Quest for perfection

Jewish Chronicle Magazine - September 28 1984

A love story with a difference, recounted by Patrice Chaplin

The Kennicott Bible, possibly the most beautiful Hebrew manuscript in existence, has been stored in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, since 1872, on show only to privileged scholars and historians. Now, thanks to the untiring efforts of a London couple, Michael and Linda Falter, this masterpiece will surface in the form of 500 expertly produced facsimile copies and so be available to the public for the first time.

The Bible was commissioned in the fifteenth century by Isaac, the son of Don Solomon di Braga, a prominent Jew of La Coruna in North-West Spain. The much acclaimed scribe Moses ibn Zabara was chosen to produce the exquisite script. He worked in an unusually harmonious fashion with his illustrator, Joseph ibn Hayyam, and the result of their collaboration is, to quote the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 'The finest surviving example of Spanish Jewish Art . . . the culmination of the art of the Hebrew Bible.'

Joseph ibn Hayyam's unique illuminations in rich, luxuriant colours made fabulous with superbly applied gold and silver have a Moorish, sometimes Gothic influence. Above all, they express the artist's joyful originality, his love of fancy and splendour.

Produced at the very time Spain's Jews were facing The Inquisition, the Bible is a last, undying reminder of a once glorious but lost heritage. From the beginning it was designed as a lavish work--238 of the 922 pages are illuminated, an unheard-of quantity.

It acquired its current name from Benjamin Kennicott, the English Christian Hebraist who presented it to the Radcliffe Library in 1771. It was transferred to the Bodleian Library in 1872 and today is considered one of Oxford's greatest treasures.

As if by destiny, the Falters met each other and The Kennicott Bible more or less simultaneously. The following four years were spent devoted to the Bible's reproduction—years not without defeat and times of hopelessness.

One Sunday afternoon in August 1980, Michael Falter had nothing to do. 'I was a bachelor so I thought why not visit the British Museum. After all you never know who you might meet there.' He didn't quite meet Linda but he found a display of beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscripts and decided then that he would reproduce something exquisite.

An entrepreneurial printer's engineer, Michael's training was in business management though he had been born into the printing industry — both his father and grandfather had been printers. He'd spent two years at the London College of Printing, then set up his own business. 'I'd buy up secondhand printing machines, completely take them apart, rebuild them and sell them with a guarantee as new. Over the years I'd acquired three antique printing presses —the original hand-operated ones from 1851 — and I wanted to put these to some use.'

Having come to that decision at the British Museum, Michael went to see David Patterson, the director of the Oxford Centre for Post Graduate Hebrew Studies, who said there was one manuscript above all worthy of reproduction and that was the Kennicott Bible.

'He arranged for me to visit Ron May, the senior assistant librarian of Oriental Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, the following week. I went back to London feeling I was on the right track. I was. I met Linda.'

Linda was born in Nottingham and at sixteen travelled to Mexico, France and Switzerland. At 19 she went to work for the UN as a desk officer in Geneva. After that she worked in Teheran for the Representative of Iran and Afghanistan at the ILO. Then she taught English and French in an Iranian school. Following that she ran a restaurant in Los Angeles, 'The House of Iran.' Her next move was to be Tel Aviv where she wanted to live if her brother hadn't needed help with his health club in Kensington.

An undeniably beautiful girl with radiant health and vivacity, Linda was surprisingly alone and lonely in London. 'I was working in my brother's health club from 9 am until 9 pm and I didn't know a soul here. Eventually a friend of my brother's introduced me to Michael. It was just at the time he was going to the Bodleian Library so I went with him and for the first time we saw the Kennicott Bible. I remember the day as so bright and lovely. You see, I'd been shut in the basement health club and hardly saw daylight.'

They fell in love, married and now have a young son, Gideon. That was the easy part. Bringing the Kennicott Bible out into the world from the library basement has been an exacting business, which obviously needed their combined skills.

How did they feel seeing the Kennicott Bible for the first time? Their procedure with the manuscript seemed very much like that of adopting a baby.

