A rich guy goes around buying up a bunch of stuff. That’s not exactly news, is it? Well, when the guy is Chester Beatty and his shopping expeditions ended up creating and preserving the most extensive collection of ancient papyrus, Middle Eastern illuminated manuscripts, and many other book-related treasure, it draws attention.
In this episode of the Book Owl Podcast we explore how Chester got bit by the collecting bug, how he earned his wealth, and how he thumbed his nose at the British Museum and moved his goodies to Dublin, Ireland.
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The Full Transcript (or Roughly So…)
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
Okay, so we got a little silly in the last episode, but it’s time to get back to, you know, serious business with the story behind a book-filled wonderland that Lonely Planet has called one of the best museums in Europe, and was honored with the Museum of the Year Award in 2002. And after having visited this place myself a ew years ago, I have to agree…although, a bit later I’ll explain what NOT to do when you go there.
But before we start exploring, I just want to say how much I loved all your comments from Episode 9 when we went rolling along with the Bookmobile. And this episode really did kick up some happy memories for you guys. Both Teresa and LaVelle recalled how excited they’d were to see the Bookmobile coming to their neighborhoods. And Jonny of the Jaunts & Haunts blog shared his memories of the Bookmobile, but as we chatted back and forth he also stirred up my own memories when he mentioned the little Scholastic book catalogs you’d get in class. I could spend hours with those things! Also, Tierney of Tierney Creates said our mutual love of the Bookmobile makes us fellow book geeks…an honor I will gladly accept.
Anyway, thanks so much for your comments, and keep them coming. I’ll throw the links in the show notes, but you can comment any time on the Book Owl Podcast blog, on Instagram, by email, or by responding to the newsletter that goes out with every episode and that you should really subscribe to.
Okay, let’s go check out this museum everyone’s raving about. The museum in question is the Chester Beatty and it’s located in the fine city of Dublin, Ireland.
I’ll get into what you’ll actually see there a later in the episode, but basically this museum houses 25,000 highly artistic manuscripts, rare books, and the world’s most extensive collection of texts on papyrus. Don’t worry, not all 25,000 objects are on display, but what is on display will knock your book nerdy socks off.
Now, as I said, this place is called the Chester Beatty and everything on display is something he collected during his lifetime. But who the hell is Chester Beatty? As I said, I’ve been to the museum, and I still had no idea who he was, so researching this episode was a wonderful bit of discovery.
So Chester was born in 1875, and he was not born into wealth by any means. I mean this guy built himself up from a fairly modest background. In 1898, he graduated from the Columbia School of Mines, which does not like a terribly interesting course of study, but anyway he knew about mines and he needed to put that knowledge to use, so he headed west to Colorado…where like any college grad, he got a grunt job. And in the mining world, that meant digging and clearing rubble from tunnels.
But Chester was no slouch and within only five years he was part of the management team of the Guggenheim Exploration Company, which kind of makes it sound like he should have been going to Antarctic or something, but no, sorry still just Colorado. In this position he not only earned his normal wage, but he also got sort of a profit-sharing deal. So, by the time he was 32, our Chester was a millionaire.
So, I won’t overwhelm you with all the details of his career, but by 1908, he’s left the Guggenheim operation, he’s returned home to New York, and he’s set himself up with his own very profitable consulting business for mining engineers. What could be better? He’s doing great, right? Well, Chester’s life takes a sad turn when his wife of 12 years dies of typhoid.
It’s really too much for Chester. He can’t bear to be in the house they shared any longer, so not long after her death, he packs up the kids and moves to a house he’s bought in London’s Kensington Gardens…swanky! About a year after moving to London, Chester remarries and it really is a great match because they both turn out to be avid collectors.
See, even as a kid Chester loved to collect and he’d go to auctions and bid on rock and ore samples from mining expeditions to add to his collection. While he was in Colorado, he also started collecting stamps, Chinese snuff boxes, Japanese figurines, and most importantly for this episode, ancient documents on papyrus and Islamic manuscripts. And while his career in mining did require some travel, it was really some health troubles that helped him satisfy his pack rat nature.
Chester had some trouble with his lungs and a dry climate helped with that, so he would winter in places like Egypt, but he was also vastly rich, so on his way home, he’d pop over to Japan and Southeast Asia, you know, as you do.
Anyway, back to the thread of the story. As I said, Chester was already raking it in, but when he moved to London he joined a mining compact. During the 1920s the members of this compact took a risk on some mines in Zambia and the Congo. Well, the risk paid off and they discovered copper. The already rich Chester was now super duper rich…and using that money to travel more and add to his manuscript collection.
