The Playfair Hours is an intriguing 15th-century prayer book. Despite being handwritten and illuminated in France in the 1480s it was actually intended for a Scottish owner.
Books of hours were Christian prayer books that first appeared in the mid-13th century in Western Europe. They continued to be popular until the mid-16th century, with more produced during this 300-year period than any other type of book. Used by the laity for private devotion, their name, 'book of hours', derives from their content which comprises primarily of the Little Hours of the Virgin, a composite text consisting of hymns, psalms (sacred songs), and antiphons (short chants) in praise of the Virgin Mary. These were divided into eight 'hours' running from Matins (3am to dawn) to Compline (approximately 7pm), to be recited by the book's owner throughout the day.
As well as the Hours of the Virgin, a typical book of hours contains other sections – among them a calendar, Gospel lessons, the Penitential Psalms and the Office of the Dead. Each served its own function: the Penitential Psalms, for example, were prayers to discourage the reader from falling foul of the seven deadly sins, and to seek forgiveness if they did so. The Office of the Dead acted as a daily reminder of one's own mortality.
All these texts and more are present in the Playfair Hours, and many are illustrated with detailed full- and half-page painted illuminations, guiding the reader to the appropriate section since pagination was not common practice until the mid-16th century. The Office of the Dead, for example, opens with a dramatic full-page scene from the Tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead, a story of three young noblemen who, while out hunting, encounter their dead counterparts. The three corpses are in varying stages of decay but are animated – in the Playfair Hours they wield spears – and they voice a warning to the young men to repent their sins before it is too late. Other images on this page show the Last Judgement; the Raising of Lazarus; and inside the gaping jaws of Hell, a cauldron of sinners is stirred by devils. At the bottom of the page, in the painted frame, are the first words of Psalm 114, Dilexi quoniam exaudiet Dominus (I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice). The psalm continues on the following page which itself is decorated with a border of flowers, fruits and acanthus leaves, like all text pages in the book.
Despite being written and illuminated in Rouen in Normandy, the Playfair Hours is for the use of Sarum, the Latin name for Salisbury, which indicates that it was intended for an owner in or from the British Isles. Evidence of this can be found in variations in the text of the Hours of the Virgin and Office of the Dead, which differed from one region to another.
As is often the case, the calendar pages, typically found at the beginning of a book of hours, also contain clues about who the book was made for. Medieval calendars list the religious feasts that take place on particular days within each month. These are usually feast days of saints, or important days in the lives of Christ and the Virgin and there tends to be a hierarchy to these lists, expressed through the colour of the text. Often, black or dark brown ink is used for generic feast days while red ink is used for the more important ones (which explains the origin of the phrase 'red letter day').
The Playfair Hours' calendar pages differ from this norm in that the more generic saints' days are written in alternating red and blue for variety, while the more important feasts are in burnished gold. Further evidence about who the book was made for can be deduced from the notable appearance of Scottish saints in the calendar pages. St Monan, for example, features on 1 March, and St Kentigern and St Ninian appear in burnished gold on 13 June and 16 September respectively. The presence and prominence of these Scottish saints implies that the Playfair Hours was intended for a Scottish owner who was probably living in France at the time of the book's making.
Books of hours were very personal objects, often passed down the generations, and owners would sometimes add their own inscriptions to them. The Playfair Hours has some intriguing annotations such as the poem on the inside of the upper cover, dated 1564 and written in cipher (each vowel is replaced with a number, 1 – 5) which asks for the book's return to 'dame Charlot' should it ever go astray. In addition, a clumsily painted heraldic coat of arms, thought to be post-16th century, has been added to one of the blank preliminary pages and on the inside of the back cover, another inscription in a 16th-century hand perhaps reads, Cest pour mons[eigneur] bellegarde but has been scored out.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Playfair Hours ever came to Scotland during its first few centuries, but the style of its leather spine indicates it had made its way to England by about 1820. The book's Scottish connections must have been of interest to the Playfair family of St Andrews in Scotland because they came to own it sometime around 1835 – 45, hence the book's nickname, The Playfair Hours.
In 1918, the Playfair family sold the book for the benefit of the Scottish Red Cross, on the stipulation that it become national property. It was purchased by Sir Otto John Beit (1865 – 1930), a financier, philanthropist, and art connoisseur, who then presented it to the V&A that same year.
A century after its acquisition by the museum, the Playfair Hours travelled to Scotland to feature for two years as one of the star objects at the V&A Dundee when it opened to the public in September 2018.
Explore the Playfair Hours
The Playfair Hours, Use of Sarum, 1480s, Rouen, France. Museum no. MSL/1918/475. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London