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Help bring king’s prayer book back home

The Louvre requires the support of the public

The Louvre wants public help to buy a precious François I prayer book that has been in Britain for 300 years and which the UK government failed in a bid to keep from foreign sale.

The exquisite Renaissance ‘book of hours’ is bound in gold and precious stones, hand written in elegant calligraphy and decorated with 16 full-page, painted illustrations. It was produced for François I in 1532 as an everyday prayer book and is particularly lavish, reflecting his luxurious tastes.

The fact it is decorated with jewels makes it particularly rare and Philippe Malgouyres, the Louvre curator in charge of the bid, told Connexion it was one of the only
surviving items from the reign of François: “He was one of the most important kings in our history.

“We know he had an extraordinary collection of very valuable artefacts, but after his reign, many of them were melted down or reworked. As an art historian, you read the inventories of figures from history and dream of what they contained. But to actually see one of the objects is fascinating.

“There is something so joyful about this book of hours. It came at a period when everything was new and colourful and there is something very optimistic about it.

“It is a beautiful object in itself but the fact it was part of such an important time in French history makes it even more special.

“François gave it to his niece, Jeanne d’Albret, when she was 10 years old. He had brought her to the French court from Navarre as a diplomatic move. Her son became Henri IV and he inherited the book from her.”

François I bought the 8.5cm x 6.5cm book from jeweller Allart Plommyer and since Henri IV it has had many illustrious owners, both in France and then in Britain.

After being owned by Henri’s wife Mairie de’ Medici it went to Cardinal Mazarin until Richard Mead, an English art lover, bought it in the 18th century. He exhibited it in his private London museum up until his death in 1754. It was then owned by Horace Walpole, the collector and writer; then by his great niece, Elizabeth Laura, Countess Waldegrave and then by the banker, Alfred de Rothschild.

It was sold for the last time in London, in 1942 to Martin Norton of fine antique dealers SJ Phillips, who has now decided to sell it.

When the sale was announced, the Culture Minister at the time, Ed Vaizey, put an export ban on it, to allow time for a potential UK buyer to raise the money for its purchase.

The ban lapsed at the end of 2016, leaving the Louvre free to bid – and the museum has the book of hours on display now as part of an exhibition, François I and Dutch Art, which runs until January 15. 

Mr Malgouyres said there were no hard feelings between the two countries over the bid: “The British government had to do its duty to offer it to its own citizens first, but they already knew the Louvre wanted to buy it and felt it was better in France than in another part of the world.”

The purchase price is €10million and luxury brands company LVMH has already promised half the price with the Louvre looking for sponsors and companies to fund €4m and public help towards the remaining €1m.

A public appeal, Tous mécènes! / Become a Patron! has been set up to raise the money by February 15.

Donations can be made at the websites donate.louvre.fr or tousmecenes.fr

Mr Malgouyres says the appeal is more than a way to raise money as it also allows people to become involved and feel that national treasures belong to them. As we went to press the campaign was two-thirds of the way to its goal with more than 4,600 donors.

Who was François I?

Ruling France from 1494-1547, he brought arts, scholarship and humanism and his patronage started the French Renaissance. He also brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy, along with works such as the Mona Lisa.

He began building Chambord and redesigned Fontaine­bleau before he turned the Louvre from fortress into Renaissance palace.

Initially tolerant of the Protestant movement, he reacted against them with the 1540 Edict of Fontainebleau labelling such heresy ‘high treason,’ starting the Huguenot persecution.

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