'On the first visit we weren't allowed to touch it,' said Michael. 'Ron May carried it up to his room and it really was awe-inspiring. It's his love as well, of course.'

The Bodleian is not a public library and permission to enter is not easily obtained. The goodwill of Ron May and the support of David Patterson facilitated their next visits. But they had to convince the publications officer and the Board of Oxford University to give them a contract to produce the facsimile.

At what point did they decide to take it on?

Linda and Michael looked at each other and realised it had never been a decision. It was something they just had to do and they went right ahead and did it.

'What struck me when I saw it the second time was this manuscript is five hundred years old and I'm sitting by it, as close as the original artist had been,' said Michael. 'It was an emotional experience to have so close to you this fabulous piece of history. So I wanted to bring to light something that would not normally be seen.'

'No, we definitely didn't decide to do it,' emphasised Linda. 'It decided for us. It was something beautiful that took you away from the nastiness of everyday, a lovely thing to be involved in. But the challenge of reproducing it without the skills that were available when it was originally executed was formidable.'

Michael pointed out that to find a manuscript of that age in such good condition was unusual. The secret was in the binding. It is one of only four known works — all Jewish —bound on all six sides so when closed it's completely sealed and no air can get in.

A week after visiting the Bodleian the Falters set off across Europe to find a printer. In fact it took two and a half years to solve the printing problem. That was nothing compared with getting the gold right. Then there was the paper problem. And the box binding.

At the same time, the Oxford Committee would not grant them the contract. They felt it was too enormous an undertaking — the Falters had produced no other facsimile, apart from son Gideon! Their going ahead would exclude anyone else trying. Also The Oxford University Press itself was considering reproducing it.

'They were extremely discouraging,' said Michael. 'In fact they discouraged us so much it took two years to get a contract out of them. What helped was that OUP decided the facsimile was beyond its capabilities. By then the committee were impressed with our knowledge and will to succeed.'

In Michael Falter's opinion, facsimile producers almost always take the easy way out. They print on beautifully surfaced paper which will pick up every tiny detail and looks great but happens to be opaque.

'This avoids the problem of the "showthrough." Manuscripts are transparent, translucent not opaque. So we wanted a vellum indistinguishable from the original. But sometimes the air can make a book destroy itself and we've taken good care that this one won't. After getting nowhere on the European trip we wrote to dozens of paper mills and eventually found a sort of greaseproof paper that was formerly used for wrapping bread. It turned out to be unstable. It had no grain to it. As soon as the atmosphere changed the paper changed. But the mill was interested so they eventually produced a paper to specification. It took a year, cost a fortune.

'We're printing this facsimile with nine colours. But you can't just put a piece of paper in one end of the machine and it comes out with nine colours at the other. It goes in one colour at a time.

The sheet then has to dry, then it goes through again. And each time there's an opportunity for an atmospheric change so the paper could distort and the next colour would be totally out of register. You could get it on the ninth colour and it would mean all that work has been wasted.

'We'd seen hundreds of printers and it was beginning to look hopeless. Then one just turned up in London with his family from Italy. He said he had proofs of the paper, the transparency, the proofs of the binding even. At first I thought it was a friend having a joke. But Luigi was real. He came from Milan from a family of printers and the quality of his work was astounding. The colour was fantastic. The gold wasn't great but it had promise. We took him and his family to the Bodleian and opened the manuscript and his face dropped. He said, "It's impossible. There's so much gold. We don't have any machinery to reproduce that sort of thing." So we drove back to London and not a word was spoken. He was very upset.'

And then the box binding, put out to top binderies in England, just could not be matched.

'We got to a point,' said Linda, 'where we nearly gave up. On each one of the elements, the gold, the paper, the printing, the binding, we were near defeat.'

They financed the venture themselves and for two years on speculation because they still hadn't been granted a contract from Oxford. They had to finance the tests for the English binderies. This took months and the costs were exorbitant. The results were disappointing.

