Senate House Library Treasures Volume: Looking Back

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Commissioning articles for a treasures volume is an uneven experience. Some people accept an invitation immediately, while other books are hawked around for up to five times or so before a scholar agrees to write about them. A few people responded to the invitation with the query: “Why don’t you write this piece yourself?”, and sometimes, as emails flew to and fro and I wielded the editorial red pencil, I did wonder whether it would have been simpler to have been a single author than an editor. But the quality of the finished product would have suffered. As it was, a stellar team of contributors demonstrated the fact of institutional goodwill, as sixty busy people, not all of whom were connected with the University, took time to research and write 400-word entries. Not only that, but contributors came with new angles and with expertise in their areas. Myths which had lasted half a century or longer were debunked and new discoveries made. Some were disappointing: a unique incunable is more prestigious than one of two copies (item no. 5; but at least Senate House Library continues to have the only known complete copy in the world. The second copy, long in the Sorbonne, had initially been incorrectly identified). Others were exciting, adding nuggets of research to a coffee-table volume: for example, Brian Alderson, editor and translator of many children’s books, identified the anonymous illustrator of a scarce Victorian children’s book, Halt!
Producing the treasures volume was exhilarating and worthwhile. Editress Karen Attar has now published a short article in SCONUL Focus, 58 about the benefits of producing such a volume, “Making Treasures Pay? Benefits of the Library Treasures Volume Considered”, accessible here.


Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring the young George Grote



For the University of London, the classical historian George Grote was an exceedingly important figure: not merely as an authority on Greece but as an administrator and innovator, a member of the University of London Senate from 1850 onwards and Vice-Chancellor 1862-1871. He further bequeathed to the Library its second significant collection of books: about five thousand volumes on Classics, history, economics, philosophy and other matters.
Thus Grote’s representation in the treasures volume was partly a celebration of corporate identity. Representation emerges here in a very personal way, in a letter about him by his fiancée, Harriet Lewin, to her sister. It is an atypical letter among the Lewin Papers (MS811), an archive which focuses on Harriet’s nephew Thomas Herbert Lewin (1839-1916), an administrator in India.
Grote’s courtship and marriage to Harriet were problematical. The relationship began with a misunderstanding when a rival led Grote to believe that Harriet was already engaged to somebody else (see here), and continued under a cloud of parental disapproval which meant that sole contact was by correspondence. The letter is dated 25 August 1818, shortly after her engagement, and indicates something of the relief of the written word and the general lack of sympathy towards the young bride to be: “You know him, and have the capability of appreciating those qualities which ‘pass outward shew’, whilst the rest of my family judge entirely of him by exterior qualities”.
Ultimately the couple married clandestinely in 1820. They were very happy, despite Harriet’s poor health and the disappointment of remaining childless. Although Harriet was unable to ensure Grote’s posterity through offspring, she compensated by becoming his first biographer (1873).

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring an unfortunate earl

Apologie of the Earl of Essex


MS 287 is a copy of a tract by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (1565-1601), addressed anonymously to Anthony Bacon (a device that enabled Essex to deny authorship), entitled:

‘To Maister Anthonie Bacon. An Apologie of the Earle of Essex, against those which falsely and maliciously taxe him to be the only hinderer of the Peace, and quiet of his Countrey.’

The text differs slightly from that of the first printed edition of 1600 (STC 6787.7) which also included a letter from Essex’s sister, Lady Rich, ‘to her maiestie, in the behalf of the earle of Essex’.

About the tract’s publication, Rowland Whyte wrote on 10 May 1600 to Sir Robert Sydney that ‘Lord Essex continues where he did: he plays now and then at tennis. An Apology written by him about the peace, is, as I hear, printed; on which he is much troubled, and has sent to the Stationers [Company] to suppress them,  for it is done without his knowledge’. On 13 May Whyte reported that ‘The Queen is offended that this Apology of peace is printed, for of 200 copies only 8 is heard of. It is said that my Lady Riches letter to her Majesty is also printed, which is an exceeding wrong done to the Earle of Essex’.

Royal displeasure was something that Essex could ill afford. In 1598 his high standing as Queen Elizabeth’s favourite had been strained by a series of disastrous enterprises. He recovered sufficiently to be appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1599, charged with destroying the rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone. Having instead concluded a peace treaty with Tyrone, Essex was imprisoned and charged with treason on 20 March 1600. He survived that crisis, but led an abortive rebellion to unseat the queen, and he was executed on 25 February 1601.

The manuscript has a distinguished provenance. It first belonged to Sir Julius Caesar (1558-1636), a distinguished lawyer and judge who became chancellor of the Exchequer in 1606, and was master of the Rolls from 1614 to 1636. The antiquarian Horace Walpole (1719-1797) and the antiquarian and book collector Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) were subsequent owners.

Senate House Library treasures volume: Featuring magic

The psychical researcher and writer Harry Price (1881-1948) was quick to describe rare and unusual books in his library. As far as I know, he did not write about Will Goldston’s More Exclusive Magical Secrets (1921). For Price it would have lacked the glamour of the pre-twentieth-century books in his library: it was less scarce for one thing (the limited de luxe edition comprised 750 numbered copies, of which 250 were destined for British readership), besides which the writer was Harry Price’s friend. But his copy is worth celebrating. It is the first in the numbered series, and it contains a handwritten dedication on its title page: ‘Congratulations to friend Harry Price. You possess the 1st copy many hours before other subscribers receive their copies. Best wishes. Sincerely yours Will Goldston November 1921.’

