THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

58 posts categorized "Rare books"

18 June 2019

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library III – The Collection of Lucien Graux

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There is a book-stamp on the front pastedown of Davis 692, Johann Carion, Chronica Carionis…Auffs neuve in Lateinischer Sprach beschrieben, und…vermehret…durch Herrn Philippum Melanthonem, und Doctorem Casparum Peucerum, Wittenberg: H. Krafft, 1573.  This indicates that the volume was formerly in the collection of Lucien Désiré Prosper Graux (1878-1944).  Graux’s name appears on a report listing French Private Collections compiled in 1943 by the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), as part of their identification of cultural property at risk on the European continent.

  Record of American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical MonumentsRecords of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), 1943-1946, National Archives, College Park, Maryland, M1944, Record Group 239, Roll 0021

Dubbed the ‘Prince of Bibliophiles,’ and collecting over two decades, Graux amassed one of the largest and most spectacular private collections of books and manuscripts in the first half of the twentieth century in France.  Consisting of over 10,000 volumes, the collection excelled in  French, German and Italian literature, fine-bindings, historical and literary manuscripts, music, and illustrated books, amongst others.  Housed in his mansion at 33 Avenue Kleber in Paris, books were not the only pursuits for which Graux was noteworthy: as a doctor, entrepreneur, writer and publisher, Graux crossed disciplinary boundaries, and contributed widely to medical, social, political and literary fields.
 

Ex-libris of Doctor Lucien-Graux on the front pastedown of Davis 692Detail, Ex-libris of Doctor Lucien-Graux on the front pastedown of Davis 692

Graux received his early training in medicine, finding success in his position as editor of the Gazette Médicale de Paris, and shortly thereafter wealth in filing a patent for the drug Urodonal.  At the end of the First World War, Graux turned his attention toward the founding of Arys, a perfume company.  He became an advisor to a number of French ministries during the 1920s, including the foreign trade, for which he oversaw a number of diplomatic missions.  His work for the French state ultimately earned him the title, Knight of the Legion of Honour.  Another venture, Graux’s publishing house Les Amis du docteur, published bibliophilic booklets, original engravings, and his own historical and biographical essays, fantastical novels, and topics including, medicine, science, and the occult, further reflecting his vast, varied and interdisciplinary interests.

With his interests in the occult and supernatural, some have referred to him as a spiritualist.  But his response to the depredation of man during the Second World War might characterize him as a humanist.  In June 1940, shortly after the German occupation of France, Graux joined the resistance.  Discovered and arrested by the Gestapo in the spring of 1944, he was deported to the Dachau concentration camp in June, where he was murdered on 10 October 1944.

Despite the wide-scale confiscation and looting of property throughout France under the Nazi occupation, and the Roberts Commission’s identification of Graux’s collection being at risk, Graux’s collection remained intact.  Retained by his widow, Mme Lucien Graux (née Léontine de Flavigny), Graux’s library was sold through the Galerie Charpentier at Hotel Drouot Auction house, Paris, in nine sales between 1953 and 1957.

Davis 692 is presumed to have been purchased from the sale on 26 January 1957 by antiquarian book-seller Bernard Breslauer, from whom it was purchased by Henry Davis on 6 August 1959.  In addition to Davis 692, many works under Graux’s authorship can be found in the British Library Catalogue.

Antonia Bartoli
Spoliation Curator, British Library Printed Heritage Projects

Further information:
The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries public lecture given by Antonia Bartoli.
Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research I - The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries
Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library II - the Collection of Jean Furstenberg 

 

04 June 2019

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library II - the Collection of Jean Furstenberg

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Included in the Henry Davis Gift at the British Library is Davis 874: Ordinarium missae pontificalis, Venice, 1595, MS with a named scribe: Fr. Cyprianus Mantegarrius.  This manuscript is recorded in Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre 1939-1945, an inventory compiled and published between 1947 and 1949 documenting the loss of French collections during the Second World War.  Described as ‘Ordinarium — Мissæ pontificales. Venise, ms. italien de 1595 copié par Fr. Cyprianus Montegarius (no. 396 32.069)’, the manuscript is listed as missing from the collection of Мonsieur Jean Furstenberg.

