberal arts education’. Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) wanted to assemble a library of libraries in California. J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) bought ‘anything from a pyramid to the tooth of Mary Magdalene’ (The Tooth of Saint Mary Magdalene is a fifteenth-century reliquary, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) wished to assemble a great collection of Elizabethan literature but he was not content just to leave his books to the American people but left his ashes as well, housing them in a niche in the library.
Although many of the external factors and psychological characteristics that may have influenced Beatty, such as social status and personal circumstances, still remain to be examined, there are some personal characteristics that are noticeable. His politics were conservative, his personal taste in art likewise but his relationship with his library was more complex, changing over the years as he refined his collecting pursuits. He had a distinct mistrust for modern art, as he explained in an interview with The Times:

Get a group of common artists, fill them full of champagne and vodka, furnish them with big brushes and masses of canvas. One group would scrape the paintings down, the others would daub them, and you’d evolve a new school, arrange a series of ‘collections’ and everyone would enthuse.

Although Beatty collected many works of art during his lifetime, in order to furnish his various homes, it was books and manuscripts that were his main passion. The records of the booksellers, P.H. and Dr A.S. Rosenbach of Philadelphia, show the type of material that most appealed to American book collectors in the first decades of the twentieth century. Elizabethan literature was the most sought after category, especially the first folios of Shakespeare, but the works of other dramatists and poets, such as Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and Giles Fletcher were also in demand. Other desiderata were Caxton editions, American historical documents and autographs, as well as extra-illustrated volumes, and English and French colour plate books. Beatty was, in his turn, attracted to only one of these categories, colour-plate books, as the high prices commanded by the Bard and the Caxton incunabula would not have appealed to him.
Throughout 1912 and 1913, Beatty was buying heavily enough to be considered an important customer by many London book dealers and his preference for certain items can be ascertained from his correspondence. As he explained in later years to his librarian, ‘I want to compare our collection with the British Museum collection of the same class of material’. With this in mind Beatty set himself targets to acquire only works of the utmost rarity and highest quality but with the important provision that they should be value for money. Beatty’s notebooks show that he often graded his collection according to quality and rarity. He used a simple alphabetical code for each purchase grading the manuscript in relation to similar examples he had seen in the British Museum Library or the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris or other museums. Each manuscript was graded A, B, C, with a qualifier attached such as A+, A, A- , or from 1A to 50A (often expressed in Roman numerals). Beatty rarely bought C material, and if he did, he would often sell it again. Only exceptionally would he allow B material to remain in his collection.
At the outbreak of World War I, Beatty decided to stay in London. In January 1915 he returned to New York for the first time in over a year in order to settle his affairs and, in a rare admission of his political feelings regarding the United States’s neutrality, he comments: ‘This neutrality policy makes me sick. My sentiments are to Hell with the Hapsburgs and Hoensollorns [sic]’. More importantly it was during this period that Beatty decided to leave the United States and settle in England permanently; he closed one bank account and transferred $1,202,855.08 to London.
By the end of the decade, Beatty’s collection had developed from a rather unstructured and haphazard one in 1911 to a moderate-sized library by 1919, containing a substantial number of Old Master prints and early printed books, as well as European and Persian illuminated manuscripts. In general, it was still an eclectic and unstructured collection, which in many respects, resembled a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ rather than a determined collection on a particular subject or class of object. While he was certainly attracted to many books that were popular with American collectors he also ventured into non-western books and although he is quoted as saying he bought his first Islamic manuscripts in Cairo, his correspondence shows that these purchases were made in New York in 1911.
The interest among collectors for Islamic manuscripts at this time was generally limited to Persian or Mughal illumination, and in this regard Beatty was no different. Although Beatty’s library became famous for its ‘oriental’ holdings, it should be remembered that in the first decades of the twentieth century many Americans and Europeans were of the opinion that the ‘mysterious world of the Orient’ began in the Balkans and that Tangiers and Cairo were as ‘oriental’ as Hong Kong and Shanghai. Indeed, many of Beatty’s ‘oriental’ books are in fact Hebrew, Coptic or Armenian, as well as Syriac, Samaritan and Arabic.
By the 1920s, Beatty was no longer an amateur book collector, he now employed a full-time librarian and a score of academic advisors to appraise items he wished to purchase. His mining company, Selection Trust, began to show results that changed Beatty’s fortunes beyond measure as it discovered and controlled the vast output of the Northern Rhodesian copperbelt. Throughout these years Beatty received manuscripts and early printed books almost on a weekly basis and he was now referred to in the press as a well-known book collector. The most spectacular additions to the collection were western illuminated manuscripts, early Christian papyri and to a lesser extent Persian illuminated manuscripts.

