THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

22 posts categorized "Rare books"

27 April 2017

Picturing Places - Taking a wider view?

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Think of the British Library’s collections - it is probably books rather than prints and drawings which come to mind.  Think of Gainsborough, Constable or Turner:  do you picture Sublime, imaginary paintings rather than ‘topographical’, place-specific prints and drawings?

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33.h.7.: Peter Fabris, The eruption of Vesuvius, from Supplement to the Campi Phelgraei (1779) Noc

Picturing Places, a new free online resource launched today by the British Library, aims to widen perceptions of both the British Library’s holdings and topographical art.

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Maps K.Top.14.83.e.: Anonymous, Interior view of the east end of Netley Abbey near Southampton (about 1790-1810) Noc

Rather than seeing topography as marginal compared to the landscapes in oils or watercolours by the canon of ‘great artists’ or more imaginative and Sublime images, Picturing Places celebrates images of specific places in the graphic arts, sparking a lively debate around nationhood, identity, and cultural value.

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Add MS 36486 C: George Scharf, Panorama of Ratisbon (Regensburg) (1845) Noc

The British Library holds the world’s most extensive and important collection of British topographic materials: from handwritten notes by antiquarians to rare first editions, extra-illustrated books and unique compilations of plates, text and drawings by named collectors, the British Library is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in the intersections between place, art, representation and history.  The full extent and depth of the collections are only now being properly recognised and explored. 

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Add MS 15546, f.101: Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, A service in Bath Abbey (1788) Noc

Picturing Places explores the Library’s extensive holdings of landscape imagery and showcases works of art by well-known artists such as J.M.W. Turner alongside images by a multitude of lesser-known figures.  Only a few have ever been seen or published before, as historically, the British Library’s prints and drawings have been overlooked by scholars.  The material in these extensive collections reflect the scholarly and artistic practices of earlier eras when images and texts would have been seen as more closely equivalent.  They have been neglected due both to the overwhelming volume of material and the perception of their relative ‘insignificance’ in the context of a national library where text has always taken precedence. 

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746.e.2.: Robert Wallis after JMW Turner, Stonehenge, from Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1829) Noc

While landscape images have often been treated as accurate records of place, this website reveals for the first time the many different stories involved – about travel and empire, science and exploration, the imagination, history and observation.

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Add MS 15509, f.11: John Cleveley, junior, The ruins of Killaru, Islay (1772) Noc

Picturing Places is an outcome of a current British Library research project, Transforming Topography, which we began in 2013 with a research workshop sponsored by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.   We have partnered with other institutions such as the Royal Collection and British Museum and with academics worldwide.  93 authors representing emerging and established experts in fields such as art history, history, cultural geography and geography are currently involved, and we have 108 essays now being processed for publication.  Films from the Library’s 2016 Transforming Topography conference exploring the depiction of place are also available, providing revelatory insights about the history of landscape imagery.

Keep an eye on Picturing Places and  @bl_prints for updates as the project progresses.

Felicity Myrone
Lead Curator, Western Prints & Drawings

 

25 April 2017

William Close - “one deserving of remembrance”

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How does one describe a surgeon, apothecary, hydraulic engineer, inventor, antiquarian, musician, artist, author and editor who was also responsible for saving the lives of the children of his village?  However,  'a little slender man, very clever, but rather changeable... and one who devoted himself assiduously to his professional duties’  is the only contemporary comment which remains of Dr William Close (1797-1813).

The Furness peninsula at the turn of the 19th century provided an interesting environment for a man with Dr Close’s enquiring mind, and he supervised the medical welfare of a variety of people in that region, including agricultural labourers, miners, and factory workers.

Infectious diseases were inevitably rife, and the young were particularly vulnerable, so in 1799, only three years after the development of the vaccine against smallpox, Close inoculated all the poor children of the nearby village of Rampside at his own expense (despite not being a wealthy man).  Within five years, small pox was duly eradicated from the area.

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 This image is copied from one of Close’s engravings of Furness Abbey used to decorate the cover of The Antiquities of Furness.

Close was also interested in the history of his neighbourhood and was keen to record and preserve local landmarks for future generations. He illustrated and supplemented Thomas West’s The Antiquities of Furness (1805) from his house at 2 Castle Street, Dalton in Furness.  The building is now marked by a blue plaque

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 Plate indicating the improvements to trumpets suggested by Close reproduced from the Proceedings of the Barrow Naturalists Field Club.