Page from Répertoire des biens spoliésRépertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre 1939-1945, tome VII Archives, Manuscript et livres rares, no 396 32.069 British Library General Reference Collection S.F.925  Noc

Jean, formerly Hans, Furstenberg (1890-1982) was a prominent German-French banker and book collector, with a vast collection excelling in French and Italian editions dating between the 16th and 19th centuries.  In 1938, as a Jew living in Nazi Germany, Furstenberg was forced to flee his home in Berlin.  By paying a punitive Reichsfluchtsteuer (flight tax), he was able to salvage his collection and transport his library with 16,000 volumes.  Settling in France, he took French citizenship, changed his name from Hans to Jean, and moved to the Renaissance castle Beaumesnil in Normandy.  However, in 1940, following the German occupation of France, Furstenberg was persecuted by the Gestapo, and fled to Switzerland.  Shortly afterwards his collection was confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a Nazi looting task force, and brought back to Germany.  There it was transferred to the Zentral Bibliothek der Hoch Schule, the central library of a projected elite academy of the Nazi party.

Scratched out ex-libris of Monsieur Jean Furstenberg on the front pastedown of Davis 874 Detail, Scratched out ex-libris of Monsieur Jean Furstenberg on the front pastedown of Davis 874 Noc

Towards the end of the war, as the Third Reich’s loss became apparent, Nazi forces transferred their holdings of confiscated cultural property to depots throughout Germany and Austria.  Following liberation by allied forces, many items from Furstenberg’s collection were recovered at two castles in Annenheim and Tanzenberg, Germany.  Davis 874 was one of the items recovered postwar by Furstenberg.  It was offered for sale in London in 1958 by antiquarian bookseller Bernard Breslauer, the son of the German antiquarian bookseller Martin Breslauer and another German-Jewish émigré, who fled as a result of Nazi persecution.

Martin’s bookshop in Germany had been in Unter den Linden and subsequently in the Franzosenstrasse, areas very close to the young Fürstenberg’s family’s business.  The catalogue advertising Davis 874 was issued to mark the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the firm Martin Breslauer.  In a preface by Bernard Breslauer called ‘1898-1958,’ he discusses the life and career of Martin Breslauer, and mentions Hans Furstenberg amongst his father’s friends.  Bernard describes how the young Furstenberg made the acquaintance of his father, and how this developed into a genuine friendship.  Martin had evidently helped the young Furstenberg to form his bibliophilic tastes.

Antonia Bartoli
Spoliation Curator, British Library Printed Heritage Projects

Further information:
The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries public lecture given by Antonia Bartoli.

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research I - The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library III – The Collection of Lucien Graux

 

21 May 2019

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research I - The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries

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Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime was responsible for the confiscation, destruction, looting, and coerced sale of hundreds of millions of art objects and other items of cultural, historical and religious significance from public and private collections throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  While stories of paintings and art collections have received academic, institutional and public attention, the history of the Nazi looting of books, manuscripts, and other printed material, from public and private collections, is lesser known.

The exact numbers accounting for total loss and destruction can only be estimated, due to the widespread nature, and sheer volume of the plunder and destruction.  Recent studies, however, have indicated that 22 million volumes from 37,000 libraries, not including private libraries, were affected.  While many volumes were either burned, or sent to paper mills and re-purposed, others were retained for study, or sold to profit the Third Reich.  Likewise, numerous private collectors as well as book-dealers and antiquarian businesses were forced to liquidate their collections and either abandon their stock or sell them for below market value.

