Week 17: Provenance and the Individual Book in the Digital Age

Another chapter down.  This one was on reception and readership and – combined with some very exciting plans for a new project which I’ve been cooking up with a friend down south – it’s been making me think about provenance and book ownership even more than usual.

“[People] care about what makes a book unique

A year or so ago I was talking to a book collector about the ways in which digitisation had affected collecting.  “People care more about provenance now”, he said, “they care about what makes a book unique“.  That’s very true.  When we can download a PDF of many an early printed book from Google in a matter of minutes, the printed text begins to recede into the background as a collectible object in favour of – to borrow a phrase from the Material Evidence in Incunabula project – the “copy specific, post-production evidence and provenance information”.  This has a knock-on effect for us academics as well; only look at the number of new projects focusing on the study of historic libraries, the investigation and recording of material evidence, and the renewed interest in bindings and other facets of the book as physical artefact.

This is an altogether good thing (as long as we don’t begin to neglect the printed book itself!).  It also represents a larger sea-change in collecting.  While celebrity autograph albums and the like were widely popular in the nineteenth century, there was much less interest in the post-production aspects of most books, even to the extent of incunables and other desirable items being “washed” to remove those untidy humanist scribbles (*weep*).  Now that provenance is such a hot topic, bibliographically speaking, not only are we seeking to understand it more from a scholarly point of view, it’s also changing things as basic as how early printed books are catalogued.

The beauty about provenance from a collector’s standpoint is that it’s a great leveler.  Not every wouldbe book collector can own a shelf of incunables, but anyone with patience and knowledge can find books with wonderful histories inscribed in them.  All of the following were picked up in charity bookshops, library book sales, etc., rarely for more than a tenner at most:


Millar 1

Millar 2

J. H. Millar.  A Literary History of Scotland.  London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903.

This delightful example of early twentieth-century literary criticism contains the stamp and bookplate of one of Fife’s early public libraries, established in Kirkcaldy by the Beveridges – local linoleum magnates – in 1895.  The bookplate, rather forbiddingly, reminds prospective users that “The Librarian is authorised to levy exemplary fines upon readers damaging books”.

Bowra 1

Bowra 2

C. M. Bowra.  Sophoclean Tragedy.  Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1947.

This monograph by the inimitable Maurice Bowra contains extensive annotations on almost every page, apparently by its former owner, Nigerian colonial administrator and poet Charles Ashbee Woodhouse, whose 1948 signature appears on the flyleaf.

Pliny 1

Pliny 2

Pliny the Younger.  Epistularum libri novem . . ., ed. R. C. Kukula.  Leipzig: In aedibus B. G. Teubneri, 1908.

When I was a postgraduate, old Teubner editions of the classics could be found in every Oxford bookshop, but this volume, with its successive Balliol owners is a particularly lovely example of the university book trade.  It has been interleaved to facilitate note-taking, though most of its readers seem to have given up long before the end.

Of its owners, Alexander Wigram Allen Leeper (1887-1935), who probably purchased it new and was responsible for the interleaving, was an Australian civil servant and authority on cuneiform texts.  Bernard Francis (Brian) McGuinness (b. 1927) is a retired philosophy don and authority on Wittgenstein.  Richard Patrick ffrench (1929-2010) was an ornithologist who studied the birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Lewis & Short 1

Lewis & Short 2

Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short.  A Latin Dictionary.  Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1890.

The Historian reminds me that the Oxford Latin Dictionary is better, but I retain a fondness for Lewis and Short, especially this rather touching volume.  Ralph Porter Wade (1883-1939) purchased his dictionary at the precocious age of sixteen before going on to be Gell Hebrew Prizeman at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a vicar in Lincolnshire, while Edwin Lisle Marsden (1886-1950) was another northern cleric.  From there it went to Eton and finally made its way to the Classics Bookshop in Oxford.

All of which goes to say that provenance research needn’t be limited to scholars of incunables or wealthy industrialists gloating over their Gutenberg Bibles (if this latter, endangered species still exists).  The next time you’re in a charity shop or used bookstore, glance over a flyleaf or two and see what you discover . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

A Stray Letter and a Unique Book

At a recent workshop in Edinburgh I was comparing notes with two colleagues about which bibliographies of Scottish printing we owned (such are the exciting lives of academics).  In the course of the conversation both related their pleasure at having obtained copies of that magnum opus of Scottish book history, the Bibliographia Aberdonensis, a systematic account of every writer from Aberdeenshire and the surrounding area during the early modern period.  This, in turn, led me to think of my own well-thumbed copies of the two volumes of the Bibliographia, the result of a fortunate eBay purchase some years before.