Music, in particular the improvement of brass instruments, was another of Close’s passions.  Volume XVIII of Proceedings of The Barrow Naturalists’ Field Club gives a thorough account of his progress (though this perhaps somewhat over-estimates the lure of such a topic!).

Close was clearly a polymath, his interests ranging from methods of improving the permanency of black ink to the development of safer types of explosives and land drainage technology.  He gave evidence of his research in the form of detailed letters to journals of various kinds.

Sadly this far-seeing man died of tuberculosis on Sunday 27 June 1813, aged just 38.

P J M Marks
Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections

Further reading:
Damian Gardner-Thorpe, Christopher Gardner-Thorpe and John Pearn ‘William Close (1775-1813): medicine, music, ink and engines in the Lake District’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2004 Dec; 97(12): 599–602. 

Picturing Places - English Landscape Bindings by Philippa Marks

30 March 2017

'Vogue' and virtuous virgins: a reflection on the history of the fashion magazine

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Dedicated followers of fashion might not appreciate that the history of the magazines they avidly consume can be traced back to the Elizabethan age.  Fashion mags can tell us a lot more besides what’s trending this season. They are significant culturally complex documents and an agent for interdisciplinary analysis.

Magazines dedicated exclusively to fashion grew out of the more traditional ‘women’s magazines’.  As early as the 1600s, The Treasure of Hidden Secrets was addressed to ‘gentlewomen, honest matrons and virtuous virgins’.  The publication offered readers treatises about urine and how to cure consumption with ‘snails and worms boiled in beer’ to avoid the plague!

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John Partridge, The treasurie of hidden secrets View online

Gazettes, ladies’ diaries, almanacs and mini pocket pamphlets with colour plates fed female readers’ interest from the reign of Queen Anne onwards.  In 1732 bookseller Edward Cave first used the term ‘magazine’.  Arguably the ‘fashion magazine’ started in France under Louis XIV.  The Mercure Galant featured illustrated plates recording what was being worn by the aristocracy – a useful source of information for dressmakers outside the court.

  Female Spectator 2The  Female Spectator  - The first magazine written by and published for women by Eliza Haywood. It ran for two years from 1744 to 1746. P.P.5251.ga.             

These early publications didn’t have snappy one word names.  The Ladies magazine or Entertaining companion for the fair sex, for their use and entertainment regularly featured fashion pages and sometimes illustrations by William Blake.  The Ladies Monthly Magazine or Cabinet of Fashion offered tips on gowns, hairdressing and fur muffs!

During the Georgian era retail therapy accelerated and lavishly illustrated magazines targeted specifically at women began to be mass published.  Fashion plates were bigger with detailed descriptions.  Advertising revenue could fund higher quality reproduction and new styles of graphic illustrations.

The emergence of the department store provided a social space for women consumers.  Fashion spreads started to feature women involved in leisure pursuits.  Women were brought out of the private sphere of the home as wife or daughter; magazines and fashion provided escapism.  Yet editorials were still paternalistic often criticizing emerging modes of femininity.  A woman’s duty was still to dress for a man, and her role was to reflect the social standing of the family through her clothing, which was of course paid for by the man. 

Gallery of Fashion

Gallery of Fashion is one of the earliest UK fashion magazines, famous during the Regency period. It was published in monthly issues from 1794 to 1803.  C.106.k.16. View online

The Ladies World was edited by Oscar Wilde and in 1886 he changed the name to Women’s World.  He believed that the content should be educational and include more fiction.  Cheaper publications included little fashion, with poor woodcut graphics.  In 1891 a fashion periodical called Forget Me Not aimed at working class women hit the shelves.

Advances in technology, printing, and paper-making in the 20th century resulted in an explosion of magazine production.  Fashion plates moved from woodcuts, engraving and lithographs to photography.  Periods of significant social change brought a flood of magazines.  Women’s magazines reflect radical social change - the birth of teenager was a new market to be tapped.

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 Cover of American Vogue, September 1957. Proquest's  database 'The Vogue Archive' is available in all British Library reading rooms.

Many magazines are now closing as we see the rise of social media including blogging and vlogging.  But some fashion magazines seem sure survivors.  In 1916 an American fashion publication was imported into Britain for the first time.  Vogue is now the most frequently ordered magazine at the British Library!

Rachel Brett
Humanities Reference Specialist

 

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. …

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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

 

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

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 '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
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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 have now been 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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)