An American soldier amongst cultural property looted by the Nazis and stored in a church at Elligen, Germany in 1945. An American soldier amongst cultural property looted by the Nazis and stored in a church at Elligen, Germany in 1945.
Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

At the end of the war, the western allies came across numerous repositories throughout Germany, and recently liberated territories within Europe, filled with the cultural property the Nazis had systematically plundered.  Specialist units of the armed forces were tasked with sorting and classifying the material, and where original owners could be identified, restituting the items, or returning them to their country of origin.  The post-war restitution and repatriations were not always comprehensive, however, nor were original owners able to be identified.  Likewise items that were sold on the market or changed hands between 1933 and 1945 have continued to circulate, ending up in public or private collections, or on the market, necessitating further research.

In 1998, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art developed a consensus of non-binding principles to which forty nations signed on in a pledge to research Nazi confiscated cultural property, and achieve just and fair solutions for object restitutions.  With the UK as a signatory, and as a national institution, the British Library take its duties seriously to identify collection items that might have been confiscated, lost, sold under duress, or otherwise displaced, between the period 1933-1945.

Most recently, investigations have focused on the Henry Davis Collection of Bookbindings: an encyclopaedic collection of cloth, panel, painted, paper, embroidered, and leather-bound bindings spanning from the 12th through 20th century, made across the globe, and acquired from dealers and at auction between the 1930s and 1970s.  Gifted by Henry Davis, O.B.E, (1897-1977) to the British Museum in 1968, the collection came to the British Library in 1972.

The present blog post is the first in a series of five to highlight these investigations, share our most recent findings, and to illustrate provenance research methodology that is conducted on a daily basis within the library.

Antonia Bartoli
Spoliation Curator, British Library Printed Heritage Projects

Further information:
The Nazi Destruction and Looting of Libraries public lecture given by Antonia Bartoli.

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library II - the Collection of Jean Furstenberg

Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library III – The Collection of Lucien Graux

 

02 May 2019

Sloane’s annotations

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We’ve all had the experience: you request a library book and open it up excitedly…  only to find the signs of someone else’s reading, note-taking or even eating. They got there first, and they’ve left their mark all over it. Looking at the section on notetakers in the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition led me to think more closely about some of the different ways annotations and notetaking worked in an earlier library collection, that of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

The first type of annotation is that which uses the book as paper, without interacting with the text – although it is interesting to think about the way this changes the reading experience. Sloane’s title-page of Sir Robert Dallington’s The View of Fraunce, for example, shows two boys vying for ownership and testing out pens:

Title page of Sir Robert Dallington’s The View of Fraunce,596.f.28 Sir Robert Dallington, The View of Fraunce Noc

Most books which contain this sort of annotation probably ended up in Sloane’s collection as the result of the secondhand book market: these copies may have been the only ones available… or the cheapest! Either way, although other people’s scrawlings clearly didn’t bother him, we assume things like this probably didn’t hold much interest for him either.

However, there is evidence that Sloane was sometimes interested in annotations as much as the printed text which they commented upon. For example, he owned at least eight copies of John Ray’s Catalogus plantarum, all of which are annotated by different people. This often gives local information: people wrote down where they came across the plants, so when the book came into Sloane’s possession, he had that knowledge too.

Manuscript note in John Ray’s Catalogus plantarum968.f.3 Manuscript note reading ‘at the Haven side at Boston Lincolnshore by St Anton Irby’s House in Dolwich-Common not far from the Windmil on the left hand of it a little short of the Tyle-kill as you goe from the Town to the Wood that leads unto the Wells. plentifully.’ Noc

However, when it comes to Sloane’s own writing in books, we see something very different. This is the third type of annotation: administrative. And it challenges many of the assumptions we might make about what it means to write in books.

This sort of writing is usually about organization and ownership. Sloane had a particularly complicated system: his earliest purchases contain spy-like codes which, decoded, reveal the year of purchase and the price. He was probably recording how much he paid in case he ever had to sell these books, as the practice seems to falter as he gains financial security. Some books also have a Latin inscription, Bibliothecae Sloanianae, meaning “from Sloane’s library” – these books are usually particularly attractive or otherwise important, which makes sense as the ones you’d most like to claim!

