THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 posts categorized "Rare books"

16 March 2017

Aristotle’s Masterpiece: What to expect when you’re expecting, seventeenth-century style

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How would a seventeenth-century woman know if she’s pregnant? Why, by the following signs of course: “pains in the head, vertigo, and dimness of the eyes…the eyes themselves swell, and become of a dull or dark colour”.

Aristotle’s Masterpiece was the most popular manual about sex, pregnancy and childbirth from its first appearance in 1684 through hundreds of editions up to the late nineteenth century. The manual offers advice on everything from “the use and actions of the genitals” to “monstrous births, and the reasons thereof”. This is a book for the common people that would’ve been cheaply printed, sold ‘under the table’ and hidden under the mattress at home. With its advice for both men and women, it would’ve been furtively rifled through as often as we use Google (rightly or wrongly) to decipher our medical problems nowadays.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available].  Noc

In case you hadn’t already guessed, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is neither by Aristotle or, indeed, a masterpiece. Nicolas Culpeper had already written his Directory for Midwives in 1651 and other writers and booksellers sought to emulate its resounding success. Aristotle was a long-established pseudonym used when printing works about reproduction. The text itself is a peculiar mash-up of early seventeenth-century medical works and popular old wives’ tales about sex and reproduction passed down through generations.

For instance, is it a boy or a girl? Well, “male children lie always on the [right] side of the womb” and girls on the left. But if you wanted to be certain, cast a drop of milk into a basin of water. If the milk drop sinks to the bottom intact, it’s a girl. If it spreads and disperses on the surface of the water, it’s a boy. With sage advice like this, it’s hardly surprising that copies of The Masterpiece were used until they literally wore out. This means that comparatively few survive today, with the British Library being lucky to hold about thirty different early editions.

To us, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a delightfully eccentric insight into seventeenth-century sexual and reproductive lore, sometimes recognisable as the precursor to modern science and sometimes decidedly not.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

This manual devotes a lot of time to describing monsters, for example. These “monstrous births” are variously attributed to “maternal imagination, witchcraft, human-animal copulation or a disorder of the womb”. The crude curious woodcuts, instrumental to the manual’s appeal, feature a child with its eyes where its mouth should’ve been, a naked woman covered in hair and conjoined twins amongst others.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

Elsewhere there are largely sensible instructions for midwives. The basic anatomical descriptions and the large, fold out diagram of the position of a baby in the womb also occupy more familiar territory for modern readers.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

But home remedies that feature dog’s grease or even dragon’s blood soon confuse matters again.  As does the insistence that bleeding a woman, a somewhat primitive practice, is advised if she’s having difficulty during childbirth and that, during pregnancy, a woman must ensure that her home is not, for some inexplicable reason, “infected with frogs”.  Ribbet.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

14 March 2017

John Syms, Puritan naval chaplain (and librarian)

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A “day-booke” kept by a Puritan minister, John Syms, has primarily been used as an historical source for studying the events of the English Civil War, especially in and around the Parliamentary stronghold of Plymouth.  The journal is also of significant importance to book historians as Syms listed the books he owned and read over the period.  A further list reveals the chaplain’s role as an early ‘librarian at sea’; Syms served as a naval chaplain aboard a Parliamentary man-of-war.

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"I came aboard the Providence: Aug 3 1644”, Syms listed a small collection of books he took with him. Add MS 35297 f1v  Noc

 

Naval chaplains were not ubiquitous in the Early Stuart period and prior to this time were usually only found on larger ships.  Some captains preferred to be autonomous and free of the (moral) constraints represented by a chaplain.  Why take along a (paid) chaplain when a captain or other suitably appointed person could perform religious services at sea?  In the first 60 years of voyages undertaken by the East India Company from 1601, just 40 chaplains were appointed.

Whether on long voyages across oceans or on ships operating along home coasts, the liturgical role of the chaplain expanded from leading religious services to providing pastoral care: tending to the sick, sending-off the dead, and, much as chaplains did on land, lending books.

Life at sea involves long periods of potential inactivity and frustrating idleness: time which, crucially, could be filled by a chance to read a book to oneself or participate in oral readings amongst a group of comrades.

