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Antiquarian

"A mere antiquarian is a rugged being" opined Dr Johnson, succinctly and meaningfully, to Boswell in 1778. What's in a name? – and what of the decidedly un-mere antiquarian bookseller?

Published on 20 Feb. 2018

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By Laurence Worms


“A mere antiquarian is a rugged being” opined Dr Johnson, succinctly and meaningfully, to Boswell in 1778. What’s in a name? – and what of the decidedly un-mere antiquarian bookseller? A work in progress this – something which began in various desultory and ongoing e-mail conversations with Nicolas Barker and James Fergusson of The Book Collector, Simon Beattie and others.

It would appear that the earliest citation the Oxford English Dictionary has for the phrase “antiquarian bookseller” is as recent as 1952, and for “antiquarian book(s)” a little later still. This can’t possibly be right – the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association was founded in December 1906 – and that was precisely the name proposed at the time by Thomas Chatto and James Tregaskis. Their proposal was defeated on that occasion and it was as the Second-Hand Booksellers’ Association that the ABA came into being – but not without those present engaging in the impossible and never-ending debate about what the difference actually is between an antiquarian and a second-hand bookseller (the traditional and periodically updated answer being, of course, “about £ 20,000 a year”). Less than eighteen months later, in May 1908, the name was changed to the altogether more sonorous International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (remaining so until 1928).

So the term “antiquarian bookseller” dates back to at least then (and considerably earlier, as we shall see). But what precisely does it mean? The primary sense of “antiquarian” as an adjective is, as the dictionary has it, “of or connected with the study of antiquities” – and, as a noun, “one who studies or is fond of antiquities; an antiquary”. No dispute there. Plain enough. But when did this meaning veer off to become particularly associated with books – and to become a more or less catch-all term embracing all older and perhaps more expensive books (and the people who deal in them), rather than just those specifically on topics of antiquity?

We can quite see how it came about. Two early eighteenth-century auction catalogues of books specifically describe their owners as antiquarians – A catalogue of the large and valuable library of books, lately belonging to the learned and ingenious antiquarian, Mr. Nicola Haym … To be sold by auction … at Mr. Cock’s auction-room in Poland-Street(1730) and A catalogue of the valuable library of that great antiquarian Mr. Tho. Hearne … to be sold … at T. Osborne’s shop in Gray’s-Inn (1736). Not difficult to see the seeds here of a potential transference of meaning from the antiquarians who collected books, to the books themselves, and hence to the booksellers who dealt in them.

A further auction catalogue shows the first step – A catalogue of the genuine houshold furniture, plate, linen, china, books, antiquarian prints, &c. of Mr. Joshua Blew … which … will be sold by auction, by W. Bristow (1765). Prints rather than books in this instance, but antiquarian now being used to describe the material rather than its former owner.

The charming and irresistible Google Ngram Viewer, which churns through thousands of books to bring up the frequency with which words have been used over time, indicates a first use of the phrase “antiquarian books” in 1798 – but where in the vast corpus of books searched this may be, I am unable to tell [but see the comment from Professor Adrian Seville below]. The earliest specific instance I have found is in The Scots Magazine of 1st February 1800 – referring to two books of Homeric exegesis – the Antiquitates Homericæ and the Homeri Gnomologia (editions not given). And we might mention Marmaduke Flower, who demanded of the electorate of Leeds at a public meeting in 1837, “What confidence they could put in any gentleman, however affluent in circumstances, however talented as an orator, however respected he might be in the sphere in which he moved, if he rejected the principles of the Bible, and treated it as an old antiquarian book? (Loud cheers)” (Leeds Intelligencer, 22nd July 1837).

By the 1830s, both William Pickering of London and Thomas G. Stevenson of Edinburgh were issuing book-catalogues using “antiquarian” in their titles – Pickering offering “historical, legal, biographical, antiquarian, and miscellaneous works” (1836?) and Stevenson “valuable antiquarian, historical, and miscellaneous books” (1838). In the Pickering instance there is probably no doubt that he is still using “antiquarian” in the fairly strict and limited sense of books on antiquity. I am less sure about Stevenson – see below. By the time Thomas Davies of Conway issued an auction catalogue in 1864 simply titled A catalogue of 300 remarkably scarce and valuable antiquarian books and manuscripts … to be sold by auction … at the Town Hall, Llanrwst – I am persuaded that the meaning had moved on (at least on occasion) to embrace all kinds of older book. From that point on the usage slowly gained in currency. By the time James Clegg published his International Directory of Second-Hand Booksellers in 1894, two of the five shops in Exeter listed at least part of their stock as being “antiquarian”, as did eight of the London shops, a couple in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow, with numerous instances elsewhere.

Nicolas Barker (with whom I hesitate to disagree on anything) is not convinced that, even by this stage, “antiquarian” had come to mean anything very much beyond its narrow meaning of books on antiquity, believing that it retained this specific meaning right up until the ABA changed its name and by default brought about a much wider meaning – perhaps influenced by the German dealers who asked to join the fledgling association at the AGM in 1907 and their use of the word “antiquariat”, which Nicolas tells me originally meant a seller of antiquities, but came by the latter part of the nineteenth century to be restricted to second-hand books. It’s an open question – anyone can join in.

To return to where we began – what of “antiquarian bookseller” as a phrase?

The Ngram Viewer can’t place it earlier than 1830, with the term enjoying a slight vogue in the 1880s, dropping back and then climbing steadily through the twentieth century to peak at a (still pretty dismal) frequency of .0000012% in 1968. But there are earlier examples. The earliest I have found is an advertisement in the Morning Post for 15th December 1823, announcing the sale of the final part of the collection of “antient and modern painted stained glass … late the property of Mr. Geo. Wagstaff, well known as an eminent artist and antiquarian bookseller, deceased”. This is the younger George Wagstaff (1761-1823) of Spitalfields, whose father – also George Wagstaff (d.1784) – had been issuing catalogues of “scarce and valuable books” since at least 1766, describing himself as “a lover and preserver of antiquity” in 1774. He is known to have specialised in black-letter, but a glance at the 1782 catalogue doesn’t in fact suggest any great predominance of “antiquarian” in the narrow sense, while in 1783 the books and manuscripts have simply been “selected from many hundred thousand volumes of learned lumber”. The son, who appears not to have issued catalogues, may of course have been more selective.

Weeks later, the Northampton Mercury of 14th February 1824 reported the death at his house in Piccadilly, London, of Mr Simco “antiquarian book and print seller” – this being John Simco (1747-1824), one of the most successful booksellers of the day. Simco’s first catalogue, published in 1788, shows the depth and range – A catalogue of books and prints : containing several valuable collections, purchased in France and Italy. Amongst them are the following rare books. Nuremberg Chronicle; Ogilby’s Homer, L. P.; Houbraken’s Heads; Fuggerorum & Fuggerarum Ritratti D’uomini Illustri Toscani, 2 tom.; Visscher’s Bible; Sandford’s Coronation of James II. Medailles de Louis le Grand, L. P.; Vandyk’s Icones Icones; Operum Misericordiae Museum Odeschalcum; Bullart’s Academie, 2 tom.; Holland’s Herologia; Adnotationes & Meditationes, a Natali; Carter’s Antient Sculpture; Campo’s Cremona; Froissart’s Chronicle, MS. Epirres & Evan. Jehan de Vignay, MS. Passion de nostre Seignoir Jesus Christ, MS. MS. Missals; MS. Bible; MS. Paintings of the different Orders of the Romish Church Heures, printed on vellum; Histoires Prodigieuses; Prymer of Salysbery; Expedicion into Scotland; Rutter of the Sea. Golden Letany; Heath’s Chronicle; Lessyons of Parliament; Bayle’s Dictionary, 5 vol.; Burnet’s own Time, 2 vol. L. P.; Drake’s York; Dugdale’s Warwickshire, 2 vol. – St. Paul’s; Duncan’s Caesar, L. P.; Edmonson’s Heraldry, 2 vol.; Fabian’s Chronicle; Fuller’s Worthies; General Dictionary, 10 vol.; Guillim’s Heraldry; Horseley’s Britannia; Peck’s Stamford; Rapin’s History, 5 vol.; Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum; Thoresby’s Leeds; Blome’s Bible; Chambers’s Dictionary, 4 vol.; Taylor the Water Poet’s Works; Galerie Francoise. Mezeray Histoire de France, 3 tom.; Montfaucon Monarchie Francoise, 5 tom.; Thevet’s Portraits; Antiquarian Repertory, 2 tom.; Bentham’s Ely; Europe Illustre, 6 tom.; Histoire des Ordres Monastiques, 8 tom.; Antient and Modern History, 60 vol.; Crantz’s Greenland, 2 vol.; Gale’s Winchester; Mackerell’s Lynn; Maundevile’s Voyage, L. P.; Willis’s Notitia, 2 vol.; Howard Earl of Surrey’s Poems; Linnaei Flora Laponica – Species Plantarum, 2 vol.; Rossi Historia Regni Angliae; a Hearns Whitworth’s Russia, Strawberry-Hill. The Books in general are in exceeding good condition, some of them in elegant bindings; and are now selling very cheap. The price of each is printed in the catalogue, and marked on the first leaf; they are meant to be sold for ready money only, without excepting the trade in town or country.

A fine and impressive stock, but by no means exclusively antiquarian in the tight sense and – in 1788 – by no means all of them particularly old. A brief obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine, although reporting his “love of antiquities”, mentions that his main strengths were in topography and biography. The Sotheby catalogues of the sale of his stock survive, so further analysis would be possible. The Gentleman’s Magazine goes on to add that Simco had bequeathed his fine collection of extra-illustrated books to the British Museum, on condition that the Trustees paid “a certain sum” to his executors (it was £ 500 – “not half what it cost me” – according to his will). The Trustees declined on the grounds the collection was overvalued. The Derby Mercury reported the following year (9th March 1825) that they had since been sold at auction for “upwards of £ 900”. I make no comment.

There are other examples from the intervening years, but I shall finish with a report in the Morning Chronicle for 15th November 1858, evidently reiterating something previously published in The Scotsman – a brief note of the sale in Edinburgh of the library of James Jardine, the civil engineer. Among the books was a “fine clean copy (in the original binding) of Burns’ “Poems”, first edition, published at Kilmarnock in 1786. This rare work, after a keen competition, produced the sum of £3 10s. (and was purchased by our townsman, Mr T. G. Stevenson, antiquarian bookseller, Princes-Street)”. This the same Thomas George Stevenson (1811-1894) mentioned above. He described himself and was described by others as an antiquarian bookseller – but the Burns book was then just seventy-two years old. Do we hear a faint echo of a distant nineteenth-century harrumphing about the crazy prices modern first editions were now fetching?

(Posted on The President on Safari. Presented here by permission of the author.)

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