Unethical relationship with the British Museum?

It is also in the twenties that Beatty’s relationship with the British Museum developed and he became an important patron and benefactor. He entered into formal arrangements with many of the curators, paying them annual retainers to advise him of suitable purchases and to catalogue his collection. Today, these contacts would, in many cases, be deemed unethical or at least questionable but at the time it was not unusual and many collectors relied on such contacts. The single most important group of advisors for Beatty was the curators in the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities, who advised on various parts of Beatty’s extensive papyrus collection. The chief papyri, were purchased through dealers, but Beatty’s correspondence shows that he acquired some of them through the Museum syndicate whereby several sponsors of excavations distributed the finds among themselves.
Unusually for a private book collector, Beatty’s interest in papyri grew throughout the twenties. It is not clear whether this was as a result of Egyptomania, after Howard Carter’s discoveries, or the persuasive attempts of the British Museum’s curators to imbue him with a sense of re-discovery of lost texts and the potential of real treasures. Beatty had acquired various documentary papyri but in 1928 he struck gold with the acquisition of several ancient Egyptian literary and medical rolls and also the most sensational discovery of all, the twelve biblical papyrus codices which included some of the earliest known copies of the Christian Old and New Testament.

‘Licentious’ Egyptian love poems

In 1928, Alan Gardiner, one of Beatty’s advisors at the British Museum, had discovered that dealers were dispersing a collection of ancient Egyptian papyrus rolls, which would in all likelihood be scattered to various institutions and collectors. Gardiner suggested to Beatty that he should purchase the entire find, in order to keep it intact. Beatty agreed and after several months of conservation, the papyrus rolls were ready for publication, but the content of one, a collection of ancient Egyptian love poems, caused Gardiner some concern, as he wrote to Beatty:

It is unfortunate that the original story becomes very licentious at this point and I have felt it to be my scientific duty to translate the passages literally as it stands…I need not say that the obscene passages were not of my seeking, but imposed by the material.