This chaplain’s books taken aboard the Providence are, as may be expected, chiefly religious with a strong Puritan bias.  But there are also some works which show some signs of having been chosen for a particular readership: men at sea.  Puritans were quite conscious about how books can be used and it is arguable that Syms consciously selected books which would prove popular – and which would also lend some power and influence – all very expedient for someone whose constant purpose was to proselytise.

It’s hard to discern all the titles from Syms’s abbreviated ‘short-title’ list, there’s too little detail to establish particular editions but here are some of the books with editions given being those closest to 1644.

We can make out a Book of Psalmes; a Concordance and a Bible, but besides these functional, liturgical books, here are some of the more idiosyncratic books. …

  Syms 2
Syms took John Downham’s Christian Warfare, a best-seller (running to four editions).  It projects a plain message from anyone owning or lending copies. 4409.p.4 Noc

 

  Syms 3
The 'Heidelberg catechism' by Jeremias Bastingius - perhaps Syms had a copy of the 1614 edition? 3505.d.52 Noc

Syms 4
 'The Scottish history' may be John Knox’s work on the Reformation in Scotland - two editions were printed in 1644. This edition: 203.d.2.

  Syms 5
Noc

 

Syms 6Noc
Syms took copies of William Camden’s Remaines and Lightfoot’s Erubhin; or miscellanies – two quite ‘fun’ books (certainly by Puritan standards).  598.d.15 and 1020.e.12.(1)


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Along with an English’d edition of Heinrich Bunting’s The travayles of the patriarchs and apostles there are works chosen as books which might appeal to literate men at sea. 1481.b.50Noc

 

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An example of a functional book taken to sea in the 17th century is, ‘A Physick book, Johannes Anglicus’ which was, ‘lent to Mr prat the surgion’. This book is Praxis medica rosa anglica by John of Gaddesden.  Syms’s copy was likely to have been printed in Augsburg in 1595.  542.a.8-9. Noc

 

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The ‘Physick book', written in the 14th century, contains Arab renditions of the classic writers in medicine; it tells how to treat smallpox by wrapping patients in red cloths; has recipes for obtaining fresh water from sea water by distillatio, and advice on how to deal with the, ‘Evil Dead’ – DE MALO MORTVO – still in use in the 1640s.  542.a.8-9Noc

Syms’s list of books is suggestive and raises many questions: how did he choose which books to take?  Were they purposefully selected, or just what was to hand, what may have been in his trunk or on sale by local booksellers?   Further questions about the role of these books arise from Syms’s involvement in an acrimonious dispute with the captain of the Providence, John Ellison, which resulted in a dozen of the ship’s men being condemned to Marshalsea Prison by the Commissioners of the Navy for having, “much abused the Office of the Navy” and Captain Ellison.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading :
John Syms Daybook, British Library Add MS 35297
Miller, Amos. C. John Syms, Puritan Naval Chaplain in Mariner’s Mirror, May 1974
Miller, Amos. S. The Puritan Minister John Syms (IV Parts) in Devon Notes and Queries
Green, Ian. Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Smith, Waldo E.L. The Navy and its chaplains in the age of sail. Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1961.

Syms’s list of books and the unrest he played a pivotal role in aboard the Providence has been examined in more detail in an unpublished paper given by Christian Algar at a conference on  Maritime Literary Cultures, in Heidelberg in October 2016.

 

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

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When Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, her portable writing desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, very generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles. According to family tradition, they all belonged to Jane Austen.

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Spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4): wire-framed pair (on left), ‘tortoiseshell pair A’ (centre), ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ (on right, with string wound around arm). 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The British Library has for the first time had the spectacles tested. Our Conservation department was involved from the start, to ensure that no harm would come to them. The company Birmingham Optical kindly supplied us with a lensmeter to measure their strength, and their specialist staff undertook the tests.

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 Louis Cabena (left) and Deep Singh (right) from Birmingham Optical, with lensmeter and spectacles in the British Library Conservation Centre. 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The tests revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading. Interestingly, ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ is much stronger than the others.