'Part of the problem was that nobody knew how they constructed the box in the first place.'

Once again the well-starred Italian printer found the solution. He simply went to a nearby binder in Milan who produced a marvellous binding just from a photograph.

'No problems, no hassles,' said Michael. 'I wanted to do the binding here in England. If you can't get a good one here, I thought, where on earth are you going to get it? We've got a fantastic tradition, after all. The Italian produced a Moroccan goatskin over wooden boards. There are geometric designs on the six sides, embossed with handcut brass dies. The original binding is damaged and even has a few holes. Well, we won't produce those, they're so ugly. We're not going to take a pickaxe to the binding to make it look old. It will look like it did when produced originally. But the inside will look as it does today. The pages will have all the stains that life has given them. But of course the work is in particularly immaculate condition.'

The problem of the gold was resolved quite by coincidence. One of Michael's contacts, a woman 'well-known in the manuscript field' in Milan, discussed the selling programme for the Bible. Depressed, Michael admitted his failure with the gold. By chance her husband had made special gold foil that was used in the printing of manuscripts.

'It hadn't been used much lately because no-one's producing manuscripts any more. Well, it was terrific but had to be put on by hand. So now we have to hand gild each illustration — in other words, ten thousand pages by hand.'

The photography of the Kennicott Bible is now under way. The Bodleian stipulated that only their photographer be used and the manuscript is not allowed to leave the building.

'The best way to photograph it is to disbind it so we can have the sheets flat but they won't allow disbinding even though it had been disbound a hundred years ago,' said Michael. 'So we had to find a way to photograph inside the box. Luckily the Bodleian photographer, Charles Braybrooke, is very good. To avoid damaging the original he has to photograph through glass, but ordinary glass would cause discolouring. So we had optically white glass manufactured to capture the true colours. It was phenomenally expensive.'

Did the Falters expect to make a profit? Five hundred Bibles at 4,700 dollars each? Early subscribers get them for less. They said they'd be happy to break even.

'We want to go on doing this,' explained Linda. 'Not just Hebrew manuscripts either. It's part of our life now.'

Professor Bezalel Narkiss, an authority on Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, has written a commentary that will accompany the facsimile Bible in a separate volume.

'It's such a high-quality manuscript that we had to get the best person to write it,' said Linda. The commentary tells the story of the Kennicott Bible, how it was created, its history, the importance of the illuminations. In the Falters' view, it's a wonderful piece of educational material in its own right.

Production of the Bibles will begin in December and the last one will be finished in May. The Falters will stay in Milan to supervise the printing. Every sheet will be brought to Oxford to be compared against the original.

The Bodleian and the Oxford Committee are delighted the Falters have been successful. And Dr Martin Brett, a medieval historian at Cambridge University, enthusiastically endorses the idea of the facsimile. 'It will protect the actual manuscript. Some of these priceless works simply fall apart in your hands. You feel their bindings crack and it's a very uneasy feeling. Now scholars won't have to keep referring to the actual manuscript but to the facsimile instead. Four thousand dollars or so is not expensive at today's publishing costs, especially as so much care has gone into this reproduction. The general public should be able to view a masterpiece but the trouble is people are destroying, while adoring. Expertly produced facsimiles solve that problem.'

Looking back, how did the Falters feel about the last four years?

Michael said, 'I'm sure Linda and I were destined to be together. And I had to do the Bible. I spent twelve years in the printing industry and another five trying to get out of it. But if you've got printing ink in your blood it stays there.'

Linda said, 'I think we were meant to be together and to do something together. I think my life up to meeting Michael was a preparation for that. A beautiful Hebrew Bible is a very strong thing to do. After all it will go on long after we've kicked the bucket.'

As for Gideon, at three months he'd already been to all the printing works in Italy. 'He wouldn't sleep during the night but he slept through all the din of the printing machines,' said Linda. 'The harsh smell of the chemicals didn't worry him either.' He can truly be said to be born into the printing trade, fourth generation.