The Most Celebrated British Libraries

RepertoriumWilliam Clarke (about whom little, as they say, is known – at any rate to the web) followed the early nineteenth-century trend for snappy Latin titles with an explanatory English subtitle for those who had not had Latin beaten into them at school. Repertorium Bibliographicum, Or, Some Account of the Most Celebrated British Libraries (1819), is in the fine tradition of Bibliomania, Bibliophobia, Bibliopegia, Bibliotheca Spenceriana, Aedes Althorpianae, Typographia (twice), and indeed Salmonia.

Indeed, it is a moot point whether Clarke did in fact write this work: on the title page, his name is in the position of printer or publisher, not author. Some sly in-jokes in the opening pages indicate that ‘Clarke’ was acquainted with the activities of the Roxburghe Club: in any event, he was assiduous in his compilation of information on libraries, and (even more intriguingly) on book sales.

‘The object of the present volume’, he declares in his Advertisement, ‘is to assist, in some degree, the collector in his pursuit of valuable editions of rare books. The Compiler has endeavoured, in the selections from the various libraries, to exhibit the prominent features if each: our old establishments, abounding in biblical and classical literature, appear to be the models for several eminent private collections of the present day, some of which are so extensive as even to rival the ancient public foundations of the kingdom.’

Among the ‘public’ libraries of which the contents are described are the library of the British Museum, the Bodleian, Cambridge University Library, the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the libraries of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Institution, the Royal Society, the Hunterian Library in Glasgow, and the library of the Tower of London, which then contained Parliament Rolls, charters and papal bulls.

The Bodleian Library, the frontispiece of Clarke's book

The Bodleian Library, the frontispiece of Clarke’s book

The private libraries include those of Sir Joseph Banks, William Beckford, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and Earl Spencer.

Sir Joseph Banks' herbarium and library at Soho Square (Credit: The Natural History Museum, London

Sir Joseph Banks’ herbarium and library at Soho Square (Credit: The Natural History Museum, London)

But the book sales are the fascinating part (to me at any rate). There are relatively familiar names: Askew, Brand, our friend Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Farmer, Gough (but only the books not bequeathed to the Bodleian), Porson, Ritson, Roxburghe. But how about the Hon. Topham Beauclerk, friend of Johnson and Reynolds and avid collector, who allegedly was so unclean in his personal habits that he infected a distinguished gathering at Blenheim Palace with lice? The 1781 sale of his books on ‘classics, poetry, the drama, books of prints, voyages and travels, history’, took fifty days.

The sale of the duke of Bridgewater’s (not the earl’s!) duplicates took two days on 1802, and the duke of Devonshire’s duplicates of ‘books in the infancy of printing, biblical and classical’ five days in 1815. The collection of the Rev. Thomas Crofts (a connection of Earl Fitzwilliam) took 43 days in 1783, and raised £3453.15s. for 8360 items, ‘including book-cases’.

The Rev. Thomas Crofts

The Rev. Thomas Crofts

Sir William Hamilton and ‘lord Viscount Nelson’ (both then dead for some years) are coupled together in a three-day sale of ‘antiquities, prints and drawings’ in 1809, and the library of Joseph Smith, ‘His Britannick Majesty’s Consul at Venice’, the famous patron and collector who arranged the acquisition of Canaletto’s vedute now in the Royal Collection, was sold over fourteen days in 1773. The books of Smith’s successor as consul, the natural scientist and friend of Sir Joseph Banks John Strange, also appear: a 56-day sale of ‘classics, Italian books, natural history, voyages, travels etc.’ took place in 1801.

Some foreigners feature: a Signor Bonelli (Greek and Roman classics, antiquities) in 1813; Count Borromeo, of Padua (Italian novels of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) in 1817; Maffei Pinelli, from a Venetian publishing dynasty, two sales in 1789 and 1790.

The founder of the Pinelli dynasty, from Clarke's book

The founder of the Pinelli dynasty, from Clarke’s book

There is also le Prince de Talleyrand’s ‘splendid Library consigned from the Continent’ in 1816, but no obvious French émigrés – though lots of Huguenots! And there are two women: Mrs Brassey of Lower Seymour Street, whose ‘Golden Legend by Caxton’ was sold on 23 December 1814; and the miscellaneous collection of a Mrs Graves of Landsdown Crescent, Bath, went under the hammer in that city in 1809.

All this information (and much more, including a last-minute note that Burckhardt’s manuscripts had been deposited ‘in the Public Library in Cambridge’) can be found in just the first twenty pages of this 600-page book: it is a huge resource for serious research or for serial dipping into. Among the books of the well-known editor and bibliographer George Steevens, for example, was Richard Brathwayte’s 1621 Nature’s Embassie, or the Wilde Man’s Measures, Danced Naked by Twelve Satyres. It was purchased for £1. 3s. – I wonder where it ended up.


This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Biography, Classics, Education, English Men of Letters, Fiction and poetry, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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