Test results

Wire-framed pair:       R. + 1.75 DS  L. +1.75 DS (PD 27.0 53.0 26.0)

Tortoiseshell pair A:   R. + 3.25 DS  L. +3.25 DS (PD 26.0 56.0 30.0)

Tortoiseshell pair B:   R. +5.00/-0.25 x 84 L. +4.75/-0.25 x 49 (PD 28.5 55.0 26.5)

We showed these results to the London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard. He believes there are a number of possible reasons for the variation in strength. Jane Austen may always have been longsighted, and initially used the wire-framed pair for reading and distance viewing. She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book.

Austen is known to have had problems with her eyes. She complained in several letters about her ‘weak’ eyes. Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? Professor Barnard believes this is a possibility. He points out that certain systemic health problems can cause changes in the vision of both longsighted and shortsighted people. Diabetes is one such condition, because it can induce cataracts. A gradually developing cataract would mean that an individual would need a stronger and stronger prescription, over time, in order to undertake close-up tasks. However, diabetes was fatal at that time, so someone might not have lived long enough to require several different prescriptions in succession. 

If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies. In this situation, Austen would have switched from using the wire-framed pair to tortoiseshell pair A, then pair B, as her cataracts got progressively worse.

Jane Austen’s early death has in the past been attributed to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and tuberculosis. In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life – something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder. The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.

We should, however, inject a note of caution at this point: although prescription lenses were in use in Austen’s day, we don’t know whether these glasses were prescribed for her by a physician, or whether she bought them ‘off-the-shelf’. We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all. However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us. 

We know this subject is already of interest to literary scholars. Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit of the University of Texas at Austin have taken a keen interest in the spectacles in the British Library, and have also been investigating Austen’s references to spectacles in her novels. Their theories will shortly be published in the journal Modern Philology. We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic.  The spectacles themselves have just gone on display in the British Library’s free Treasures Gallery for all to see.

Dr Sandra Tuppen

Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

The British Library

Email: sandra.tuppen@bl.uk

07 February 2017

Value in unexpected places: The sole surviving copy of 'The Grounds of Learning', a seventeenth-century schoolbook

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As 2016 drew to a close, we were delighted to acquire the only known copy of an early schoolbook entitled The grounds of learning; or, The readiest way of al others, to the true spelling, true reading, and true-writing of English, written by Richard Hodges (-1657) and printed in 1650 by William Dugard (1606-1662).  Hodges was a schoolmaster and author who lived and worked in Southwark, London. His later works, including The Grounds of Learning (1650), were printed by William Dugard, who also doubled up as a schoolmaster, overt royalist and, interestingly, a friend of John Milton. At the Merchant Taylor’s School, he acquired a number of presses and set up a print shop within the school itself.

HodgesPhoto1

Hodges wrote The Grounds of Learning primarily for children as early learners of literacy. By today’s standards it would be considered somewhat uninspiring for a juvenile audience. It covers the alphabet, punctuation, spelling and pronunciation. This is followed by a section on Biblical teachings, reminding us that, in the context of seventeenth century Protestantism, the ultimate aim of literacy was to enable access to the Bible and other sacred materials. The market for children’s books, educational or otherwise, was still in its infancy in the 1650s and consisted mainly of dry primers (early textbooks), catechisms and grammars. It was only in the second half of the century that awareness of child development grew and educational works became more creative, incorporating pictures and stories into their lessons. Eventually popular tales like Tom Thumb and Jack the Giant Killer were printed specifically for children, often illustrated with woodcuts and bound in bright, colourful paper. The market grew from there.

HodgesPhoto2


The book itself is small and it’s easy to picture pupils rifling through it to find the right section. It was originally bound in cheap leather, probably calf or sheep, and has since been re-covered with utilitarian reverse leather to prolong its lifespan. This unfortunately didn’t prevent a couple of leaves going missing at some point in its history. Inside, the endpapers are splattered with the ink blots, doodles and signatures of the book’s earliest young owners. These include one Hannah Barrow who appears to have been given the book as a Christmas present. She scrawled her name on as many blank pages as she could find, even writing directly to “all you that look within this book” on the front endpaper. Whether she was motivated by pride in her Christmas gift or boredom in her lessons, we’ll never know.