I’d been using my copy for some weeks before a small sheet of paper fell out from between its pages onto my office floor:

Baxter letter

An unexpected discovery.

The letter, for so it proved to be, read:


Nov. 11 35


My dear Professor Baxter

            I have looked with very great interest at the volume containing “Hayi Oratio”, & greatly hope that when the occasion arises the relevant part of it will be photographically reproduced.  I am sure that the Dean & Chapter will readily give the needful consent.

            I am handing over the copy of the St. Andrews music MS. To our Librarian, & a proper acknowledgment of the kind gift will be duly sent.

Ever yours sincerely

H. N. Bate


The sender of this letter was Herbert Newell Bate (1871-1941), then Dean of York, and its recipient, James Houston Baxter (1894-1973), Professor of Ecclesiastical History in my own sometime academic home, the University of St Andrews.   The copy of the “St. Andrews music MS.” which Bate was handing over to the chapter librarian was evidently Baxter’s facsimile edition of Cod. Helmst. 628, published as An Old St Andrews Music Book (London, 1931).

What really piqued my interest, though, was the reference to “Hayi Oratio”, for this was surely none other than  M. G. Hayi oratio habita in gymnasio Aberdonensi 2 Iulij. 1569 (Edinburgh: Robert Lekprevik, 1571), Aldis 101.6, ESTC S92888, USTC 507327.  George Hay’s Ciceronian browbeating of the still-all-too-Catholic scholars of Aberdeen has been long since been discussed and analysed by John Durkan, but both Durkan and the bibliographies cited above were aware only of the (supposedly) unique copy in the National Library of Scotland.

What then of the York sammelband which Bate reported in 1935?  I have yet to find it in any catalogue, but I remain hopeful that somewhere in the north of England this copy survives.  If it could be located, the eighty-two year-old letter which I came across so fortuitously could result in the discovery of a genuinely important, at-present lost, fragment of Scottish Reformation history.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Poet in the Print Shop

A couple of years ago I was reading the account book of Robert Freebairn’s print shop in Edinburgh (because what could be more thrilling?) and came across some unusual entries.  In amongst the regular business of the shop – “for a new barr-shaft to the press”, “for ten fathom of cords for hanging books”, “for carrying paper”, “for Drink & Bread this Week to encourage [the apprentices] to work” – were several entries relating to the physician, heterodox thinker, and poet Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713).

On 28 March 1713, Thomas Ruddiman – who moonlighted as Freebairn’s clerk when he wasn’t busy being librarian to the Faculty of Advocates – noted “Poem for Dr Pitcairn” and immediately below it, “press thrice wrought”.  On 16 May he recorded a “Poem of Dr Pitcairn’s on my Lord Drummond’s Son 4 times wrought” and on 3 October two more “Poem[s] of Dr Pitcairn”.  Pitcairne is known for his habit of publishing poems as single broadside sheets, but I was intrigued by this suggestion that they had gone through the press multiple times (a suggestion confirmed by the relatively high costs of these impressions, 1s. 6d. for the printing of the 28 March poem and 2s. for that of 16 May, compared, say, to the 3s. weekly wage of Freebairn’s journeymen).  Why was Freebairn taking so much trouble over these jobs?

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 16.38.19

Pitcairne’s final job at Freebairn’s press before his death later in October 1713 (NLS MS 763, fol. 47v).

The answer may lie with the state of Edinburgh printing at the beginning of the eighteenth century.  That state was pretty poor.  The average was bare competence and many printers couldn’t manage even that.  Freebairn was, on the whole, one of the more accomplished pressmen of his generation, but even his work tends to have only a workmanlike mise-en-page combined with frequent uneven inking, overprinting, crooked pages, etc.  The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if Pitcairne was himself overseeing the printing of his poems and demanding a higher standard of quality than was usually brought to the Edinburgh print trade?


An example of Edinburgh printing from this period.  Not exactly the Doves Press.

Those of Pitcairne’s broadsides which survive seem to confirm this idea.  While their quality varies, overall they strike me as being both artistically and typographically superior to the ordinary printing of their day.  Some, in particular, aim for a very pleasing epigraphic effect, a bit like John Sparrow’s Lapidaria series in the twentieth century.