 
Title page of Icones stirpium, seu Plantarum tam exoticarum quam indigenarum 443.a.5. Icones stirpium, seu Plantarum tam exoticarum quam indigenarum Noc

The main identification for us, however, is the Sloane numbers – a letter followed by a number usually written on the flyleaf of the book. The one here is ‘Pr DXLV’. These were a form of shelfmark, just like the ones used by the British Library today.

These codes were recorded in the catalogues compiled by Sloane and his librarians and help nuance the idea of writing as an administrative tool. It is tempting to think of marking books as something personal. When you write your name in a book it is usually to tell people you own it. It would defeat the purpose if someone else was to do that job – unless, of course, they were giving it to you! (This is sometimes the case for Sloane’s books, too.)

Here, though, it doesn’t matter who is writing the codes: they are not a mark of personal expression. Instead, this is writing with a purpose, very different to the scribbled reactions of individual readers. It shows how broad the idea of annotating can be.

Alice Wickenden
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student, Printed Heritage Collections

 

25 April 2019

Crusoe embossed

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Robinson Crusoe was published 300 years ago on 25 April 1719.  Daniel Defoe’s account of a shipwrecked English sailor cast away on an uninhabited tropical island for 28 years has universal appeal because it is so believable.  Defoe effectively put into print the archetypal shipwreck yarn spun by many an old mariner.  It capitalised on the popularity of travel books and many readers did not realise it was fiction. 

Part of the enduring success of Robinson Crusoe is the impact it makes on a reader’s imagination - the mind is stirred by adventure in exotic far-off places.  Illustrations have played an important role in the presentation and reception of Crusoe, whether cheap quickly executed woodcuts in chapbooks and penny novels, or coloured plates in fine bindings.  The primary topic has been the portraiture of Crusoe – John Pine’s frontispiece for the first edition sets a consistent tone.  Crusoe, the resourceful, stands with his guns looking determinedly at the prospect of surviving alone on the island, the lost ship in the background.  Supporting illustrations frequently emphasise pivotal points in the story such as the shipwreck, the discovery of the footprint and Friday’s rescue.

Portraits of Robinson CrusoePortraits of Robinson Crusoe. John Pine’s first edition frontispiece (C.30.f.6) is top left.  Later woodcuts from a variety of chapbooks can be seen to retain the composition. Noc

Portrait of Robinson Crusoe by Jules Fesquet and LegeniselThere have also been some quite ‘unique’ portraits like this fantastic effort by Jules Fesquet and Legenisel from 1877. Noc

The proliferation of editions in the 19th century saw illustrations dominated by traditional images that are typical of colonialist assumptions and the flawed belief in white Europeans’ superiority over people and places of the wider world.  Traditional style editions routinely show Friday prostrate before his saviour, Crusoe.  In a show of submission and gratitude, Defoe tells us that Friday put Crusoe’s foot upon his head.
 

Book binding showing Friday at the feet of  Robinson CrusoeWard & Lock’s publishers’ binding (circa 1879) consciously or unconsciously amplifies the depressing fact that the first word Crusoe taught Friday was, “Master”. Noc

Depiction of Friday’s rescue A perfect exemplar of the colonial-style depiction of Friday’s rescue can be seen in a Maori Language edition from 1852 (freely available via Explore the British Library) – the Preface by the ‘Native Secretary’s Office’ is very revealing. Noc

Artistic capabilities are often stultified by prevalent tastes and looking at the same type of images in edition after edition of Crusoe can be tiring.  Change came with the work of artists like JB Yeats and further possibilities were pursued in the early 20th century with Expressionist art like the work of Walther Klemm.