HodgesPhoto3

Cheap, ephemeral items like schoolbooks can be just as rare and valuable as expensive, lavishly produced works. Maybe other copies of The Grounds of Learning have survived, buried in lofts, covered in dust and forgotten about but, until they are discovered, ours remains the only known surviving copy, a testament to all the children who used it and the growing literacy rates in seventeenth century England.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
W. R. Meyer, ‘Dugard, William (1606–1662)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009
Richard E. Hodges, ‘Hodges, Richard (d. 1657)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

To find out more about the history of children’s books from the 18th century onwards:

Childhood and children's literature

The origins of children's literature


 

22 November 2016

The business archive of Alan Gradon Thomas

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We’ve met Alan Gradon Thomas before, back in 2013 when my colleague Chantry Westwell came across a festschrift in his honour whilst researching the provenance of a medieval calendar. The recent completion of the cataloguing of Thomas’s extensive business archive seems like a good time to reacquaint ourselves with the esteemed book and manuscript seller of Bournemouth and, latterly, London.

 

Alan Graydon Thomas archive 1

Alan Gradon Thomas archive Noc

 

Thomas was an international dealer in a pre-digital age. He had customers all over the world and all of his business was conducted by letter and telephone, using printed catalogues. It was not uncommon for Thomas to send a catalogue to a customer overseas, receive a letter back some weeks later setting out what the customer wished to buy, only for Thomas to have to write back to say that in the interim he had sold the book or manuscript to another customer.

 

Alan Graydon Thomas archive 2

Three manuscripts purchased from Thomas by the British Library Noc

 

He was a meticulous record keeper and the archive, containing sales ledgers, stock lists, financial records, inventories, papers relating to his superbly researched catalogues, and valuations, spans nearly 50 years. There are hundreds of files of correspondence with his customers, including the major auction houses, important private collectors such as John Wolfson, Sir Karl Popper, Lord Kenyon, Lord Wardington, and Major Abbey, and many of the great collections of the world: the British Library, the British Museum, the Bodleian, the Beinecke, the Folger, the Huntington, and the Royal Library in Brussels, to name just a few. Thomas’s correspondence also contains letters from fellow dealers, and from rare book and manuscript curators, librarians, and experts such as Mirjam Foot, Anthony Hobson, Nicolas Barker, Richard Linenthal, and Christopher de Hamel.

The festschrift alone is evidence of how well Thomas was thought of in the trade. But that high regard is also evident in his being elected President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association for 1958-1959, during which time he was instrumental in establishing the first London Antiquarian Book Fair. His papers include a large amount of ABA material: committee minutes, annual reports and accounts, newsletters, correspondence, and papers relating to the book fairs.

In turn, Thomas himself had great respect for, and was always very appreciative of, the help of the ‘footsoldiers’ of the trade, the shop assistants and bookroom staff. The archive contains papers relating to collections Thomas ran to mark the retirement of three long serving assistants from Sotheby’s and the British Museum. He assiduously wrote to scores of contacts in the trade to drum up as many financial contributions as possible.

Alan Thomas died in August 1992 “as much an enthusiast - for the arts, literature, the history of ideas and beliefs - at 80 as he was at 20”, as his obituary in The Independent put it.

His archive, given his clientele and the material he dealt with, is an extremely rich resource for those interested in the history and provenance of manuscripts and rare books.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager  Cc-by

Further reading:
Add MS 89159 Archive of Alan Gradon Thomas
Christopher de Hamel and Richard A. Linenthal (eds), Fine books and book collecting: books and manuscripts acquired from Alan G. Thomas and described by his customers on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981)

 

 

26 September 2016

Foreign Names and Flatulence: Dodging Censorship in the Book Trade

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For centuries authors and printers struggled under strict laws and regulations that censored the printing trade. The Pope’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) was first published in 1559 and only abolished in 1966. Printing continued to be subject to strict censorship via an elaborate system of licensing from the Church and State through the 16th and 17th centuries. The last act under this system was the Licensing of the Press Act (1662), under which the printing of “seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets” was banned, punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Stationer’s Company, formed in 1403, enforced these laws. Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act in 1694 but an umbrella of libel laws still existed that censored any material deemed defamatory, seditious, obscene and blasphemous. Despite these minefields, the print trade continued to grow. By the 18th century a steady stream of books, pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and newspapers were being produced to meet rising demand from an increasingly literate public.

