A Virginian visit: crossing an ocean and several centuries

On Thursday 26 September a group of seven students from the James Madison University in Virginia came with their teacher, book historian Mark Rankin, to view sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century books in the Senate House Library collections. The topic of the session was martyrology, and students pored enthusiastically over illustrations in two sixteenth-century editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. These included a set of twelve half-page woodcuts and a large folded leaf of plates depicting the gruesome tortures suffered by some of the martyrs, from the extraction of finger nails to the inevitable burning alive. The overtly Protestant nature of the illustrations was pointed out: for example, how in one instance a man’s dog was burned with him because he had held it up in mockery of the mass, and how the Pope was shown in a house window – with a woman. (Also displayed was John Bale’s Actes or Vnchaste Examples of the Englyshe Votaryes, condemning the allegedly intemperate activities of monks.)

Actes and Monuments

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Beyond martyrology, students saw examples of early printing. A copy of the encyclopaedia De Proprietatibus Rerum from approximately 1471 served multiple purposes: to show a book printed by William Caxton in Cologne before he commenced printing in England; to demonstrate the hybrid nature of early printing, with initials added in manuscript in red and blue; and to point out different perceptions of learning over time, with medicine here being viewed as belonging to the humanities. Shakespearean sources also featured, with two editions of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Attention focused on Macbeth, for which Holinshed provides the major source, and vocabulary was compared between Holinshed and the First Folio: were the three witches weird, as described by Holinshed, or were they wayward, the adjective used in the First Folio and then abandoned? The highlight for the students was indubitably the sight of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Troilus and Cressida received special mention, the reason being that the text is in the volume but not listed in the table of contents.

Shakespeare, First Folio

Shakespeare, Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (1623)

Early printed books can be exciting and mysterious. The students experienced this; and watching their journey of discovery, the message came across clearly to the facilitating staff too.


From the Reading Room.

Lily Ford, a PhD candidate at Birkbeck has visited the reading room a number of times over the past six months or so.  On each occasion she has been reading Airopaidia (Porteus Library 05 SR) by Thomas Baldwin. Luckily I caught her on her last visit and asked why she had been reading this text and how it was relevant to her wider research.

Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia contains the first British representations of a ‘real’ aerial view. The aerial view had long been imagined – there are ascension fantasies in Cicero, Lucian, and Dante among others, and ‘bird’s-eye views’ had been sketched from hills or steeples for centuries – but it was only with the invention of the hot air balloon that it could be experienced. Baldwin hired the entrepreneur Vincent Lunardi’s balloon and ascended over Chester in September 1785.  He found the change in the earth’s appearance when seen from above the clouds fascinating. He had two drawings engraved and reproduced in colour in the book, and he included quite specific instructions about how to look at them, in order to recreate the sensations of wonder and delight that the views had provoked in him.

Porteous Lib 05 SR p58-5773

Baldwin’s instructions for viewing are as follows:

‘A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation.  The Spectator is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View: looking down on the Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds and seeing the City of Chester, as it appeared throu’ the Opening: which discovers the Landscape below, limited, by surrounding Vapour, to something less than two Miles in Diameter.  The Breadth of the blue Margin defines the apparent Height of the Spectator in the Balloon (viz. 4 Miles) above the Floor of Clouds, as he hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round into the azure sky.’ (p. IIII)

Baldwin’s sense of wonder is captured well by his purple prose:

‘…what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty!  A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture: to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminished almost beyond the bounds of credibility.’ (p.37)

Reading Baldwin’s exhilarated account of his flight, and looking at these images, got me thinking about how the aerial view changes our understanding of the world. My PhD thesis considers the cultural impact of flight and representations of the aerial view. It is focused on the 1920s when aeroplanes and aerial photography, invigorated after the rapid technological development of the First World War, became integrated into a more general ‘airmindedness’. But it all begins with Airopaidia.