 J B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprintJ B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprint (and looking all Kirk Douglas!) Noc


Lithograph of running figures by Walther KlemmLithograph by Walther Klemm in Das Leben und die ganz ungemeinen Begebenheiten des weltberühmten Engelländers Robinson Crusoe Leipzig, Verleg tbei Friedrich Dehne, 1919. (recent acquisition – awaiting shelfmark). Noc

Of course, it is all too easy for most readers to take for granted the added value and meaning to be gained from illustrations.  J R Biggs, whose wonderful wood-engravings decorate the Penguin Illustrated Classics edition of 1937, remarked that 'books without illustrations make the greatest force in the world: books with illustrations the greatest delight'.

But even though Crusoe is a particularly visual work, how might the visually impaired and blind experience such a novel?  Amongst the 600 or so printed editions of Crusoe held in the British Library, one of the most impressive items is a truly sensual edition: ‘visual’ and striking by both sight and by touch.

In the 1860s, the American Printing House for the Blind produced editions of books printed, or rather, embossed, with raised Roman Type letters.

Embossed edition of Robinson Crusoe

Embossed edition of Robinson CrusoeRobinson Crusoe. Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind (1873) Revolutionary for the blind.  But also aesthetically pleasing for people fortunate to be able to see the embossed type. Noc

The expansion of cheap print for mass readerships made great use of illustrations and it assisted rising levels of literacy.  The embossed type really adds a further dimension to the visual impression made by ‘printed’ words.  The invention of printing for the blind marked a new era in the history of literature.  It made the novel personally discoverable to readers unable to see traditional ink printed texts.  It is testament to the success and universal appeal of Crusoe that it was one of the very first texts selected to be printed by the APHB enabling the shipwrecked sailor’s adventure to become embossed on even more readers’ minds.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
David Blewett, The illustration of Robinson Crusoe, 1719-1920 (1995)
Lists of books published by the American Printing House for the Blind and by other American firms [1896]
Edmund C, Johnson, Tangible Typography, or how the Blind read (1853)

Visit our free display about Robinson Crusoe in the British Library Treasures Gallery - available until June 2019.

 

12 March 2019

Felix Slade and his bindings bequest

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Felix Slade (1788-1868) was a lawyer, philanthropist and collector.  Born in Lambeth, he was the youngest of four sons and yet inherited his father’s estate.  He never married, instead devoting himself to the law and to collecting antiquities, fine bindings, glass and prints.  He supported many societies and funds, such as the Nightly Shelter for the Houseless, and lent items from his collection to public exhibitions including the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition.  He belonged to the Society of Antiquaries and is widely remembered today for endowing three Slade Professorships of Fine Art at Oxford University, Cambridge University and University College London.  At the British Library, we remember Slade for his bequest of fine bindings to the British Museum (subsequently transferred to the British Library in 1973).

A drawing of Felix Slade by Margaret CarpenterA drawing of Slade by Margaret Carpenter now in the British Museum 1874,0314.1

The bequest consists of twenty-five fine bindings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  It contains examples of work by notable binders and includes various styles with English, French and Italian bindings well represented.  It also contains books bound for royalty, including King Charles I, Emperor Maximilian II and Henry III of France.  Here is a small selection of bindings from the bequest:
 

 Binding covering a copy of La Cyropedie (Paris, 1547)

This binding covers a copy of La Cyropedie (Paris, 1547).  It belonged to the royal library of King Edward VI of England (1547-1553), son of Henry VIII.  The leather is 16th-century English calf, tooled in gold and painted, with Edward’s arms on each cover. A similar binding is described here, and attributed to the King Edward and Queen Mary Royal Binder.

18th-century mosaic binding by Jean Charles Henri Le Monnier

An 18th-century mosaic binding by Jean Charles Henri Le Monnier, from a well-known dynasty of Parisian bookbinders.  He signed his bindings by gold tooling his name in tiny lettering on each cover.
 