So how did authors, printers and booksellers get away with producing illicit material?

Some material was imported from the continent. The Netherlands in particular benefitted from having an unregulated print trade, a stable economy and no censorious state religion. Some authors remained anonymous. Jonathan Swift, who had already faced prosecution for writing a number of politically controversial pamphlets, published his Gulliver’s Travels anonymously as it was a transparently anti-Whig satire.

MS1

[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1) Cc-by

In some cases works were deemed too dangerous for even printers and booksellers to put their name to. Some remained anonymous, like in the Gulliver’s Travels imprint seen above. Others made up the imprint altogether, fabricating the printer’s name and, in extreme cases, the place in which they were based to mask their identities. The most routinely used fictitious imprint in this period was “A. Moore, near St. Paul’s [Cathedral]”. This imprint was often used simultaneously by more than one bookseller and even became a sort of in joke.  As Bookweight, the bookseller in Henry Fielding’s anonymous play The Author’s Farce, says knowingly, “sometimes we give a foreign name to our own labours… so we have Messieurs Moore near St. Paul’s, and Smith near the Royal Exchange”. It was used to print all manner of works, from political pamphlets to erotica (note the “amour” pun on the imprint) and bawdy scatological works like this one:

  MS2
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816 Cc-by

There are almost three hundred works listed on ESTC with this “A. Moore” imprint and, as it was then so it is now, it’s difficult to decipher who actually was responsible for printing these works. Current research focuses on matching woodcut ornaments found in these items to other known works by particular printers. However, this is laborious and many of the ornaments used at the time are almost identical. Still, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing; fictitious imprints give us a fascinating insight into the strict regulations that governed the 18th century book trade and solving all their mysteries might somewhat spoil the fun!

References

[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1)
[Henry Fielding] Scriblerus Secundus’ The author’s farce, Dublin, George Risk, etc., [1730] , British Library 11774.aaa.27(2)
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816

By Maddy Smith, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

12 May 2016

Edward Lear: politicians, poems and runcible hats.

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Today is Edward Lear’s 204th Birthday.  To celebrate, I’ve chosen to look at a letter from Lear to the MP and later prime minister, Sir William Ewart Gladstone and another to William Bevan, British Vice-Consul in San Remo.

The letter to Gladstone was written in October 1863 on a printed subscription list and advertisement for Lear’s publication Views in the Seven Ionian Islands.

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Letter from Edward Lear to William Ewart Gladstone Add MS 44401.  Untitled

Views in the Seven Ionian Islands was a series of lithographs drawn and published by Lear in December 1863. Lear produced a list of the noteworthy subscribers and used their names to further advertise the project. Among the many names were Lear's good friends Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue and Frances, Countess Waldegrave.

LearSubscribers

 Verso of a letter from Edward Lear to William Ewart Gladstone Add MS 44401. Untitled

In the letter, Lear asked Gladstone if he would consider subscribing to the Ionian Views:

"I hope that the enclosed circular of a work I am about to publish on the Ionian Islands may interest you sufficiently to induce you to subscribe for a copy of it. I had lived there so long, that I may say without impropriety that few artists can have drawn the beautiful scenery there as much and as carefully as I."

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Lithograph 'View from the Village of Galaro - Zante' in Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, drawn and published by Edward Lear, 1863. British Library 1782.d.16. Untitled

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Lithograph 'Town and Harbour of Caïo - Paxo' in Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, drawn and published by Edward Lear, 1863. British Library 1782.d.16. Untitled

The letter to Gladstone could not be more different from another letter in the British Library Manuscript Collections which is addressed to William Bevan, the British Vice-Consul who had moved to San Remo and lived near Lear. The letter contains Lear's  poem How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear which was apparently composed with the help of Bevan's eldest daughter. Lear has also included a caricature of himself and his cat Foss.

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Letter from Edward Lear to Archdeacon Bevan 145 January 1879, Add MS 61891 ff.104-9. Untitled

This drawing must surely illustrate the following verse in the poem:

He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat. 

