Sir Alfred Chester Beatty
Sir (Alfred) Chester Beatty by Elliott & Fry, 1942 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Alfred Chester Beatty was the son of a New York stockbroker who made a fortune as a mining engineer, becoming known as the “King of Copper”. An inveterate collector since childhood, he graduated from stamp collecting as a teenage miner to Chinese snuff bottles and Japanese netsuke as a man-about-town in New York City. Following the death of his first wife (Grace) in 1911, Beatty left America for London, where he married Edith Dunn in 1913. He spent the winter of 1913-14 in Cairo (where he would return every year for his health), where he developed an interest in papyrus and Islamic manuscripts. He probably began buying medieval manuscripts around this time.

In 1916 Sydney Cockerell visited the Beattys and was unimpressed by the nascent manuscript collection, noting that “His MSS (about 15) are not exciting, but he has some beautiful Chinese books”. Cockerell took Chester Beatty to tea with Henry Yates Thompson, and encouraged Beatty to start spending large sums on manuscripts. In 1920 the Beattys visited the great collection created by Sir Thomas Phillipps and persuaded Phillipps’ heir, Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick, to sell them some volumes. This relationship continued over the next five years, with Beatty adding to his collection and Edith, whose real passion was horses, buying manuscripts as presents for her husband.

During this period Beatty employed Eric Millar to catalogue the collection, and two volumes appeared in 1927 and 1930. However, before Millar could complete the third volume, Beatty decided to sell his western manuscripts. Manuscripts not selected for inclusion in the catalogue were also exchanged for non-western material, notably with Abraham Yahuda, whose manuscripts are now in the National Library of Israel. The Beatty sales in 1932 and 1933, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression, were not a success. Manuscripts sold for less than Beatty had paid for them or simply failed to sell, and the plan for further sales was dropped.

The manuscripts were placed in Edith’s name, enabling her to sell some privately to American collectors. After her death in 1952 the remainder of the collection was transferred to Dublin, where Beatty had moved in 1950 after becoming increasingly disenchanted with postwar Britain and its Labour government.  Further manuscripts were sold after Beatty’s death at Sotheby’s sales in 1968 and 1969, although some of the collection remains at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Laura Cleaver