Emery Walker, Beatty’s publishers, were also concerned with the text but agreed to include these passages in the publication as it was noted that it would be ‘an expensive edition which can only appeal to the narrow band of scholars and would not be within reach of the ordinary man’.
Beatty’s collecting activities in the 1930s were very much a continuation of what he had achieved in the previous decade and even though in 1935 he told a friend ‘I do not like buying anything anymore. Occasionally I pick up a rare book while I am in Egypt but my purchases are practically finished’, his collecting continued. Existing collections were added to and new areas of interest developed. In fact the rate of expansion had to slow down as the scholars employed to compile the catalogues could not keep up with the flow of manuscripts. The source of these new additions was mostly the Middle East and in one year alone Beatty acquired nearly 1,000 manuscripts, the cost of which was carefully worked out at five Egyptian pounds each. The rooms in his London and country houses could no longer hold the collection and his librarian politely complained about the inappropriate storage of some items, particularly the famous ancient Egyptian love poems that had to be kept under a settee.
Like many American book collectors of his generation, Beatty established his library as an institution to continue after his death and although it is not clear why Beatty collected, he left clear instructions as to why he wanted the collection kept intact. Not for him the feelings of American book collector Robert Hoe III (1839-1909): ‘If the great collections of the past had not been sold where would I have found my books’. Beatty did not actively search bookshops and market stalls, as most collectors would tend to do. The books he desired were in any case most unlikely ever to appear there. His hunting grounds were primarily the auction rooms of London and a limited number of elite booksellers whose catalogues he would search for suitable purchases. But how did Beatty know what to collect? The answer to that question can be gleamed from his own advice to another collector who wished to know how to go about collecting:
I suggested that the best plan was to get some young scholar to get up a plan with a rough bibliography of the books he ought to have. He could get this up by clipping some of the well known catalogues and also by extracting the description of books from the BM [British Museum] I would suggest that the best plan would be to get a series of small loose page books in cloth binding like the small ones Miss Kingsford [Beatty’s librarian] uses and to use each page for one book. For example, if he finds an interesting book described in a catalogue he can cut out the description and put it at the top page and then put in any remarks below.
It would appear that unlike some of his contemporaries, Beatty had no grand plan when he was forming his collection, or if he did, it has remained firmly hidden. He collected over a long period of sixty years compared to the twenty years Morgan and Huntington spent amassing their libraries. In contrast to these Titans, Beatty was never prepared to compete openly in the auction rooms and where Pierpont Morgan believed that, ‘no price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity’, Beatty was more circumspect, assembling his collections quietly and without much public notice. He was certainly open to new areas of interest and took calculated risks on occasion but even in later years when urged by his librarian to spend a little more on the acquisitions as ‘one real prize is worth twenty good ones’, Beatty was restrained.
By the late 1940s Beatty became disillusioned with Britain, finding the new Labour government’s bureaucratic policies not to his liking. He decided to move to Ireland, explaining to the Daily Express, ‘It will be pleasanter to drink a glass of Irish beer in a Dublin garden than to spend the rest of my life buying fountain pens and filling in forms’. Just as Britain was starting to rebuild after the war, Beatty’s move to Ireland caused a mild sensation in British financial circles, as it was feared that other prominent industrialists might follow him. Indeed, it was for this very reason that the Irish civil servants of the time, particularly the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Frederick Boland and Maurice Moynihan, Secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach encouraged Beatty.
In the 1950s, official Ireland, (unaided by EU grants or other funds) welcomed Beatty in a way that many would find unacceptable today. He received special treatment, not least of all, exemption from the strict foreign exchange rules and the waiving of import taxes on purchases for his library. These were no small financial concessions in the post-war era, as Beatty usually traveled with no less than $10,000 when everyone else was limited to sixty guineas. More importantly, Beatty wanted to ensure that his library would remain intact after his death and accordingly, he secured exemption from estate duties for his books, manuscripts and other library property. These concessions secured for Ireland, not only the Chester Beatty Library but also Beatty’s patronage of the National Gallery of Ireland, the Military Museum at the Curragh, as well as thousands of pounds in donations to hospitals and medical charities. No other individual in the history of the state has come close to matching the gifts made by Beatty to his adopted country and in recognition of his benefaction, Beatty received a state funeral when he died in January 1968.
Beatty’s library is now a public charitable trust, grant-aided by the state and governed by a board of trustees. It has recently moved to a new location in Dublin Castle’s Clock Tower where purpose-built public galleries display the evolution of the book from ancient times to the present and where scholars from all over the world come to study the rare texts and illuminated manuscripts.

Charles Horton is Curator and Archivist of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Further reading:

A.N. Wilson, The Life and Times of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (London 1985).

B. Kennedy, Alfred Chester Beatty and Ireland: A Study in Cultural Politics 1950-1968 (Dún Laoghaire 1988).

The Chester Beatty Library web site (www.cbl.ie) contains information on the Western, Islamic and East Asian sections of the collection as well as more information on Chester Beatty.


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