 The letter beneath the poem reads:

I disclose you a Pome, which you may or may Knott send to the Lady who says "How pleasant to know Mr Lear,  It may be sung to the air "how cheerful along the Gay Mead". 

Lear stated that his poem could be set to the music of the hymn How Cheerful along the Gay Mead. Here is a link to the score in the Levy Sheet Music Collection if anyone fancies a sing-along with Lear on his birthday! 

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850.

 

06 April 2016

‘A Man of very surprising Genius’: John Bagford, Bookseller and Collector

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[H]e was a Man of very surprising Genius, and, had his education...been equal to his natural Genius, he would have proved a much greater Man than he was.  And yet, without this Education, he was, certainly, the greatest Man in the World in his way...

So wrote the Oxford antiquary Thomas Hearne of his friend John Bagford (b. 1650/51, d. 1716): a man of humble background and little formal education, a one-time shoemaker who made a career as a bookseller.  Since he counted among his customers such luminaries as Hans Sloane and Robert Harley – whose libraries went on to form foundation collections of the British Museum – Bagford’s activities are of no little interest in the history of the British Library and its books.  Bagford is principally remembered today for amassing important collections of early printed ballads and title-pages.  The latter he gathered with the object – unfulfilled at his death – of writing ‘an Historical Account of that most Universally Celebrated, as well as Useful Art of Typography’. 

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Engraving of John Bagford by George Vertue, after the painting by Hugh Howard.  © National Portrait Gallery, London  NPG D17936 Creative Commons License

 

Bagford has not always been so fondly commemorated as he was by Hearne: to nineteenth-century bibliographers, he was a ‘wicked old Biblioclast’ (William Blades) or ‘the most hungry and rapacious of all book and print collectors’ (T.F. Dibdin).  The sin Bagford committed in collecting title-pages, Blades opined in his book Bibliomania, could never be expunged by the value those fragments might have for the study of early printing.  However, such condemnations have been exceptional in assessments of Bagford’s career.  Scholars have echoed the assessment made by the librarian Humfrey Wanley:

[I]t is my Opinion, that there are but few Curious Men, but, upon the View of this Collection, will own they have met with several Titles, or other Fragments of Books, in their several ways, which they knew not of before.

Little wonder that Wanley was keen to secure Bagford’s collection for his master, Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford and Mortimer, against stiff competition from Hearne and other antiquaries. 

  Bagford 1The Praise of Lancashire Men, [1685?], C.40.m.10.(136), ESTC R181996

Bagford also collected printed ballads – the majority of them single-sheet impressions – and these have proven a less controversial part of his legacy.  The Roxburghe collection of ballads is named after John Ker, 3rd duke of Roxburghe, but it was for Robert Harley that Bagford had originally sourced them.  These are now at the British Library (C.20.f.7-10, also numbered Rox.I - IV). 

Bagford 2

The Frantick Mother, or Cupid in Captivity, [1699x1708?], C.40.m.9.(97), ESTC N69457


Bagford’s private collection of ballads is also part of our collections (C.40.m.9-11).  Personal pleasure, rather than scholarly interest, appears to have motivated Bagford – and such ephemera would have been more easily with his means to acquire them.  Hearne recalled that:

‘[H]e would divert himself with looking over Ballads, and he was always mightily pleased if he met with any that were old....he always seemed almost ravished when he happened to light upon any old Rhythms...’

 

  Bagford 3
A Remedy for the Green Sickness, [1678x1681], C.40.m.10.(161), ESTC R182620


One can well understand the appeal of these ballads: they are witty, often bawdy, and above all memorable, providing a fascinating commentary upon the social, political, religious and sexual mores of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Here are a few to whet your appetites!

A Most Sweet Song of an English Merchant-Man, born in Chichester, [1690?], C.40.m.9.(43), ESTC R221302

The London Cuckold, [1682x1703], C.40.m.9.(58), ESTC R221373

The Country-Mans Kalender, Or, His Astrological-Predictions for the ensuing year 1692 [1691], C.40.m.10.(56), ESTC R236417

The Honour of Bristol, [1695?], C.40.m.10.(85), ESTC R182066


James Freeman
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections Cc-by