So far I’ve only consulted digitised copies of the broadsides – which are notoriously useless for saying much about the letterpress behind a text – but I’m planning an expedition to the National Library to look at several in more detail and I hope that will be able to tell me a bit more about Pitcairne’s “thrice wrought” poems.  It may be that we’re looking at a forgotten moment in the history of printing-as-art and will need to adjust our understandings of Pitcairne in light of it.

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A slight overprint and some inking problems on the ‘B’ in ‘Britannam’, but possibly something new on the Edinburgh stage?

I should also say – just to blow a small blast on my own trumpet – that I’ll be talking in more detail about Pitcairne, his broadsides, and the printers behind them at the “Using Letterpress” workshop being held in Dublin’s National Print Museum on 17 November.  It’ll be a blast, at least, that is, if you like bibliographical minutiae!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Joys of Data Entry

A few months ago I mentioned that one of the chapters of my new book would be about the public reception of the early Enlightenment texts I’m writing on.  Now, the spreadsheet of subscribers to Scottish books (c.1700-1740) continues to grow apace and, indeed, that’s what I’m trying to finish so I can move forward to actually interpreting the data and writing something about it.


The raw material.

Spreadsheets, databases, and statistical analyses are not really my cup of tea.  I find them cool and often helpful, but left to my own devices I’d much rather dig deep into a single text.  For this chapter, though, that’s not an option.  It’s all very well to write about “sexy things I’ve found in the archives”, but I also want to make a convincing argument that these particular sexy things were in the mainstream of Scottish intellectual culture.  That means producing some statistics.

And so I’ve been experiencing the joys of data entry for the last week or two: plugging the raw data of eighteenth-century subscription lists into an ever-growing spreadsheet and separating out that data so that I can easily search on a person’s name, occupation, place of residence, and which book or books they subscribed for.  It’s not the most intellectually stimulating occupation, but the more I do it the more I realise that producing the dataset is actually an important part of its interpretation.  As I tap away at my keyboard, in between sips of coffee, I begin to see patterns: a certain group of individuals has subscribed to all three of these books, a particular locality is predominant amongst the subscribers to another, this kinship group has gone heavily into subscription culture while another nearby remains aloof.

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In progress, but making progress.

In the best sort of way, the process has both generated questions and made me think about what I’m trying to do in a different way.  I’ve come to realise that while (thankfully!) my initial premise as to the widespread engagement with subscription culture across Scotland was true, the particularities of it are very different from what I’ve expected.  I also now want to understand things which I wasn’t even aware of before: how was knowledge of a subscription passed around a specific community?  Why are some relatively rural localities heavily over-represented while others are entirely absent?  How did Scots abroad come to know of and then engage with a subscription drive?  Why are comparatively few scholars (in fact, authors of other books published by subscription) represented on surviving subscription lists?

So perhaps data entry and statistical analysis isn’t so bad after all.  Who knows, I might even put a graph or two into the final chapter . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

An Excursus into Bookbinding: MacLehose of Glasgow

A couple of days ago, I had bindings on my mind.  I’d been discussing Scottish bindings with a friend and that evening found myself looking at my own library for any which stood out from the ordinary run.  Pulling a couple of volumes off the shelves, the third Miscellany of the Spalding Club (Aberdeen, 1846) and an odd volume of the Bannatyne Club edition of Spalding’s Troubles (Edinburgh, 1829), I was struck to see the same unintrusive binders’ stamp in each: “MACLEHOSE GLASGOW”.

Maclehose 1

I was intrigued.  Both bindings, though comparatively simple, were well-executed and rather beautiful.  Who was MacLehose, I wondered, and how did he fit into the longer history of Scottish fine binding?

Maclehose 2

Miscellany of the Spalding Club on the left, Spalding’s Troubles on the right.

MacLehose, it proved, was none other than James MacLehose (1811-1885), the well-known Glasgow publisher and bookseller who, according to the ODNB, had opened a fine bindery alongside his other business concerns in 1862.  An 1892 article in The British Bookmaker provides some insight into the nature of his workshop:

“[N]o ordinary trade work is done. All the books bound here are either the firm’s own work, or the work of private customers . . . Levant, morocco, and a special calf are the principal styles, hand finished and single lettered, and though many of the books are elaborately bound with special designs, a large share are in the severely plain style which finds favour particularly in Scotland”.

Examples of MacLehose’s more elaborate bindings can be seen in Glasgow and London but I suspect that my volumes are more representative of the “severely plain style” mentioned.  The beauty of the bindings comes from carefully executed gold rules and heavily textured calf or goat rather than from a profusion of tooling.  In the case of Spalding’s Troubles the binder has even incorporated the original brown paper binding common to Bannatyne Club volumes into their own work.

