by Richard Davies
In the heart of Manhattan, there's a temple to culture and wonderful things. No, not Trump Tower, or even the New York Public Library, although the NYPL is amazing and always worth visiting, I'm referring to the Morgan Library and Museum.
It's a wonderful place to ponder how the rich and famous once lived. The Morgan is built on money, JP Morgan's fortune. Morgan's status as a collector is rivalled only as his status as a financier. He could be described as the man who bankrolled America. He had his finger is almost every pie in the last quarter of the 19th century as the United States rapidly became a global economic power. AT&T, US Steel, General Electric, International Harvester, and Portland Cement are just a few of the companies he helped to fund as well as numerous railroads that opened the country to migrants, fortune-seekers and commercial opportunities.
John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) dominated banking during this era. His influence stretched as far as the White House, his homes stretched as far as Europe and his activities were documented and discussed well beyond the newspaper business pages. He invested in numerous troubled businesses and modernised, or Morganised, them in order to make them profitable.
Morgan purchased his house on Madison Avenue in 1882. Befitting an owner who loved new technologies, the building became the first electrically lit private residence in New York.
Morgan collected books, manuscripts, art, gems, and many other objects that captured his interest to go with his homes and yachts. He owned such an array of books that he had a private library, complete with a head librarian, built in 1906 to house them. The library became a public institution after his death in accordance with Morgan's will. I was interested to hear Morgan had financed Edward S Curtis' highly influential photography book, The North American Indian, and yet disliked having his own photograph taken.
Morgan collected so many things that it seems impossible that he actually saw, held and considered each one individually. For instance, he owned nearly 3,000 cuneiform tablets, the bulk of which are now found at the Yale Babylonian Collection, which he founded.
Although the Morgan devotes much space to art, it was the library that I particularly wanted to see. After all when visiting a house belonging to a bibliophile, you always review their shelves.
With three floor of shelves along the walls and paintings across the ceiling, the library is spectacular, almost church-like in its size and lofty height. There were a number of highlights on display but it pays to look carefully. I wandered past one unremarkable-looking antiquarian book open to a couple of pages of text. A "G" in the description panel below the glass case caught my eye as I stepped away.
Doubling back, I realised that I had almost walked past a Gutenberg Bible. I looked around. No-one else in the room was taking any notice of the book. I watched a couple stroll by without a glance. In the corner of the library, a couple of teenagers stared down at their phones, seemingly unaware that a copy of the book that launched mass communication was just five yards away. Without Gutenberg's movable type and those first printed bibles, there would be no Snapchat or Twitter. Shouldn't there be security guards flanking this historic book?
There are approximately 50 copies of Gutenberg's bible still in existence. The Morgan has three of them - two printed on paper and one on vellum.
A bookseller once told me that it was someone's job at the Morgan to turn the page of the Gutenberg bible each day before the Museum opens to the public. Imagine tearing a page. (Surely, training is provided by a fully qualified page-turner?) Sadly, we know the value of a single page (anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000 depending the text displayed) because ghastly people have been known to cut them up and sell them page by page.
Elsewhere, the Morgan's collection includes books and documents relating to Mozart, Elizabeth I, Napoléon, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire. There are Henry David Thoreau's journals, the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Charles Dickens's manuscript of A Christmas Carol, Thomas Jefferson's letters to his daughter Martha, and manuscripts and letters from Jane Austen. There is also Egyptian art, Renaissance paintings and drawings, numerous early printed books, early photography, numerous musical manuscripts, and tablets, seals and other early examples of writing. Morgan's shopping sprees were legendary.
On the way out, I stopped at reception and double-checked that I had actually seen what I thought I had seen. The young lady, perhaps the page-turner herself, laughed and confirmed that I had indeed seen a copy of the most famous book in the history of printed literature.
Visit the Morgan Library and Museum at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016. Learn more at http://www.themorgan.org/