… as well as being the title of a book by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, is the term of art used for the particular phenomenon of the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century in which very rich men spent unfeasibly large sums of money on books which they had no interest in reading.
This is of course a crude and unfair definition, and a much better one can be found in the introductions to two of the books I am about to discuss. This set of five titles is unusual in that all the books are scribbled in, in the sort of deplorable way which the CLC technical team usually sighs deeply over, as they are the people who have to clean it up.
But for these books, it’s the scribble that is important. Pristine copies can be found in many libraries, but ones with the kind of detailed annotation we are lovingly reproducing are quite rare, and (we hope!) much sought after, even in facsimilised form, by modern-day bibliographers, librarians and book-lovers. And the technical team did not get off lightly after all, because quite a lot of work went into making the annotations more legible.
These books are all catalogues of book sales. In chronological order, they are: Bibliotheca Askeviana (1775–85); Bibliotheca Ratcliffiana (1776); Bibliotheca Farmeriana (1798); A Catalogue of the Library of the Late John, Duke of Roxburghe (1812); and White Knights Library (1819). The annotations were made by attendees at the sales who recorded the prices paid and in many cases the names of the purchasers, thus providing not only details of the sales value of even the most humble works, but also enabling the modern bibliographer to establish one further link in the chain of provenance.
Anthony Askew (1722–74) began to amass his library during his travels abroad. Born in Kendal and educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he continued medical training at Leiden, and then travelled across Europe as far as Constantinople, returning via Italy, and purchasing all the way. He practised as a physician in Cambridge and later at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. The sale of his books, in over 3,500 lots, took 20 days in February and March 1775.
The annotator has signed his name – John Martin, of Ham Court (near Upton-upon-Severn), Worcestershire – at the end, and done a rough addition sum: ‘De Bure £500, The King £800, Dr Hunter £508, Mr Mason £150, Mr Cracherode £150’. De Bure must have been a member of the famous French family of book collectors, perhaps acting as the agent of his king. ‘The King’ is George III; was ‘Dr Hunter’ the surgeon? (A large number of Askew’s non-classical books were on medical topics.) Mr Mason is perhaps George Mason, book collector (who lost all his money five years later because of his brother’s profligacy). Mr Cracherode must be Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, book and print collector, who left staggering numbers of books, prints, drawings, coins, shells, etc., valued at £25,000, to the British Museum at his death. The total value of the book sale was about £4,000, so these five buyers between them were responsible for just over half that amount. The (very crude) average price of each book was just over £1.
Askew’s manuscripts were sold ten years later, 633 lots over nine days in March 1785. The annotator here has given purchaser’s names as well as prices, and has also helpfully totted up the amount on each page, and carried it over to the next, so that the rolling total finishes at over £1,274. This gives a crude average of £2 per manuscript: thus they were apparently valued more highly than the books?
The next sale catalogue includes some items bought originally from Askew, but by a very different character. John Ratcliffe (1707–76) was born in Bermondsey, then a Thames-side suburb of London, and Dibdin claims that his love of books was engendered by studying the ‘waste’ manuscripts and printed sheets which his father bought to wrap the cheeses in his shop. His amazing collection perfectly illustrates the last days of a period of book collecting when scholars and commoners could hope to compete with wealthy noblemen. It contained over one hundred incunabula, including forty-eight Caxtons, and a fine selection of sixteenth-century English books, alongside contemporary literature and Presbyterian tracts.
Our 1776 auction catalogue, published by James Christie (the founder of the firm), again features handwritten annotations by an attendee who recorded the prices paid and most of the names of buyers of this ‘elegant and truly valuable library’. The sale (1675 lots, some of which contained up to 100 items) took place over nine days in May. Books and manuscripts were acquired by a circle of bibliophiles – including the king, who bought twenty of the Caxtons.
The range of the books is extraordinary: Swift’s Tale of a Tub (with cuts, i.e. illustrations), and two other books as makeweights, are catalogued next to Merry Jests, Concerning Popes, Monkes and Friers (and eight more books): each lot went for four shillings and sixpence. There are cookery books, Puritan tracts, the ‘horrible acte of Soltan Soliman’, Plutarch’s Moralia, ‘Bulwer’s artificial channeling, with his portrait’, etc., etc. Many of the buyers’ names – Mason, Dr Hunter, Thane (dealer in prints and manuscripts), George Nicol (bookseller to the king) – recur frequently, and again the manuscripts sell at a higher value than the books. Out of total receipts of about £800, the most expensive items were two fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts (£9 each) and ‘an Indian manuscript on paper, shewing how they keep their histories etc. in boards’, £10.
The literary scholar Richard Farmer (1735–97), student, fellow and eventually master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and University Librarian, acquired his library as a working reference collection – though a pretty spectacular one, as it included all four Shakespeare folios (!!) which, with other Elizabethan and Jacobean works, provided the source material for his scholarly work. Notable acquaintances, including Samuel Johnson, George Steevens, and Edmond Malone, all benefited from Farmer’s knowledge, and Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (coming soon!) drew directly on the library.
In May–June 1798, Farmer’s books and prints were sold at a thirty-six day auction of 8,166 lots, plus 68 lots of paintings and antiquities (including an alleged Van Dyck of Queen Henrietta Maria (13 shillings), and a Holbein portrait of Luther – again alleged – with two other pictures, for 11/6d). The total came to £2217.1.9d: the Shakespeare first folio made £7. One wonders if the fellows of Emmanuel were gnashing their teeth? (There is no sign that the college bid for anything.)
I’m not going to write about the Roxburghe and White Knights sales now, partly because I have mentioned them before, but more importantly because we hope that Ed Potten, Curator of Rare Books at the University Library, who has written introductions to both these reissues, will be guesting on the blog soon, and his expert knowledge of all aspects of ‘the bibliomania’ will put my hasty ramblings to shame. In the mean time, those wanting to contemplate the vanity of human wishes should look at page 175 of the Roxburghe catalogue and then at page 33 of the White Knights, and at the difference in the prices fetched by the legendary Valdarfer Decameron in 1812 and 1819.