450 years of book history on show

We were delighted this week to host a visit by students on the Institute of English Studies’ MA in the History of the Book course, in the suitably bookish surroundings of the Durning-Lawrence Library. A mouth-watering buffet of books was laid out on the table, ranging from the 1471 edition of the great compendium of medieval science De Proprietatibus Rerum (‘On the properties of things’) which William Caxton helped to print during his visit to Cologne – complete with elegant hand-coloured initials in blue and red – to 1930s drafts and redrafts of poems by Thomas Sturge Moore, showing the creative process from first trials to the printed page. Under the expert guidance of Professor Simon Eliot the lively discussion took in illustration, piracy and copyright, type, colour printing, the transition of play texts into print, three-decker novels, Dickens monthly parts, and much more besides.

 Students in the Durning-Lawrence Library

Chosen to illustrate the multi-volume novel, provincial and London publishing, and the imaginative presentation of text, our first edition of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (York and London, 1760-1767) was also relevant for Valentine’s Day … When in volume 6 the narrator tells of his Uncle Toby’s love for Widow Wadman the reader is presented with a blank page and invited to draw her beauty according to his own fancy: ‘call for pen and ink – here’s paper ready to your hand – Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you … Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet! – so exquisite!’

For the students able to examine, compare and make connections between items covering 450 years of book history the session was, in the words of their tutor, ‘invaluable’.

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