Porteous Lib 05 SR p154-5771

Baldwin writes:

‘A Balloon-Prospect from above the Clouds, or Chromatic View of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aerial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu’ the Air.’ (p. IIII)

As I understand it, Baldwin paid for the book’s publication and distribution himself, and it does not seem to have made any impact on critics at the time. Senate House’s copy, while not unique (there are 20 copies in UK academic libraries) is inscribed ‘From the author’. It gives me the sense of a more direct link to this fascinating narrative, and I feel very glad to be consulting it 227 years on.

Annual events

The week 6-14 July 2013 witnessed the fifth International T.S. Eliot summer school at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. As for previous summer schools, Dr Wim van Mierlo of the Institute of English Studies curated a small display of works by Eliot, based on holdings in the special collections of Senate House Library. In addition to books and booklets ranging from essays of criticism to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the display included two typescript letters from Eliot to his fellow poet Thomas Sturge Moore, 16-28 March 1928, held in the Sturge Moore archive (MS978): one rejecting Sturge Moore’s Psyche in Hades for Faber but asking permission to send it to Leonard Woolf for the Hogarth Press, the second hoping that wanting Sturge Moore might contribute a preface to translations of Valéry by the poet Thomas McGreevy (1893-1967).

The T.S. Eliot summer school followed immediately upon the London Rare Books School, to which Senate House Library provided books from the special collections to seven separate courses, ranging from “The Mediaeval Book” to “Modern First Editions” via bibliography and bookbindings among others. Students pored over items as diverse as a twelfth-century manuscript of Bede, the 1674 catalogue of the Bodleian Library, a 1779 edition of Boccaccio illustrated by Gravelot, and the Kelmscott Chaucer. Of primary interest was the book as artefact. Some quite ordinary books gained significance for their presence in different kinds of libraries, for their bindings, or for the demonstrable engagement of a reader with the text, as shown by the Baconian R.M. Theobald’s annotations on his copy of Edwin Reed’s Bacon vs Shakspere (1899; classmark B.S. 822).

This year library staff participated in teaching, with Dr Karen Attar convening a new course on the history of libraries from the Middle Ages to the present.

LRBS class, July 2013

LRBS class, July 2013

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring Greek flora

When John Sibthorp, Professor of Botany at Oxford, went to Greece in 1786 (and again 1794-5) his object was twofold: to study the flora of Greece, and to try to identify definitely all the seven hundred plants described in Dioscorides’s first-century Materia Medica, the primary work on herbal medicine from the ancient world. Only twenty-five copies of the first edition of Sibthorp’s posthumous Flora Graeca were ever printed; and so expensive was the sumptuous ten-volume folio work with its 966 coloured plates, one opposite each page of text, that even John Lindley, Assistant Secretary of Horticultural Society and the book’s final editor, could not afford a copy, but had to make do with the letterpress of those parts of the text with which he had been involved. The book cemented the reputation of its Austrian botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer, with Joseph Hooker calling Flora Graeca “the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared” (On the Flora of Australia, London, 1859).

Flora Graeca, vol. 1HFlora Graeca, vol. 1, p. 28

How the London Institution acquired its copy of Flora Graeca we do not know, as the work postdates the Institution’s printed catalogue of 1835. What we do know is that the University of London Library thought when it acquired the book that it was getting one of these twenty-five copies, a reasonable assumption on the basis of the title pages. In fact, the bookseller Henry G. Bohn purchased the copperplates and unsold sheets in 1845 and produced a reprint of forty copies, differing somewhat in the colouring of the plates (commercially prepared pigments having become available), but only reliably distinguished from the original by the watermarks. It is the reprint which is held at Senate House.