Binding from the library of Apollonio Filareto

This is a rare survival from the library of Apollonio Filareto (fl. 1537-1547) Private Secretary to the Farnese family in Renaissance Italy.  The bindings on his books bear an impresa, or personal device, of an eagle soaring above a sea containing shoals of fish.  This also has “APLLONII PHILARETI” tooled in gold on the lower cover.  Filareto’s books all have fine 16th-century Italian medallion bindings.  The only comparable bindings from this period are those bearing an Apollo and Pegasus device made for Giovanni Battista Grimaldi (c.1524-1612), a Genoese banker and book collector who operated in the same social circles as Filareto.

 18th-century gold tooled goatskin binding by Antoine Michel Padeloup le Jeune
An 18th-century gold tooled goatskin binding by Antoine Michel Padeloup le Jeune for Marie Louise Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre (1753-1821), whose arms are stamped in gold on the inside of the covers.  Padeloup was appointed royal bookbinder to King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour in 1733.

Maddy Smith
Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
British Museum Library’s Donations Register 1866-1871 pp. 178-9.
To see more bindings bequeathed by Slade go to the Library’s online database of bookbindings and type “Felix Slade” into the Quick Search box.

 

28 February 2019

‘Smutty stuff’ for ‘debauched readers’: The Merryland books in the Private Case

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The Private Case is an historic collection of erotica that was segregated from the main British (Museum) Library collection on grounds of obscenity from the 1850s onwards in a moral climate of suppression and censorship.  Newly acquired erotica was restricted and ‘obscene’ books already in the Library’s collections were transferred into the Private Case.  These included a small but distinct sub-genre of Georgian erotica known as the Merryland books, in which the female body is described as a country to be explored, tilled and ploughed by men.  One particular tract volume (P.C.20.b.7) has copies of the key works in this sub-genre: A New Description of Merryland (1741), The Potent Ally or Succours from Merryland (1741) and Merryland Displayed: or, Plagiarism, Ignorance and Impudence, Detected (1741).

Title page of A New Description of Merryland A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), title page

These works are full of sexual double-entendres and terrible puns intended to be as humorous that make you want to put your head in your hands.  A New Description of Merryland originally belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753); it was part of the Library’s main collection for a century before the Victorians deemed it obscene enough for transfer into the Private Case. 

 
Frontispiece of A New Description of MerrylandA New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), frontispiece


The inspiration behind Merryland was an earlier work entitled Erotopolis: The Present State of Betty-land (1684) by Charles Cotton, an English poet and writer. It satirised the New World promotional tracts flying around in the 17th century, transforming their messages about land ownership into sexualised puns.  The female body became fallow land subject to ‘manuring’ and ‘tilling’ with a phallic ‘plow’.  There are two copies of Betty-Land in the Private Case (P.C.30.b.41 and P.C.27.b.37).  In both, particularly suggestive passages have been underlined, including ‘the more will the soyl cleave and gape for moisture’, ‘rank and very hot’ and ‘the whole country of Betty-land shews you a very fair prospect, which is yet the more delightful the more naked it lies’.  Saucy, indeed.

The bookseller and publisher behind Merryland was Edmund Curll (c.1675-1747).  He was notorious for selling pirated editions, inaccurate celebrity biographies, pornography and patent medicine (he sold mercury as a cure for syphilis).  Curll made his living from selling this cheaply printed material that was affordable for the masses.  He was evidently successful;  the Merryland books, all with a false ‘Paris’ or ‘Bath’ imprint, went through several editions.  The introduction to Merryland Displayed gives us further insight into their popularity.  They were apparently ‘a master-piece of wit and humour’ and in such high demand that ‘in about three months [they] went thro’ seven editions, besides some thousands of pirated copies that were sold in town and country’.  It even encouraged other booksellers to dredge up similar ‘smutty stuff’ from their stocks to ‘scratch the callous appetites of their debauched readers’. 