By now Chester is fully infected with the collecting bug, and by the 1930s he had a strong reputation as a reputable collector. He only bought the finest pieces of work. To help him out, he had agents and advisors who made sure what he was buying was authentic and from trusted sources. This network of agents and his own searches gathered illuminated copies of the Quran; manuscripts from the Mughals, the Turks, and the Persians; as well as ancient works written in Armenian, Greek, Burmese, and more.
And Chester wasn’t just snatching these things up like some crazed Scrooge McDuck swimming in his room full of gold coins. Okay, that was a bad analogy because you can’t really swim in manuscripts, but you get the idea. He wasn’t just buying these texts to say, “Haha, look what I’ve got.” He actually consulted with people on how best to preserve them and in 1934, he converted a portion of his Kensington House into a library and gallery for people to look at these amazing works which were probably from cultures that most people at the time thought backwards or uncivilized.
Oh, and I mentioned his wife was a collector too. Her passion was for antique furniture and paintings, and she actually preserved several pieces of original furnishings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
But back to Chester. He’s rich. He’s got lots of stuff. He’s got a stellar reputation as a collector. And he wanted to share his findings. So starting in the 1920s he worked with and shared his finds with the British Museum. And all along he’d been planning on leaving his collection, which was pretty substantial and worth a ton by this point, to the British Museum when he died.
Then, kind of a double whammy of things got on the wrong side of Chester. First up, as with most rich people, he didn’t like taxes. In the 1940s, Britain changed their tax structure in a way that Chester didn’t really like. But the thing that really pushed Chester too far was the hiring of a new director at the British Museum. This guy didn’t not agree with Chester’s involvement…involvement in his own collection, mind you. The new director questioned the quality of Chester’s collection, he insisted he would have the final say in everything, and he insisted the collection only be shown in the British Museum.
Well, Chester didn’t like this one bit. Go figure. So, in 1950, he took his collection and his vast amounts of wealth, and moved to Dublin…partially because Ireland had a much more favorable tax structure and partially because his son was already living in Kildare County.
Unlike the British Museum, the Irish weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Chester put his collection on display in a purpose built library/museum in a suburb of Dublin and opened it to share with the public in 1953. But that wasn’t the end of it. Chester also bequeathed his entire collection to the people of Ireland. Not too shabby a gift. And a big FU to the British Museum.
The Irish, possibly learning from the British Museum’s mistake, showed their appreciation. Chester not only was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of Ireland (this was in 1954), but when he died in 1968, he was the first private citizen to be honored with a state funeral.
So in 2000, the original library was closed down and the collection moved into its own gallery in Dublin Castle. And I have to say, if you’re ever allowed to travel again and you’re in Dublin, get yourself to this exhibit. First up, it’s free which means you’ll have money for a pint of Guiness. Second, it’s incredible.
It’s been described as one of the best collections of Western, Islamic, and Southeast Asian artifacts. And while there are a lot of religious texts on display, the religion is not what’s emphasized, it’s the art and the calligraphy and the beauty of the texts themselves.
There’s two main exhibits, Arts of the Book and Sacred Traditions, and you might also catch a rotating exhibit, but what you’ll see includes Greek papyrus from the third century, Japanese scrolls that seem to go on forever, Biblical texts in various languages, illustrated texts from the Middle East and Moghul India on religion, medicine, and astronomy, A full collection of Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, and yes, Chester’s snuff boxes from his Colorado collecting days.
Now, here’s where we get to the warning, one thing you must not do if you ever do get a chance to go: Don’t make my mistake and forget your glasses. I could see well enough to enjoy the art of the illustrations, but I could not read a damn thing on any of the display information thingies.
Anyway, like I said, it’s free and you shouldn’t miss it, but since most of us can’t get to Dublin right now, you can satisfy your curiosity by taking a virtual tour of the collection on the museum’s website, which is really a stellar site and you can read it in Gaelic if you’re so inclined. And I recommend cracking open a Guiness as you spend some time on the virtual tour, you know, just to add to the experience.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for Chester and his fabulous collection. I’ll have the links in the show notes for everything so you can check out the museum and take that virtual tour, but right now, it’s time for quick update.
And I will make this quick because we’ve already gone on a fair bit of time. The big news is I have mostly finished Book Two of my Cassie Black trilogy. Hoorah! I was really scared heading into this draft because there was a lot of missing stuff that needed filled in, but I squeezed my brain hard enough and the words eventually popped out. In other news, I’ve been having a big think and taking in some good advice and I’m rethinking my entire approach to writing, including scaling back on some things, pushing harder on others, and honestly, I’m feeling really excited about putting it all into place, even if it is going to take a bit of a mindset shift.
Anyway, if you want more of my writing news, I’ve got a link in the show notes for that newsletter.
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
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