More Exclusive Magical Secrets is the second in a series of three which began with Exclusive Magical Secrets (1912) and ended with Further Exclusive Magical Secrets (1927); all three were issued with a substantial brass lock to emphasise secrecy. The volume contains sections on ‘pocket tricks’ (disappearing coins and cigarettes, ‘the cut string restored’, etc.) ‘small apparatus tricks’ ‘platform and stage tricks’, ‘Chinese tricks’, and ‘automata and ventriloquial’ devices. Perhaps the most interesting section in relation to Harry Price’s interests is that dealing with ‘anti-spiritualistic tricks’. The tricks explained include ‘The Talking Skull’, ‘A New Spirit Slate’ ‘A Spirit Rapping Table’, as well as ‘The Crystal Evulgograph’ (‘writing-revealer’), invented by Harry Price himself (pp. 108-12) and contributing, perhaps, to Goldston’s inscription.

Goldston, More Exclusive Magical Secrets

Goldston, More Exclusive Magical Secrets

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring exotic travel

In 1549 in Vienna the renowned Austrian diplomat and scholar Freiherr Sigmund von Herberstein (1486-1566) published his Rerum moscoviticarum commentarii, the detailed account of two embassies he had undertaken to the Muscovy of Grand-Duke Vasilii III, in 1517-18 and in 1526-7 for Archduke Ferdinand I.

Priding himself on his knowledge of languages that included Russian and on a method of gathering information based on personal observation, probing conversations, and careful scrutiny of documentary sources, Herberstein offered sixteenth-century Europe a wide-ranging survey and commentary on what in later books would be called ‘the present and past state’ of Muscovy or Russia. He provided information on the geography, the governance, the people, their customs and their religion with a degree of persuasive accuracy that brought his book best-seller status and made it widely influential in shaping subsequent views of the country. Herberstein’s work was not only one of the earliest examples of travel writing on Muscovy but became the virtually uncontested source of information, acknowledged and unacknowledged, for almost all subsequent writers into the seventeenth century.


This is one of three copies of the text from the collection of the historian Matthew Smith Anderson (1923-2006), who both wrote and collected about western perceptions of Russia to the period of the Russian Revolution. The other two are a second copy of this early translation into Italian, without the map at the end, and a Latin folio of 1551. This copy has a particular significance within the collection to which it belongs as the final item Anderson purchased for it.

Senate House Library treasures volume: Featuring old clothes and Shakespearean contemporaries

Charles Lamb’s Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare (1808) is a compilation of extracts of plays, each preceded by a brief contextualisation of the extract. Represented dramatists include Beaumont and Fletcher, Philip Massinger (alone and in collaboration), James Shirley, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Decker, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, John Webster and some who have dropped into obscurity: Robert Tailor, Joseph Cooke, Cyril Tourneur, Robert Narrington and Edward Ravenscroft among others. The book was well received and ran into several further editions and reprints in the nineteenth century, from 1813, and the twentieth, when evidence of its canonical status was demonstrated by its choice as an Everyman classic. Versions appeared with further editorial intervention, by the essayist and biographer E. V. Lucas and by William Macdonald.

For Senate House Library, the first edition of a book edited by a significant literary personage dealing with Shakespeare’s contemporaries is inevitably significant, the Library having developed strong Shakespearean holdings ever since acquiring Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s library in 1929. In itself, the first edition of Lamb’s book is not rare, with at least thirteen copies recorded in institutional libraries in the United Kingdom. But the Senate House Library copy is a presentation one, inscribed by Lamb’s friend and fellow poet Robert Southey: ‘R. Southey from the Editor, Keswick. Aug. 6. 1808.’ It originally formed part of what Southey called his ‘Cottonian library’. The name paid joking homage to the seventeenth-century bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton, while referring to a collection of books bound by members of his family, using whatever materials they had to hand (such as old dresses previously worn by the Southey ladies) – in this instance, flowered beige calico cloth. The book is the most striking of eleven titles by Lamb to have been given to Senate House Library in early editions by Sir Louis Sterling.


To Manchester and Russia with the Senate House Library treasures volume

Activities in connection with the Senate House Library treasures volume continue. In January, at an event offered by the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group, Dr Karen Attar had given a talk in London about the experience of editing a treasures volume. On Thursday, 18 July, she gave a repeat session at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. A major focus was the reasoning behind the selection of items and contributors. Then came the process, followed by benefits. The introductory history of the University of London came in for a certain amount of analysis: how such histories function, what they achieve, and their limitations.

Promotion of the treasures volume continued in an academic context with a paper delivered by Dr Attar at a conference hosted by the Institute of English Studies on 23-23 July, on Russian/English studies, covering a wide range of literary and linguistic matters in Russian and English. The paper, “Bookish Delights: Selecting English and Russian Treasures”, featured the items in the treasures volume relevant to Russian or English Studies. Two books fall into the former category, the first Italian translation (1550) of Sigmund von Herberstein’s Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentari, and an apparently unique, anonymous booklet printed in Liverpool in the first decade of the nineteenth century, a threadbare story entitled Love and Honour, or, The Adventures of Serinda, a Beautiful Slave. With English literature being a longstanding strength of special collections, it is more prominent in the volume. Items featuring in the conference paper exemplified various reasons for choice: significant manuscripts (such as a Byron holograph manuscript); important provenance (Thomas Carlyle’s annotations on a borrowed copy of E.B. Browning’s  Aurora Leigh); books which tell a story (Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s copy of Shakespeare’s second folio); early English print (a 1492 edition of the Canterbury Tales); a format known to be liked by readers (part-publication of the Mayhew brothers’ satirical The Greatest Plague in Life or The Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Servant, 1847, now scarce even in volume form).