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New York's Morgan Library receives ‘transformational’ trove of manuscripts and bindings

Bequest comes from New York collector Jayne Wrightsman, who amassed an 18th-century library to complement her celebrated French furnishings

A 1782 French binding by Barthélemy Imbert (1747-1790) bequeathed by Jayne Wrightsman to the Morgan Library & Museum Janny Chiu

The Morgan Library & Museum announced today that it had acquired an “unparalleled” collection of 18th-century French manuscripts and bindings through a bequest from the New York collector and philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman, who died in April.

Wrightsman began assembling her manuscripts collection by working through her favourite French and American dealers in the late 1960s, and continued to add important examples to her library in her palatial Fifth Avenue apartment until about five years ago, says John Bidwell, the curator and department head for printed books and bindings at the Morgan.

“The whole apartment was a re-creation of French ancien régime splendour” dating to the 18th century, “and the books were a part of that,” he said in an interview. “She bought the books that she loved, and she looked at her apartment as a work of art in itself.”

The bequest, which Bidwell describes as “transformational”, includes 19 manuscripts, 149 printed books in 177 volumes and 10 watercolours of botanical subjects, the institution says. Among the highlights cited by the library and museum are two important editions by La Fontaine: a four-volume folio with plates after Jean-Baptiste Oudry and a “Fermiers Généraux” two-volume octavo with plates after Charles Eisen. Bound in gilt-tooled dentelle morocco, “those are two high spots and they tend to be found in great collections,” Bidwell says.

He also pointed to treasures like a late-18th-century book decorated in gilt tooling with a hot-air balloon “à la Montgolfière”. The French were fascinated in that era with the hot-air balloon flights launched by the inventors Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, some of which Marie-Antoinette witnessed at Versailles, Bidwell says; bindings tooled with the balloon became the fashion.

“In a way this bequest is a cultural cross section of the ancien régime because the subjects can go anywhere from politics to religion to military strategy to court entertainments,” he says. “It covers a lot of cultural history.”

Handled with care as they passed through the hands of private collectors over generations, some of the fragile bindings have been attributed to such 18th-century workshops as those of Luc-Antoine Boyet, Antoine-Michel Padeloup and Nicolas-Denis Derome, the Morgan says.

The institution says that Wrightsman bequeathed the manuscripts and bindings in honour of her friend Annette de la Renta, a longtime current board member of the library and museum. Wrightsman had served as a trustee at the Morgan as well.

Bidwell, who joined the Morgan as a curator two decades ago, says that Wrightsman had promised the manuscripts and bindings to the institution before he arrived. The Morgan plans an exhibition centred on her bequest that is expected to open in February 2021, he adds.

Wrightsman is also known for her many donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including some of its most valued European paintings and one of the most spectacular collections of 18th-century decorative arts in the United States.

“The pleasure that she received from building this collection was closely linked to what she was achieving in her magnificent apartment,” Bidwell says. “She understood that a library was an integral part.”