Maclehose 3a

Maclehose 3b

Details of the spines: a trifle lavish above, rather more restrained below.

In both cases, these club publications have been rebound; each would have come into the world in a rather more modest trade binding.  The surviving provenance makes it possible to at least hazard a guess as to who may have sent them off to Glasgow for improvement.  In the case of the Miscellany, this is one of a number of volumes I’ve come across from the lately dispersed library of the Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus near Inverness.  Although not all items from the abbey library appear to have been rebound, I wonder if this might have been a case of the monks splashing out?

Maclehose 4

Is there a story behind the never-completed shelf label?

Spalding’s Troubles also boasts a bookplate: a fine heraldic woodcut proclaiming its owner to be one David Murray.  Murray (1842-1928) was a Glaswegian lawyer, antiquary, bibliophile, and namesake of the University of Glasgow’s book-collecting prize.  He donated most of his library to the university shortly before his death but this volume seems to have escaped.  Given its provenance, it was presumably Murray who had it rebound.

Maclehose 5

So, what can we learn from this?  This sort of investigation opens up intriguing windows onto how books were valued and presented in nineteenth-century Scotland, as well as providing some examples of the book binder’s art from a period which is less heavily studied than earlier centuries.  But I think it also provides a lesson in informed book collecting.  I bought both of these volumes for a few pounds each, purely for their contents and their value as part of a scholarly reference library, and I very much doubt that their sellers were any more aware than I of what made them interesting as physical artefacts.  Now, though, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more examples of MacLehose’s art.  It may be “severely plain” for the most part, but it has the beauty of fine craftsmanship and is a still-to-be-explored chapter in the nineteenth-century Scottish book trade.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies

What a great conference!  I probably shouldn’t say that quite so unreservedly, given that I was one of the organisers, but last weekend’s conference on “The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies” really did exceed all expectations.  Over two days we had twenty-two speakers from across Europe and America, two roundtable discussions, five debate-filled coffee breaks, and an absolutely fantastic evening courtesy of the Byre and the St Andrews Brewing Company (neither of which, I suspect, have quite the same concentration of fowk gabbin in braid Scots maist Fryday nichts).


The general roundtable: “where do we go from here?”

I can’t even begin to single out particular papers for praise – they were all excellent and on such a wide variety of exciting topics: newly-discovered religious poetry, forgotten chapters in Scottish art history, blackness, globalisation, Scots at home, abroad, the Privy Council, a recently recovered legal manuscript, and many, many more.  What had been less obvious to me before the conference, though, but which became very obvious as we went on were the larger trends in what people were studying and how they were studying it.  Scottish studies (history, especially) has a long and distinguished tradition of focusing on the country’s political and economic contexts, so it was surprising – and exciting! – to see an overwhelming majority of papers focusing on Scotland’s cultural history and, more than anything, on the history of its texts, both printed and in manuscript.  As someone who, after carrying on a lengthy flirtation with the label of “intellectual historian”, has gradually settled into the role of being a cultural historian, that was very exciting, indeed.


Jamie Reid-Baxter kicking off the conference on Friday morning with a cracking paper on religious poetry in early seventeenth-century Fife.

What was also exciting was the level of energy in the room.  People were brimming over with ideas, with plans, with projects and it was impossible not to come away with the impression that early modern Scottish studies are currently more vibrant than ever.  You can get a sense of some of that energy if you look at the live-tweeting on the hashtag #EMScots2017.  Certainly it left me feeling incredibly buoyed up and positive about where our field is going.

If you missed the conference and wished you’d had the chance to listen to a paper or two, don’t worry!  Part of our plan from the beginning was to record and make freely available on the conference website the majority of the papers presented and we’ll be moving forward with that in the coming months.  An edited volume is also in the works and I’m very hopeful that the momentum the conference has generated will be sustained well into the future, whether by its subsequent outputs or by the links and friends formed during those two days.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Peeling Back the Layers of an Eighteenth-Century Book

Amongst my weaknesses may be counted a taste for collecting the books I study.  This led me, a few days ago, to be in the happy condition of owning a copy of Alexander Nisbet’s System of Heraldry, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1722-42), one of the heftier sets of antiquarian folios to be published by the eighteenth-century Scottish book trade.  On examining the set, though, I was intrigued by what appeared to be three bookplates on each front pastedown, placed one atop the other.


What’s hiding under there?