The Merryland books demonstrate how attitudes towards sexuality, censorship and obscenity have changed over time, and how books have moved in and out of the Private Case as a result.  All of this, and more, can be explored by researchers in our Rare Books & Music Reading Room or online.  We have digitised the 2,500 volumes that comprise the Private Case, and they are being made available online by publisher Gale as part of their Archives of Sexuality and Gender academic research resource.  The resource is available by subscription to libraries and higher education institutions, and is available for free via the British Library’s reading rooms in London and Yorkshire.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

19 February 2019

The Dawes Bequest of erotica: so sensitive, it had to be smuggled in at dawn

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The Private Case is the British Library’s historic collection of erotica.  Comprising ‘obscene’ books that were historically set aside from the main collection, its contents tell us much about past attitudes towards sex and sexuality.  This is the main reason why the British Library has just completed a project to digitise the entire collection.  Within the Private Case we can see the hands of several private collectors at work, among them Charles Reginald Dawes.  But who was Mr Dawes?

C. R. Dawes’s own bookplate and the Dawes Bequest label added by the British Museum C. R. Dawes’s own bookplate and the Dawes Bequest label added by the British Museum (shelfmark: P.C.13.a.24)

Bibliographers of erotica have struggled to establish the facts about Mr Dawes.  The son of an iron broker born in Worcestershire in 1879, Dawes spent most of his adult life living initially in central London and later in the Gloucestershire village of Gotherington.  The Dawes family were independently wealthy, but in the 1911 census Charles lists himself as ‘author’.  This is curious as his name is associated with just two publications.  Patrick J. Kearney raises the possibility that he may in fact have made a living from writing erotic stories under a nom de plume.

Dawes had a reputation as a discerning book collector.  At his death in 1964, his library of erotica was left to the British Museum library (now the British Library).  Peter Fryer tells us that the bequest was collected overnight and ‘carried reverently’ into the museum at six o’clock one summer morning’.  246 of these works can today be found in the Private Case.  This was not the entirety of his erotica: Dawes also left 100 ‘books of his choice’ to his personal secretary, Antony John Gordon-Hill, who sold some privately and others at Sotheby’s on 12 April 1965.  Further manuscript volumes are now lost.

The Dawes volumes in the Private Case are all in either English or French.  Many are illustrated with erotic plates, some of which have been added post-publication (as with the Livre d’Amour des Anciens, 1912). Highlights include:
• four editions of John Cleland’s mid-18th century work Fanny Hill, considered the first pornographic novel in English;
• the first edition of the Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899), recounting the erotic adventures of a fictional Quaker woman in the American South;
• five editions of works by the Marquis de Sade (unsurprising given that the Marquis was the subject of Dawes’s own publication of 1927);
• and a 1906 edition of Teleny, one of the earliest published works of gay erotic fiction, often attributed to Oscar Wilde.

Titlepage of Dawes’s 1906 edition of TelenyTitlepage of Dawes’s 1906 edition of Teleny, one of the earliest published works of gay erotic fiction (shelfmark: P.C.13.g.32)

For many bibliographers, the most significant item is Dawes’s copy of My Secret Life.  This purports to record the sexual exploits of a Victorian gentleman called ‘Walter’, and is widely thought to be by another erotic bibliographer, Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900). This eleven-volume first edition, probably issued 1889–95, is thought to be just one of 25 copies produced.

Private Case items are listed in the library’s online catalogue Explore the British Library.  The Dawes Bequest is shelfmarked P.C.13.a.1 to P.C.13.h.19, and volumes can be consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.  The collaboration with Gale Cengage means that they can also be viewed online via the newly-released Archives of Sexuality and Gender: Part III.  This subscription resource is available at many larger research libraries and can be accessed for free in the reading rooms of the British Library.

Adrian Edwards
Head of Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Paul J. Cross, ‘The Private Case: a History’, in P.R. Harris (ed.), The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays (London: British Library, 1991), pp.201-40.
Peter Fryer, Private Case – Public Scandal (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Erotic Library of Charles Reginald  Dawes (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Scissors & Paste Bibliographies, 2016).
Patrick J. Kearney, The Private Case: an Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British (Museum) Library (London: Jay Landesman, 1981).