In the News

Quinn's to Host July 26 Modern Prints, Poster & Works on Paper Auction

Falls Church, VA - Quinn's Auction Galleries and its subsidiary Waverly Rare Books &... read more

48th Edition of "Overstreet Comic Book Guide" Offered Through Heritage Auctions

Dallas, TX - Collectors and fans of comics and comic art can download a... read more

Author John Irving to Receive Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award

Dayton, OH - Writer John Irving (The World According to Garp, The Cider House... read more

AntiquarianAuctions.com Auction #68, July 19-26

AntiquarianAuctions.com is an online auction site dedicated to the sale of rare and out-of... read more

The 5th Annual Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair Will Kick Off Brooklyn Book Week

It's big! Book lovers by the hundreds, will be heading to Brooklyn this Fall... read more

The Artist Book Foundation Presents Recent Works by Carole Feuerman

North Adams, Massachusetts—The Artist Book Foundation (TABF) will celebrate the Hyperrealist sculptor Carole Feuerman... read more

Doyle to Auction Angling Books From the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson

New York - Doyle is pleased to auction an extensive collection of angling books... read more

Bob Dylan Handwritten Letter Among Highlights at RR Auction

Boston, MA - A handwritten letter from Bob Dylan to an old Greenwich Village... read more

Follow us on TwitterLike us on Facebook
Auction Guide
Advertise with Us
2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Record-Breaker

The Ripley Scroll

A magical mystery manuscript beguiled bidders By Ian McKay Ian McKay's weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than forty years.

Courtesy of Christie's.

Cryptic verses and curious pictures fill an early seventeenth-century illustrated alchemical manuscript in English and Latin that sold for £584,750 ($781,225) at Christie’s in London on December 13. It was billed as—and perhaps still is—the only one of twenty-three recorded copies of what is known as the Ripley Scroll remaining in private hands.

A complex representation of the prime alchemical quest—the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone, the means of converting base material into gold—it takes its name from that of a celebrated English alchemist, George Ripley, who died around 1490.

An Augustinian canon at Bridlington in Yorkshire, Ripley was the author of The Compound of Alchemy, a lengthy poem in Middle English that was written in 1471, though not first printed until 1591. Many other alchemical works came in time to be credited to him, but it is generally accepted that these Ripley Scrolls should be regarded as composite works rather than the creation of a single author.

In the opening section of the twelve-foot-long scroll seen at Christie’s and in seventeen of the other known copies, a large figure holds the Hermetic vessel, or ‘Philosopher’s Egg,’ the handles of which are inscribed “you must make water of earth and earth of the ayr and ayr of the fyre and fyre of the earth.” Within this glass vessel or flask can be seen linked roundels, seven of them containing figures, apparently female as well as male, watching flasks or retorts that are suspended over furnaces and which in turn contain small, naked figures.

An eighth roundel contains the sun and moon, which together pour rays onto Adam and Eve as they stand either side of the Tree of Knowledge, complete with serpent. Two figures wielding tools, two small lions, and a dog complete the design of this eighth roundel. The roundels depicting various stages in the alchemical process are joined by cords to a slightly larger central roundel in which they connect to a book held by two figures: an alchemist and another who wears a bishop’s mitre.

The remainder of the scroll comprises a series of striking emblematic diagrams with inscriptions, labels, and accompanying verses, each diagram leading into the next. They set out in dramatic and intriguing, if ultimately perplexing, form the processes for achieving the two principal goals of alchemical experiments—the production of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.

A colophon after the final text section of the manuscript reads “Leonard Smethley fecit 1624.” A painter of armorials and heraldic documents of that name is known to have worked in Manchester around that time. It may be significant, the cataloguer suggested, that John Dee, the famous Tudor mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and researcher into the occult, as well as a man who promoted Ripley’s reputation both in England and abroad, was warden of the Christ’s College in Manchester during the final years of his life.

A copy of the Ripley Scroll in the British Library collections was the centerpiece of an exhibition there called Harry Potter: A History of Magic, which travels to the New-York Historical Society this autumn.

Ian McKay's weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than forty years.