Flora Graeca, vol. 5

Flora Graeca, vol. 5

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring the Ten Commandments

Leaf 36r

Leaf 36r

Printed editions of a substantial French work called La fleur des commandemens de dieu are recorded from the 1490s until at least the 1540s. Wynkyn de Worde first printed an English translation on 14 September 1510. The Senate House Library copy is of the second edition, completed on 8 October 1521. This is the first edition to identify the translator, one Andrew Chertsey, who lived in the London parish of St Clement Dane and produced four other translations of French devotional works for de Worde’s press: Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1502 and 1506); The Crafte to Lyue Well and to Dye Well (1505); The Passyon of our Lorde (1521) and a shorter work (“lytell treatyse”), the Elucidarius (1507 and ?1523).

            The work is in two parts, the first listing and analyzing the Ten Commandments, the second offering short exempla about the results of following or neglecting them. For example, a monk who, fond of sleep, was sleeping in the choir at lauds dreamed that he saw a terrible devil who offered him a spoonful of molten pitch; withdrawing his head suddenly, he banged and hurt it (fol. clviii). A woman was condemned to torture after death which included suffering a toad on her breast which spewed fire in her face, because in life she had exposed her neck and breasts and had worn make-up (fol. clxxxxvii). Rather less unpleasant than reading the text is looking at the woodcut initials, an intriguing mixture of styles: some are like the plainest of initials used in manuscripts, while others are surrounded by flowers in shaded borders, and others, such as the “I” of the commonly used phrase “It is wryten”, have a bird perched on the bottom horizontal stroke of the letter, twisting its head in the direction of the text. The initials provide a closer clue than the text to the reason for acquiring the volume: at the time of acquisition in 1951, the Library held no works by any of the triumvirate of early English printers – William Caxton, Richard Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde – and was eager to acquire one.

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring French didacticism



In 1689 Fénelon was appointed tutor to the bright but ‘terrible’ young Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of Louis XIV. It is for him that Fénelon composed Les Aventures de Télémaque, Fils d’Ulysse around 1694. The tale narrates the moral and political education of a young prince destined to rule. Influenced by the great classical writers, Télémaque fills the gap between Odyssey IV and XV by imagining the adventures of Telemachus and his tutor Mentor (actually the goddess Minerva in disguise). Télémaque was both pedagogical novel and political treatise. It theorised a ‘republican’ monarchy based on simplicity, moderation, pacifism, and wisdom.

Although enjoyed by his grandson, Télémaque did not amuse the Sun King, who read it as a satire on his bellicosity and luxuriousness. The first printed edition, produced in Paris in 1699, was halted by ‘ordre superieur’ before the completion of the fifth book. Having already attracted Louis’s displeasure through his controversial espousal of a ‘disinterested love of God’, Fénelon was stripped of his tutorship and never set foot in Paris again. Louis’s grandson died in 1712, and with him Fénelon’s dream of an enlightened ruler.

Télémaque was spectacularly successful. At least two hundred editions were printed prior to the French Revolution, and it was translated into no fewer than forty languages. Most of Senate House Library’s copies are in the original French, several of them duodecimo editions from the Crofton Collection of little books, with a couple of English translations. This 1717 Italian edition is based on the 1701 French edition of Adriaen Moetjens. The Senate House Library copy is the only recorded copy in any English-speaking country. It formerly belonged to Frederick Stroud Read, first Warden of the University of London Union and an avid book collector.

Malcolm Morley online

The actor-manager and stage director, Malcolm Morley (1890-1966) owned a collection of about 4,000 items from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries devoted to all aspects of the theatre: play texts, monographs about all aspects of the theatre, from biographies to stagecraft, periodicals, and even programmes.  Senate House Library acquired the collection in 1966, before the advent of computer cataloguing. Now records for all items in the collection are available online. Items can be found in the usual way, by searching for author, title, subject, or by keyword. In addition, it is possible to gain an entire overview of Morley’s collection by searching on “Morley, Malcolm” as a former owner. The new computerised records not only make it far easier to find individual items than hitherto, but throw up such features as the marking up of copies of texts for performance: commonly performed plays such as Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, and lesser-known plays such as Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street.