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Macclesfield Psalter News

Discovery and Acquisition

The Macclesfield Psalter is a national treasure. It is the most remarkable English illuminated manuscript to be discovered in living memory. With the vast majority of frescos and panels destroyed by religious zeal, social unrest, or insensitive restoration, illuminated manuscripts remain the richest and best-preserved witnesses to the refined beauty and ribald humour of English medieval painting.

Completely unknown, the Macclesfield Psalter rested on the shelves at Shirburn Castle for centuries, until the Library of the Earl of Macclesfield began to be dispersed at auction in 2004. As the leading fine art museum in the East of England and the home of an outstanding manuscript collection, the Fitzwilliam Museum tried to acquire the manuscript at the Sotheby's sale on 22 June 2004. It was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art awarded a starred rating to the manuscript and the Arts Minister placed a temporary export bar on it until 10 February 2005, recommending that every effort should be made to keep it in a public institution in this country. The National Art Collections Fund launched a public appeal to raise £1.7 million on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum. In addition to the Museum's own funds and contributions from its Friends, major grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Cadbury Trust, and the Friends of the National Libraries, and generous donations from a large number of Trusts and private individuals allowed the Museum to make an offer for the full price in late January 2005. This was a campaign in which no contribution was too small. The support of the public was truly astounding and cannot be measured in figures. If listed in full, the names of donors would fill up a book larger than the Macclesfield Psalter. We are grateful to all of them and honoured to become the guardian of this national treasure.

Conservation and Display

As soon as the Macclesfield Psalter arrived at the Museum, it was displayed in the Medieval & Renaissance Gallery (Rothschild Gallery) between 15 and 27 February. Over 5000 people came to see it. It then received the urgent attention of the Museum's conservators. The manuscript has been in private hands since the early modern period and has suffered from heavy use and subsequent neglect. Its broken eighteenth-century binding had to be replaced with a new structure to provide the necessary support and flexibility for future study and display. While disbound for conservation, the Macclesfield Psalter was digitised in full.

The conservation campaign presented a unique opportunity for the public to enjoy the richness and diversity of the original. The Macclesfield Psalter was the East Anglian centrepiece in The Cambridge Illuminations exhibition, which showcased the finest manuscripts from the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the University Library and the Colleges of Cambridge between 26 July and 11 December 2005. The Macclesfield Psalter received a gallery to itself, with over 60 of its most elaborate pages displayed individually.

After the closing of The Cambridge Illuminations exhibition, the manuscript was fully conserved and went on public display during the exhibition 'I turned It into a Palace': Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum (4 Novemebr 2008 - 17 March 2009, include llink to virtual exhibtiion). Having rested since March, the Macclesfield Psalter will be displayed in the Medieval & Renaissance Gallery (Rothschild Gallery) from the end of June until the end of September 2009.