After some hesitation – and a fair amount of reading up on the process – I decided to attempt a delayering of the top two bookplates, using a paper towel dampened with boiling water to gently moisten the nineteenth-century glue, allowing the slips of paper to come off, one at a time.  That was the idea, anyway.


Tools of the trade: scissors, kitchen roll, and waxed paper.  Note also the more recent bookplate of the political scientist Bryan Keith-Lucas (1912-1996) on the flyleaf.

The actual process was more nerve-wracking than this summary might suggest.  Once moistened, the already thin paper on which these bookplates were printed became terrifyingly weak and it was a slow and painstaking process to gently, ever so gently, slide a kitchen knife between them and the layer below.


Gently does it . . .

But, despite a few tense moments, the first layer was an unqualified success.  The mid-Victorian bookplate of Colin Campbell Baillie peeled smoothly away to reveal a beautiful example of engraving from the generation before: the bookplate of one George Henderson.


Hidden treasure!

The next layer was a different story.  After half an hour, Henderson’s bookplate remained obstinately glued to the board.  Another half hour later, and I could just wedge the knife in under a couple of edges, but whatever glue he had used made it impossible to lift the entire slip of paper.  In the end, though, I also found that wasn’t necessary.  I was able to lift one corner enough to see that whatever had originally been printed on the lowest layer had either been torn or abraded away before Henderson applied his bookplate.  In the picture below you can just make out the traces of a copperplate name which seems to commence with “William” but the arms – and, regrettably, the surname – have been obliterated beyond any recovery.


Disappointment at the bottom level: an already destroyed bookplate (possibly through the nineteenth-century removal of a lost intermediate bookplate between it and the one being removed in the picture).

Still, I had recovered at least one significant addition to the provenance history I was developing for the set.  And I’d also succeeded in doing so without damaging either bookplates or books, which certainly counted for something.  Baillie’s bookplates have now been carefully relaid on a blank portion of the front pastedown directly underneath Henderson’s, so that this provenance will remain connected to the volumes without concealing their other ownership markings.

Stay tuned for a companion post on the process of identifying both Baillie and Henderson through the arms on their bookplates (a sometimes neglected but important way of performing provenance research).  For now I’ll rest on my laurels, such as they are, and let the wheat paste I used when reapplying the Baillie bookplates thoroughly dry . . . .


Baillie’s bookplate, successfully removed and about to be pressed to prevent it from curling as it dries.

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams




Perthshire Libraries: Leighton and Innerpeffray

Perthshire is unique in Scotland – perhaps unique in Britain – for containing two seventeenth-century public libraries, both still housed in purpose-built early modern buildings: the Leighton Library in Dunblane and the Innerpeffray Library in Innerpeffray.


Innerpeffray Library, photograph by John Hughes (2007), CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Leighton Library was established in 1684 under the terms of the will of Robert Leighton, Archbishop of Glasgow and sometime Bishop of Dunblane (1612-1684).  Leighton, an eirenicist theologian in the tradition of the Aberdeen Doctors, bequeathed about 1,400 volumes of his own library, many of which had been extensively annotated by him, and a small sum for the erection of a building to house them (completed in 1687).  The nearby Innerpeffray Library was established only a few years later under the terms of the will of David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie, who died in 1692.  Both were quasi-public from the beginning.


Leighton Library, photograph by Bill Cresswell (2006), CC BY-SA 2.0

But that only scratches the surface of what makes the two collections so interesting.  Two doctoral students at Stirling, Jill Dye and Maxine Branagh, have been doing outstanding work on the surviving borrowers’ registers at Innerpeffray, revealing a large and vibrant community of donors and readers active across the library’s history, while the riches of the archbishop’s annotated volumes in the Leighton await full exploration.  Perhaps most interesting, I think, are the larger questions which remain unanswered.  Why were these two foundations erected so near each other?  What can they tell us about the intellectual culture of late seventeenth-century Scotland in general and southern Perthshire in particular?


A page from the original catalogue of Archbishop Leighton’s books, now NLS MS 21193, fols. 89-104, (c) National Library of Scotland.

To answer those questions requires much more research on both collections than currently exists, but already we can get a sense of the dynamic Early Enlightenment culture in which the libraries’ founders existed, the international and polymathic nature of their interests, and the care which the predominantly Episcopal, predominantly Jacobite Perthshire gentry took in sustaining and maintaining both collections over subsequent generations.  Both libraries receive brief mentions in my current book project, but now that I’m based at Stirling and within easy distance of the two, I very much look forward to exploring them at greater length.  Who can say what treasures await!


Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams