Discovering Provenance in Book History: two accounts of David Pearson’s masterclass

By , 6 May 2013 12:56 pm

John Hall

About twenty of us, with a very varied range of expertise, were gathered to hear David Pearson speak about provenance evidence, especially, but not exclusively, that found in incunabula.
David began with an illustrated talk, in which he explained the importance of a knowledge of the provenance of books, and of signs that they have been read: this shows us what books were actually owned and used, and by what sorts of people (as opposed to the mere knowledge of what books were printed), and this knowledge has come to be much more valued by scholars and librarians in recent years. He then described the various sorts of provenance evidence.

Bookplate of John Bellingham Inglis inside the upper cover of Dat boeck des gulden throens (1480).

Many people have written things in books which show their use or their ownership of them: some have made annotations or other marks in the text; many owners have written their names in their books, or else their initials, or a cipher, or a pious motto. (The oldest known written ownership inscription dates from about 700 A.D.) Many owners have pasted engraved bookplates in their books, or letterpress-printed book labels; others have used inked stamps or stencils. And all these marks of ownership have been used by institutions as well as individuals. Also, there is the evidence to be found on the outside of books:  many owners have had their names or initials stamped on their bindings, or an armorial stamp with their family’s crest or coat of arms.

David also reminded us of the frustrations of provenance research. Some owners thought it something like sacrilege to mark a book, and left their books with no sign of their ownership; some have cut out or obliterated the names of previous owners. Much evidence has been lost when books have been rebound, and old endpapers, with marks of ownership, have been replaced by new ones. Some collectors have wanted their books cleansed of every mark except the print, and have had them washed (leaving, all too often, a brown smudge  where there was once an owner’s name). Even when there is evidence which has not been interfered with, it may be impossible to interpret: scribbled names are often illegible; initials and ciphers can rarely be linked to a definite name without extra evidence; a coat of arms may well be untraceable; a particular pious motto is often an indication of a particular owner, but only an expert will know it. But, thanks to the internet, we are much better off than our predecessors. David drew attention to the number of on-line aids now available, such as British Armorial Bindings (by John Morris, continued by Philip Oldfield), and the website of CERL – the Consortium of European Research Libraries.

Leaf a2 recto of the 1476 Virgil, showing Bishop John Russell’s arms in the initial and a later inscription by Thomas Dutton.

In the second part of the class we examined incunabula (selected by Laura Nuvoloni and Will Hale in consultation with David) which illustrate the various kinds of provenance evidence. Thus we saw the armorial binding of Maria Elizabeth Auguste von Sulzbach, wife of an 18th-century Elector Palatine, on her copy of Roberto Valturio, De re militari (Verona, 1472) – a book with an aristocratic history, later owned by Talleyrand and William Beckford (Inc.2.B.19.1[2158]). A less usual place for a coat of arms was illustrated in an edition of Virgil’s works printed in Venice in 1476: the arms of John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, have been painted within an initial letter in the text on leaf a2 (Inc.2.B.3.21[1445]). Cryptic evidence was shown in Inc.5.A.4.17[619] (Honorius, Expositio in librum Salomonis[Cologne, ca. 1490]), where the motto “Servire Deo regnare est” identifies, to an expert, William Crashaw as a former owner; in Inc.3.B.3.29b[1484] (Petrus Niger, Clypeus Thomistarum, Venice, 1481), where a stamp “VF” on leaf cc6 can be shown, with the aid of Antonius Jammers’ Bibliotheksstempel (1998), to be that of the University Library of Freiburg; and in Inc.5.A.8.2a[975] (Hermannus de Schildiz, Speculum sacerdotum[Strassburg, 1481]), where a monogram stamp “FG” has up to now defied identification.

Richard Heber’s stamp and purchase note on the pastedown of Das boeck des gulden throens (1480).

Former owners who did not hide their names ranged from well-known collectors to men quite obscure: well-known like Richard Heber, whose “Bibliotheca Heberiana” stamp was shown in Inc.3.E.1.7[2805] (Otto von Passau, Das boeck des gulden throens, Utrecht, 1480), or obscure like the unknown Thomas Parker, who in the 16th century wrote his name on leaf a1 of Inc.5.A.4.24[676] (Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae,Cologne, 1497).

I could go on; but perhaps it will be sufficient to end by expressing the hope and belief that the class left most of the participants, as it left me, with an increased determination to investigate and record the provenance of books whenever the opportunity offers.

John Hall is a former Under-Librarian in the Rare Books Department at Cambridge University Library.

Sophie Connor

One of the joys of working in the Munby Rare Books Reading Room at Cambridge University Library is having the opportunity to encounter and examine remarkable early printed books from the Incunable collection and I was delighted to be able to attend David Pearson’s Incunabula Masterclass “Discovering Provenance in Book History” held in the Morison Room.

Arms and canting device of Cardinal John Morton, painted on leaf [a1] recto of the 1472 Boccaccio.

One of the major aims of the Incunabula Project Team is to create specialist catalogue records with detailed copy specific information, identifying the provenance history of each incunable. David Pearson, Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries at the City of London Corporation, author of Provenance Research in Book History (1994) and Books as History: The importance of books beyond their texts (2008) is an expert in book history and he delivered a fascinating workshop looking in detail at the various lines of enquiry undertaken during provenance research.

