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 Collectors Who Cause Damage to Books

By William Blades

rare book AFTER all, two-legged depredators, who ought to have known better, have perhaps done as much real damage in libraries as any other enemy.  I do not refer to thieves, who, if they injure the owners, do no harm to the books themselves by merely transferring them from one set of bookshelves to another.  Nor do I refer to certain readers who frequent our public libraries, and, to save themselves the trouble of copying, will cut out whole articles from magazines or encyclopaedias.  Such depredations are not frequent, and only occur with books easily replaced, and do not therefore call for more than a passing mention; but it is a serious matter when Nature produces such a wicked old biblioclast as John Bagford, one of the founders of the Society of Antiquaries, who, in the beginning of the last century, went about the country, from library to library, tearing away title pages from rare books of all sizes.  These he sorted out into nationalities and towns, and so, with a lot of hand-bills, manuscript notes, and miscellaneous collections of all kinds, formed over a hundred folio volumes, now preserved in the British Museum.  That they are of service as materials in compiling a general history of printing cannot be denied, but the destruction of many rare books was the result, and more than counter-balanced any benefit bibliographers will ever receive from them.  When here and there throughout those volumes you meet with titles of books now either unknown entirely, or of the greatest rarity; when you find the Colophon from the end, or the “insigne typographi” from the first leaf of a rare “fifteener,” pasted down with dozens of others, varying in value, you cannot bless the memory of the antiquarian shoemaker, John Bagford.  His portrait, a half-length, painted by Howard, was engraved by Vertue, and re-engraved for the Bibliographical Decameron.

A bad example often finds imitators, and every season there crop up for public sale one or two such collections, formed by bibliomaniacs, who, although calling themselves bibliophiles, ought really to be ranked among the worst enemies of books.

The following is copied from a trade catalogue, dated April, 1880, and affords a fair idea of the extent to which these heartless destroyers will go:--


 FIFTY DIFFERENT CAPITAL LETTERS on VELLUM; all in rich Gold and Colours.  Many 3 inches square: the floral decorations are of great beauty, ranging from the XIIth to XVth century.  Mounted on stout card-board. IN NICE PRESERVATION, £6 6s.  These beautiful letters have been cut from precious MSS., and as specimens of early art are extremely valuable, many of them being worth 15s. each.” 

Mr. Proeme is a man well known to the London dealers in old books.  He is wealthy, and cares not what he spends to carry out his bibliographical craze, which is the collection of title pages.  These he ruthlessly extracts, frequently leaving the decapitated carcase of the books, for which he cares not, behind him.  Unlike the destroyer Bagford, he has no useful object in view, but simply follows a senseless kind of classification.  For instance:

One set of volumes contains nothing but copper-plate engraved titles, and woe betide the grand old Dutch folios of the seventeenth century if they cross his path.  Another is a volume of coarse or quaint titles, which certainly answer the end of showing how idiotic and conceited some authors have been.  Here you find Dr. Sib’s “Bowels opened in Divers Sermons,” 1650, cheek by jowl with the discourse attributed falsely to Huntington, the Calvinist, “Die and be damned,” with many others too coarse to be quoted.  The odd titles adopted for his poems by Taylor, the water-poet, enliven several pages, and make one’s mouth water for the books themselves.  A third volume includes only such titles as have the printer’s device.  If you shut your eyes to the injury done by such collectors, you may, to a certain extent, enjoy the collection, for there is great beauty in some titles; but such a pursuit is neither useful nor meritorious.  By and by the end comes, and then dispersion follows collection, and the volumes, which probably Cost L200 each in their formation, will be knocked down to a dealer for L10, finally gravitating into the South Kensington Library, or some public museum, as a bibliographical curiosity.  The following has just been sold (July, 1880) by Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, in the Dunn-Gardinier collection, lot 1592:--


 A Collection of upwards of 800 ENGRAVED TITLES AND FRONTISPIECES, ENGLISH AND FOREIGN (some very fine and curious) taken from old books and neatly mounted on cartridge paper in 3 vol, half morocco gilt. imp. folio.”

 The only collection of title-pages which has afforded me unalloyed pleasure is a handsome folio, published by the directors of the Plantin Museum, Antwerp, in 1877, just after the purchase of that wonderful typographical storehouse.

It is called “Titels en Portretten gesneden naar P. P. Rubens voor de Plantijnsche Drukkerij,” and it contains thirty-five grand title pages, reprinted from the original seventeenth century plates, designed by Rubens himself between the years 1612 and 1640, for various publications which issued from the celebrated Plantin Printing Office.  In the same Museum are preserved in Rubens’ own handwriting his charge for each design, duly receipted at foot.

I have now before me a fine copy of “Coclusiones siue decisiones antique dnor’ de Rota,” printed by Gutenberg’s partner, Schoeffer, in the year 1477.  It is perfect, except in a most vital part, the Colophon, which has been cut out by some barbaric “Collector,” and which should read thus:  “Pridie nonis Januarii Mcccclxxvij, in Civitate Moguntina, impressorie Petrus Schoyffer de Gernsheym,” followed by his well-known mark, two shields.

A similar mania arose at the beginning of this century for collections of illuminated initials, which were taken from MSS., and arranged on the pages of a blank book in alphabetical order.  Some of our cathedral libraries suffered severely from depredations of this kind.  At Lincoln, in the early part of this century, the boys put on their robes in the library, a room close to the choir.  Here were numerous old MSS., and eight or ten rare Caxtons.  The choir boys used often to amuse themselves, while waiting for the signal to “fall in,” by cutting out with their pen-knives the illuminated initials and vignettes, which they would take into the choir with them and pass round from one to another.  The Dean and Chapter of those days were not much better, for they let Dr. Dibdin have all their Caxtons for a “consideration.” He made a little catalogue of them, which he called “A Lincolne Nosegaye.”  Eventually they were absorbed into the collection at Althorp.

The late Mr. Caspari was a “destroyer” of books.  His rare collection of early woodcuts, exhibited in 1877 at the Caxton Celebration, had been frequently augmented by the purchase of illustrated books, the plates of which were taken out, and mounted on Bristol boards, to enrich his collection.  He once showed me the remains of a fine copy of “Theurdanck,” which he had served so, and I have now before me several of the leaves which he then gave me, and which, for beauty of engraving and cleverness of typography, surpasses any typographical work known to me.  It was printed for the Emperor Maximilian, by Hans Schonsperger, of Nuremberg, and, to make it unique, all the punches were cut on purpose, and as many as seven or eight varieties of each letter, which, together with the clever way in which the ornamental flourishes are carried above and below the line, has led even experienced printers to deny its being typography.  It is, nevertheless, entirely from cast types.  A copy in good condition costs about L50.

Many years since I purchased, at Messrs. Sotheby’s, a large lot of MS.  leaves on vellum, some being whole sections of a book, but mostly single leaves.  Many were so mutilated by the excision of initials as to be worthless, but those with poor initials, or with none, were quite good, and when sorted out I found I had got large portions of nearly twenty different MSS., mostly Horae, showing twelve varieties of fifteenth century handwriting in Latin, French, Dutch, and German.  I had each sort bound separately, and they now form an interesting collection.

Portrait collectors have destroyed many books by abstracting the frontispiece to add to their treasures, and when once a book is made imperfect, its march to destruction is rapid.  This is why books like Atkyns’ “Origin and Growth of Printing,” 4o, 1664, have become impossible to get.

When issued, Atkyns’ pamphlet had a fine frontispiece, by Logan, containing portraits of King Charles II, attended by Archbishop Sheldon, the Duke of Albermarle, and the Earl of Clarendon.  As portraits of these celebrities (excepting, of course, the King) are extremely rare, collectors have bought up this 4o tract of Atkyns’, whenever it has been offered, and torn away the frontispiece to adorn their collection.

This is why, if you take up any sale catalogue of old books, you are certain to find here and there, appended to the description, “Wanting the title,” “Wanting two plates,” or “Wanting the last page.”

It is quite common to find in old MSS., especially fifteenth century, both vellum and paper, the blank margins of leaves cut away.  This will be from the side edge or from the foot, and the recurrence of this mutilation puzzled me for many years.  It arose from the scarcity of paper in former times, so that when a message had to be sent which required more exactitude than could be entrusted to the stupid memory of a household messenger, the Master or Chaplain went to the library, and, not having paper to use, took down an old book, and cut from its broad margins one or more slips to serve his present need.

I feel quite inclined to reckon among “enemies” those bibliomaniacs and over-careful possessors, who, being unable to carry their treasures into the next world, do all they can to hinder their usefulness in this.  What a difficulty there is to obtain admission to the curious library of old Samuel Pepys, the well-known diarist.  There it is at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the identical book-cases provided for the books by Pepys himself; but no one can gain admission except in company of two Fellows of the College, and if a single book be lost, the whole library goes away to a neighbouring college.  However willing and anxious to oblige, it is evident that no one can use the library at the expense of the time, if not temper, of two Fellows.  Some similar restrictions are in force at the Teylerian Museum, Haarlem, where a lifelong imprisonment is inflicted upon its many treasures.

Some centuries ago a valuable collection of books was left to the Guildford Endowed Grammar School.  The schoolmaster was to be held personally responsible for the safety of every volume, which, if lost, he was bound to replace.  I am told that one master, to minimize his risk as much as possible, took the following barbarous course:--As soon as he was in possession, he raised the boards of the schoolroom floor, and, having carefully packed all the books between the joists, had the boards nailed down again.  Little recked he how many rats and mice made their nests there; he was bound to account some day for every single volume, and he saw no way so safe as rigid imprisonment.

The late Sir Thomas Phillipps, of Middle Hill, was a remarkable instance of a bibliotaph.  He bought bibliographical treasures simply to bury them.  His mansion was crammed with books; he purchased whole libraries, and never even saw what he had bought.  Among some of his purchases was the first book printed in the English language, “The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye,” translated and printed by William Caxton, for the Duchess of Burgundy, sister to our Edward IV.  It is true, though almost incredible, that Sir Thomas could never find this volume, although it is doubtless still in the collection, and no wonder, when cases of books bought twenty years before his death were never opened, and the only knowledge of their contents which he possessed was the Sale Catalogue or the bookseller’s invoice.












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