Chester Beatty: A man who liked to collect lovely things

A new documentary looks at the life of Chester Beatty, and the incredible collection of St Paul’s letters and other items he bequeathed to the state, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Chester Beatty: Book collector moved to Ireland in 1950.

CHESTER Beatty was one of a kind. The American — whose name is familiar to us from the eponymous Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, which houses one of the world’s greatest private collections of manuscripts and books — was the first person to receive honorary Irish citizenship, and the twelfth in total. He’s also the first private citizen in Irish history to be accorded a state funeral.

Beatty led an extraordinary life, which is chronicled in a documentary on RTÉ entitled Chester Beatty: The Honorary Irishman. He was born in New York in 1875 into a middle class family. His father was a banker and stockbroker. After university he started on the bottom rung of the mining business, as “a mucker” in Colorado earning 25 cents a day for mucking out mines. He worked his way up — initially as a point man for the Guggenheim Brothers — before becoming the undisputed “king of copper” and one of the world’s richest men in the 1920s, with business interests all over the world, including Russia and Africa.

“Something that was really interesting to me was Beatty’s personality,” says Ruth O’Looney, director of the RTÉ documentary. “Sometimes when you do a biographical piece there is the official biography and then people talk about them and you find out that maybe that person wasn’t as nice or as clever as portrayed. Nobody has anything bad to say about Chester Beatty, which is quite unusual for historical characters.

“He had a very modern outlook on how to do business. If he was alive today he’d probably be running a big multinational tech company and people would be writing books about his management style. He was very progressive for his time. He was really good with people, which maybe came from the way he worked from the bottom and dragged himself up.

“He was as comfortable with the person who swept the floor in the mines as he was with the King of Belgium. He was very interested in people and he was a very good delegator. He didn’t believe in micromanaging things. We kind of think of people in the Victorian and Edwardian eras as being quite dogmatic and abiding to class structures — with the person at the top and the minions underneath — but Beatty wasn’t like that.”

An 11th century Koran.

Beatty ploughed his spare cash into artefacts. There are fascinating sections in the documentary, which explore the origins as well as the conservation and restoration work done on the items he collected during his lifetime, which include St. Paul’s earliest-bound letters, and 160 intricately designed snuffboxes from his collection. All of which he bequeathed to the Irish state, having moved to Ireland in 1950.

“As a child, he was very interested in minerals and stones and fossils, which started his obsession with collecting,” says O’Looney. “That led him onto looking at other things like snuff bottles because they were made from stones and minerals. They might have been carved with Asian or Chinese scenes and that led him into an interest in art.

“That often happens with collectors, they get interested in one thing and start collecting, and then move on. A little like when someone is interested in music. They start listening to one artist and that leads them to listen to somebody else because someone else influenced that artist, and it snowballs like that.

“He liked books and he liked looking at how books were made, and bookbinding and book covers. And when he collected he wanted to collect the best of stuff, which was how he operated in mining. He wanted to be doing everything to the best, to the nth degree. When it came to collecting, if he was going to collect something he was going to do it really well.

“And of course I think he liked lovely things.”

- Chester Beatty: The Honorary Irishman, RTÉ One, 6.30pm, tonight

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