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Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Provenance Workshop with David Pearson

Led by David Pearson, was held at Norwich Cathedral Library on Monday 9 July.
David Pearson (Research Fellow, at the Institute of English Studies in the University of
London) led this workshop looking at various aspects of provenance. David began the day with an introduction to recent developments in provenance work, and its importance, and then the rest of the day was split between sessions considering different aspects of provenance. Each area was introduced with a PowerPoint showing examples, and then we looked at real examples from the collection at Norwich Cathedral.

The first session covered frustrations of provenance research, such as indecipherable
writing (see also palaeography below), or ciphers or other cryptic marks which cannot be interpreted without supporting evidence. We saw books where the provenance evidence had been removed, either by clearly being cut out, or by being scratched or torn out – this was surprisingly more difficult to spot, as a tear lacks the clean, hard edge of a cut, and so doesn’t stand out so clearly. Other ways of deliberately obliterating inscriptions included erasures, crossing-out, and washing-out (particularly used in incunabula). Rebinding of books, with the attendant trimming of the textblock, can remove all or part of an inscription or marginal annotation.

Next came inscriptions, and things written in books. We saw different styles of
handwriting over ages, typical schoolboy doodling and pen trials. We learned that if a
particular individual is known to use a certain motto, this can be used to extrapolate
ownership even when the name is not present. Inscriptions may record purchase or gift;
inscriptions especially in bibles may indicate much more information such as dates of
birth, baptism, marriage, death. Booksellers’ codes may also be found, although it may
not be possible to understand them. Occasionally, marks may be a form of censorship,
particularly when something such as a prayer book continues to be used after certain
saints have been declared unacceptable.

After lunch we had a palaeography session. When you set out to read a document from
whatever period, you are faced with a body of text, within which letters will appear more than once, so you can get to know the hand, and learn how it works. With provenance research you are more likely to be faced with at most a short inscription, so the chances of being able to compare forms to decipher particular letters are slim at best. Furthermore, when working with a collection of books ranging in date across three or four centuries, you will encounter the full range of possible handwriting styles. So palaeography, whilst a vital skill, is at its most difficult when applied to provenance research. David suggested that a good palaeography handbook is an essential part of your provenance toolkit, along with as much experience as you can gain. Even so, there will be some inscriptions that you simply cannot decipher; in such cases noting the presence of an inscription in a catalogue entry at least recognizes its existence, and might one day encourage attention from another reader who can interpret it.

Bookbindings can be a fruitful source of provenance evidence: stamped initials may be
identifiable; more elaborate heraldic devices are more likely to be traceable through
published sources. Armorial evidence may indicate ownership, but it may also be a sign of a gift; appearance of royal arms is possibly more likely to be a sign of adherence to the royal cause, rather than actual royal ownership. Institutional arms may mark ownership of the books (but may not!); prize bindings – a book given by a university to a student literally as a prize – are quite easily identifiable once you know what you are looking for. Occasionally particular binding styles or tools can be associated with a town or even workshop.

The overall message of the workshop was that there is no real substitute to gaining hard
experience – look at as many books as you can! But the real beauty for me of a workshop
like this is having an expert explain to you what it is you have seen: I might have seen it, but not recognized it for what it was. Now I feel considerably better equipped to recognize what I see before me, and indeed scarcely two weeks after the workshop a book was placed before me which contained two of the distinct forms of marking which David had mentioned, one of which I had not seen before outside of the workshop; this made me very happy – in a librarian sort of way!

Gudrun Warren, Norwich Cathedral Library

Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Conference at Strawberry Hill

On 19th October 2017 a diverse group of academics, librarians, curators, collectors and members of the book trade descended on a rainy Strawberry Hill for a conference entitled Collectors and the country house library. Prompted by the recent filling of Horace Walpole’s bookshelves (empty since the 1842 sale) with a loan from
Aske Hall in North Yorkshire, the conference considered the ways in which books have been used and collected in the country house setting.

The day was spent in the splendid interior of the Gallery, where the white and gold vaulted ceiling was inspired by that of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, and kicked off with a talk by Stephen Lloyd on the collections of the Earls of Derby at Knowsley Hall, where there is a family archive reaching back as far as the fifteenth century and evidence of book collecting back into the seventeenth (indeed, the family employed librarians from the 1670s right up to the end of the twentieth century). Next came Stephen Clarke on Walpole’s own library at Strawberry Hill; we heard about Walpole’s drastic building projects to transform what started life as a coachman’s cottage into his gothic palace, about his acquisitions at major sales (including those of Richard
Rawlinson, Richard Mead and James West, and about his interesting reading practices (in some cases lengthy notes on separate sheets of paper were bound into his books). After a short break Mark Purcell delivered the keynote paper, speaking broadly on the place of books in the country house over the centuries, inspired by his recent book The country house library (Yale University Press, 2017). Chief among the issues here seemed to be
the changing nature of library spaces, moving from private closets in the seventeenth century to grand showpieces in the nineteenth, and the sense that many families had book collections spread over a number of houses, portions of which may have been sold off over the years, or moved around as fortunes rose and fell.

Before a spectacular hot lunch in the public café Claire Reed spoke about Osterley Park House, reminding us that entire aristocratic collections can be sold off, only to be built up again by later generations. William Chambers (whose creations included George III’s magnificent gold coach, commissioned in 1760) may have had a hand in the design of the pre-Adam library, which at one point contained 11 Caxtons, sold in the great auction of 1885. During the lunch break attendees had free rein to explore the house, including the library, and the many rooms with windows containing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stained glass, collected on Walpole’s behalf in Europe.

In the afternoon we heard from Giles Mandelbrote on the metropolitan collecting of Sir Richard Ellys, courted as a potential donor to the early library at Harvard. David Pearson turned our minds to the decoration of aristocratic book collections, particularly the curious insect-themed roll tools he has found on a number of eighteenth-century bindings at Wimpole, Blickling and Dunham Massey, as well as among George III’s books now in the British Library. Such naturalistic decoration was evidently characteristic in other parts of the decorative arts, but its presence in book bindings has been little studied. The day finished with Megan Aldrich on the antiquarian library as a work of art at Stowe, who pointed out that Sir John Soane – architect of the Bank of England building – had been employed by the family. Like Strawberry Hill’s library, the decoration of that at Stowe was inspired by Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. The papers stimulated a good deal of discussion and attendees went away with a renewed understanding of the complex nature of aristocratic book ownership in the early modern period.

Liam Sims, University of Cambridge Library