David Pearson began the workshop with a lecture questioning the function of books in society, challenging the notion that books simply contain and convey texts and asserting the important historical value of books. Provenance evidence in books, however small, can potentially uncover a wealth of historical information on patterns of ownership, individual tastes, book circulation and the popularity and use of books. Furthermore, annotations in books show an important dialogue between the text and the reader, revealing contemporary reactions to developing intellectual ideas and historical events.

A captivating selection of catalogued incunabula from Cambridge University Library where on display in the Morison Room to accompany David Pearson’s lecture, allowing participants hands-on experience with the books and the opportunity to discuss and search for provenance evidence determined through various marks of ownership and use. One of the most common methods used to mark books is for an owner to write their name on the title page. Inscriptions in books date back to the Anglo-Saxon period and in some cases might also include other information such as the date, place of residence, price paid for the book and occupation of the owner or a personal message if the book was given as a gift. Often the handwriting of the owner might be challenging to read and include abbreviations, Latin inscriptions, codes or monograms. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was common practice to include a pious heraldic family motto as well as a name.

Armorial bookplate of William Mitchell, with printed label of the Charrington gift above.

Similarly, institutions would establish ownership by marking the inside of the book with a shelf mark, a code devised from a fixed location shelving system in 13th Century monastic libraries. The medieval inscription ‘ex libris’ also denotes the book is from a religious house or institutional library. One of the examples on display at the workshop, Virgil, Opera (1486; ISTC iv00167000; Inc.2.B.3.21[1445]) shows the arms of John Russell (d. 1494), Bishop of Lincoln and chancellor of England, painted in the opening initial, with a 17th Century inscription by Thomas Dutton on the first leaf and an old shelf mark B.1.8 crossed through. Another fantastic example was Boccaccio Genealogia deorum, 1472 (ISTC ib00749000; Inc.2.B.3.1b[1336]) with the arms and rebus or canting device of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury painted on the first leaf.

One highlight for me included looking at differing examples of bookplates, another mark of provenance evidence that can be found inside a book. Bookplates are engraved or etched armorial labels that are often pictorial and incorporate the owners’ name pasted inside the front board. The earliest known examples come from Germany in 1470 with Sir Nicholas Bacon producing the first known British bookplate in 1574 with the donation of books to Cambridge University Library. The style of bookplates changed and developed over time and certain characteristics can help to identify a particular period within book history. It was popular for example for 18th century pictorial bookplates to depict a library interior. Care should be taken not to confuse bookplates with book labels. Book labels are made from printers type and printing by letterpress. Valturius, De re militari librum (1472; ISTC iv00088000; Inc.2.B.19.1[2158]) contains both on the upper pastedown: a book label reading “Presented by John Charrington, M.A., Trinity Coll., 1916”, and, underneath, an armorial bookplate of William Mitchell with motto “Spernit humum” (‘it despises the earth’). Ink stamped marks of ownership such as that on Otto von Passau’s Dat boeck des gulden throens (1480; ISTC io00124000; Inc.3.E.1.7[2805]) also became popular in the 18th century. As well as containing a stamp of the Bibliotheca Heberiana, Dat boeck des gulden throensalso has a cut out armorial bookplate for John Bellingham Inglis with motto “Recte faciendo securus”.

Armorial stamp of Thomas Smythe, Viscount Strangford, on the binding of Schedel’s Liber chronicarum (1493).

In addition to markings inside books, provenance evidence can also be found on the outside. Supralibros or super-libros are evidence of ownership stamped on the cover and spine of the book with a name or initials tooled onto the binding. In the early modern period heraldic armorial binding stamps bearing the crest from the individual’s coat of arms were commonly used, applied to the cover of a book either gold or blind stamped. A brilliant example on display at the workshop was Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (1493; ISTC is00307000; Inc.1.A.7.2[890]) with gilt-tooled armorial binding with arms quarterly of nine of Sir Thomas Smythe.

Whilst marks of ownership and use can vary extensively, challenges to provenance research occur when a book contains no inscriptions or markings to help identify the owner. It was a popular practice for new owners to clean books and remove any marks and annotations left from the previous owner by either cutting out sections of the book or washing the pages and removing bookplates. Evidence found on the endleaves of books would also be lost during the rebinding process as it was common to replace endleaves and trim pages. Some partial evidence may still be visible but it might be cryptic or obscure.

David Pearson’s workshop covered numerous aspects of provenance evidence in detail and his knowledge and passion for book history was invigorating. Sharing his enthusiasm and providing participants with an extensive bibliography of material and resources, I walked away from the session feeling inspired to begin my own provenance research. I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and would like to thank David Pearson and the Incunabula Project team for hosting such an excellent Masterclass.

Sophie Connor is a Superintendent in the Rare Books Department.

Online resources

One Response to “Discovering Provenance in Book History: two accounts of David Pearson’s masterclass”

  1. Bob MacLean says:

    Nice blog, just one small comment though. As I understand it, Richard Heber commonly didn’t add provenance details to his books. The Bibliotheca Heberiana apellation was given by Heber’s friend Dibdin, who was also responsible for adding the stamp to the more valuable Heber items while preparing a catalogue of his books prior to sale. Arnold Hunt gives a nice summary of Dibdin’s role in Myers, Harris and Mandlebrote (eds) “Under the Hammer: book auctions since the seventeenth century” (London: Oak knoll, 2001). I also write about it (heavily paraphrasing Hunt) in a blog for the Glasgow Incunabula Project with which I’m involved: