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Ending on a high with the good book: a biblical collection at Senate House Library

Biblical

When donors bequeath collections to libraries, they sometimes also leave money to develop the collections on the lines on which they were begun. Depending on the amount left, purchases may continue indefinitely, or the capital may be spent, and trust fund closed. Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, looks at the library’s final purchases as it wound down its fund to add material to the Ethel M. Wood Biblical Collection.

Ethel Mary Wood, daughter of tea merchant and philanthropist Quintin Hogg (1845–1903), gave and bequeathed her collection of English and American Bibles and biblical criticism to the University of London in 1950 and 1970. The collection comprised overwhelmingly English-language material because Ethel wanted to amass books that she could read. Its 400 items included ordinary and landmark editions, with some background literature and biblical history.

Supplementing this collection has always been challenging. Biblical editions famed for glaring misprints, such as the adulterer’s Bible which omitted the word ‘not’ of ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, or the placemaker’s Bible, which turns the beatitude blessing peacemakers (Matt. 5,9) to a blessing on placemakers’, were too expensive. And there seemed little point in buying reprint after reprint of the same texts. New translations, a clear target, do not appear very frequently.

Over the years Senate House Library has tried to put the money to best use by purchasing items which, in addition to remaining faithful to the spirit of the collection, would have a broader book-historical dimension, such as an abridgement of the Bible from 1780 which measures just 41 millimetres in height, as an example of a miniature book. (This object has the added attraction of having been published by the widow Elizabeth Newbery, niece-in-law of the John Newbery who pioneered children’s books, in the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard). Other acquisitions have been made with a view to particular illustrations, personal annotations, or manuscript notes.

However, we wound up spectacularly with the following purchases:

Two books published by the Paulinus Press, Four Poems for Christmas (1986) and Michael Justin Davis’s To the Cross: A Sequence of Dramatic Poems for Holy Week (1984). These purchases focusing on major Christian celebrations enabled the library to increase its holding of books produced to look beautiful, complementing the strong collection of private press books (a literary collection). The Paulinus Press was founded in Marlborough by the wood engraver Simon Brett (b. 1943) in 1981, well after the heyday of the private press movement most strongly represented in the Sterling Library and continued until 1988. Both books were published in limited issues (250 numbered copies of Four Poems for Christmas, 100 of To the Cross). Simon Brett’s wood engravings in both continue an illustrative method made famous by Thomas Bewick at the turn of the 19th century).

Tate and Brady’s New Edition of the Psalms of David, Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches (London: printed by W. Burton for the Company of Stationers, 1733[?]). The metrical psalms of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady were first published in 1696 and rapidly supplanted those of Sternhold and Hopkins to become the chief metrical setting for the Church of England until the mid-19th century. They went through numerous editions and are embedded in English culture.

Yet this edition, excitingly, is unrecorded. Although one edition in ESTC has the same imprint, its type is set differently, and even that edition is recorded only in three copies. Thus, our purchase is a candidate for digitisation as well as being useful to researchers of English hymnody and psalmody. The book is in a contemporary binding and bears the early ownership inscription of one Elizabeth Johnson – so meets a booming research interest in women’s ownership of books.

Ethel M Wood flagged receptiveness to the retelling of biblical stories by including in her collection Elizabeth Gould’s New Testament Stories, illustrated by the Scottish artist Thomas Hutchinson Peddie (1871–1954)([E.M.W.] 315). Our most stellar purchase followed this line of narrating biblical tales with clergyman and poet Thomas Newcomb’s translation, in the style of John Milton, of Salomon Gessner’s Death of Abel.

First published in German in 1758, this was one of the earliest pieces of German literature to appear in English. It was an instant success, rivalling Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim’s Progress in popularity. Among its renowned English readers of the Romantic period was the poet Robert Southey (1774–1843), who mentioned the book as one of the few on his father’s shelves while he was growing up.

The Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study already held five 18th-century English editions of the poem when we bought this, a couple of them illustrated. Issued between 1761 and 1797, these are all of the most popular translation, by Mary Collyer (c 1716–1763). The Newcomb translation, which in the 18th century appeared in 1763 only, in London and Dublin, contributes to reception theory by providing a contrast. It is rare; the ESTC records only one other copy of this edition in the British Isles. What transforms it from rare to unique is its provenance, for this was Southey’s copy, with his inscription: ‘Robert Southey, Keswick, 29 Nov. 1822’. We expect to make the book available to the world digitally, and to be showing it as a treasure to visitors for years to come.

The books are available via our catalogue, Senate House Libraries – Catalogue (london.ac.uk), and we look forward to seeing them called up and used.

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

Cover image taken from Tate and Brady’s New Edition of the Psalms of David, Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches (London: printed by W Burton for the Company of Stationers, 1733[?]).

Other articles on the collections in Senate House Library
Cellini’s life: ‘riotous’ on paper, but spare in artworks
The blues across four centuries – Robert Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’
‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ – a very Christmas murder
Shaking the scholarly world: Francis Bacon and 400 Years of the ‘Novum Organon’
Chronicles of a librarian’s librarian – a treasure of Senate House Library
South Sea Bubble: a byword for folly and fraud
More than just a typeface – 500th anniversary sharpens focus on print pioneer Christophe Plantin
The Year of the Nurse and what an eyewitness account reveals about ‘the lady with the lamp’
Messages from the margins: Augustus De Morgan’s annotations online Pascal’s jottings in defence of Christianity turns 350
The University of London’s oldest printed book turns 550
George Eliot at 200: revisiting the genius of Romola
The voyage that never ends: ‘discovering’ our worlds
Remembering Napoleon Bonaparte in ‘sumptuous’ print
Master of the essay: a review of Joseph Addison’s European ‘Grand Tour’
Multifaceted Good Omens: exploring the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive
Robinson Crusoe at 300
King Lear: 400 years of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s great tragedy
Joyful tidings: 175 years of Christmas cards
Looking back at the Thirty Years War
The decapitation of Sir Walter Raleigh: villain or victim?
Celebrating the 450th anniversary of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ 
Queen Victoria’s journal reveals her rosy view of Scotland
Shakespeare scintillation: Senate House Library’s first folios
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath

 

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