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Notes on the Exhibition of Books, Broadsides, Proclamations, Portraits, Autographs, etc, illustrative of the History and Progress of Bookselling in England, 1477-1800, held at Stationers' Hall, 25-29 June, 1912
By "GUALTERUS DUMBLANENSIS "
T Stationers' Hall on the 25th of June last an Exhibition was held illustrative of the progress of Printing and Bookselling in England, from the time of Caxton to that of Bulmer, that is, from the last quarter of the 15th century to the end of the 18th inclusive. It is probably for the first time in the history of the Antiquarian Book Trade than an Exhibition under such conditions has been held, for nearly all the items were provided by the individual members of the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers from their own resources.
That so representative and rich a collection could be assembled from the ever-changing stores of booksellers was probably a revelation to many of the visitors to the Hall. The promoters of the "Caxton Celebration" Exhibition held 35 years since had every facility in the co-operation of the owners and librarians of the most important private and public libraries then in existence, and one naturally wonders at the boldness of a comparatively few possessors of literary treasures attempting to provide material for a similar show, which, on a smaller scale was none the less comprehensive and representative.
It is also remarkable that so many of the finer and rarer items should have not yet found permanent owners, considering the noderate prices for which they are to be had, and that the condition of many is as fine, if not finer, than those now reposing in the security of public and private libraries.
The suggestion that the members of the Association should each contribute their best to the Exhibition was taken up with enthusiasm, and the response exceeded all expectations. It was only a few weeks before the Exhibition was opened that the descriptive slips were received from each contributor and that the Catalogue could be commenced. That the arrangement of the slips, the discussion of the various questions that arose, the printing and editing, the assembling and arranging of the items could be done in the limited time at their disposal is a tribute to the energy and unanimity of the members, all of whom contributed their share towards a most successful Exhibition.
No doubt in the first instance the object of the show, as behoved men of business, was to disseminate and extend the taste for the acquisition of specimens of our earlier printers, but it must be patent to the ordinary observer, judging by results, that such an undertaking was not, and could not be, run on a commercial basis, and that the members of the Committee in the desire to make it successful from all points of view-excepting the pecuniary-were actuated. by motives far above those usually accredited to our Trade.
Not being able to foresee its success, no arrangements had been made for the Exhibition to remain open longer than the five days. a ridiculously short period considering the time and expense devoted to it. Many intending visitors from distant parts,overlooking the limits of time, arrived in London too late, much to their disappointment.
The setting of so many gems of English literature and printing was ideal, the ancient Hall of the Company of Stationers having been kindly lent for the occasion. No more fitting situation could have been desired or imagined than the place-apart from its original site that may be considered as the cradle of the Book Trade out of which Antiquarian Booksellers have gradually developed, until after a long period of adolescence they have as it were attained the prime of manhood. (Not, however, by way of parenthesis, that all Booksellers are of the sterner sex, for several members of the Trade, past and present, have belonged to the gentler part of humanity-though none the less enterprising for that-and no doubt in the near future they will continue to send recruits to the army of "noble standard bearers" as a certain learned professor was pleased to designate the humble dispensers of the accumulated knowledge of the ages through the medium of the printed page).
After this long-winded aside we will now proceed, but not before we have remarked that it is surprising how few Londoners (and bookmen at that) know exactly where one of the most interesting monuments of old London is situated. It was considered unnecessary (or perhaps it never entered the minds of the Committee) to give the exact address of the Hall on the invitation cards, but nevertheless, as it was afterwards found, many persons were quite uncertain of their destination, which leads one to suppose that the large number of actual visitors to the Exhibition might have been doubled if an exact itinerary had been drawn up.
This might be illustrated by an anecdote which is as "Mr. Punch" used to label his less credible jokes-" a fact." A provincial friend of ours, who is very interested in all things connected with old books, but who thoughtlessly neglected to be born within sound of the Bells of Bow, set out for the Exhibition, and arriving in Paternoster Row began a series of inquiries regarding the locality of the Hall, asking at several bookshops (so he said!) and receiving the answer that they "had never heard of the place," until as a last resource a chubby-cheeked messenger-boy was questioned. He too, scratched his head and considered, and at last said in almost the very words of a certain famous character that "he had never heerd on it. and what's more" (in a confidential undertone)" don't believe there ain't no sich place."
Having been fortunate enough ourselves in our early youth to have been personally-conducted at various times round London's "hallowed spots" by a dear old person-quite in the style of Old Humphrey, sans the moralisation part of the business-we were able to proceed direct to Stationers' Hall Court and so to the Hall itself, which certainly, it must be admitted, "hides itself with the modesty of an author," as one of the fraternity happily has it.
On entering, the first view of the Exhibition made a deep impression on one's sense of the aesthetic apart from one's natural affection for old books under all conditions: the effect was beautiful— without need to qualify the expression, any more than one would if the word "unique" were used. The mellow light of the lovely stained windows lent grandeur to the scene and softly blended with the creamy pages displayed in long ranks around the Hall: indeed a haunt of ancient peace, in sharp contrast to the necessary bustle and scurry of Whitefriars and the "Row." A fanciful person would have also taken pleasure in seeing the illuminated figures of Caxton and Shakespeare looking down from the windows with benignant approval on the display of ancient tomes among which their own immortal works were most prominent. One looked up from the books bearing the ingenious trade marks of Richard Jugge, Christopher Barker, John Wight, and other giants of publishing in the 16th century, and beheld the self-same devices taken from some of the same books and interwoven in the decoration of the large window commemorating the Company's incorporation in 1557.
A sentimental person may have thought it pleasant to see numbers of specimens of the printer's craft reposing fraternally side by side (despite perhaps internal dissensions); to see the reunion of long-lost relatives and parents from the same printing office, or the reconciliation of whilom trade rivals (e.g. Pynson and R. Redman); to see so many prodigal sons return to the home of their (City) Fathers-if one may be allowed the phrase-after years, nay centuries of wandering, no doubt in some cases round the "great globe itself": all this was a sight to gladden the heart of the most hardened antiquary-if any deserve to be so qualified.
After making a preliminary survey we proceeded to examine the exhibits themselves. The arrangement was according to presses, each in their chronological order so that one could follow the development of each printer through a more or less extensive collection of his handiwork. But the rule was not so hard and fast that it could not be relaxed in the case of such books as the folio Shakespeares, which were brought together irrespective of their belonging to different presses of different periods.
Not only was the illustration of the Progress of Printing in England one of the objects of the Exhibition, but that of the development of the Stationer and Bookseller was also partly aimed at. One sees how early the men with the necessary means (mostly foreigners) commissioned the printing of books hitherto produced entirely by the English printer at his own expense, and how partnerships were entered into by publishers and printers together, as well as the combination of different publishers to produce one particular book at their joint expense. One also sees how soon English booksellers employed foreign presses, at Paris, Rouen, Antwerp, Cologne and other places, apart from the Continental presses that issued surreptitious books on their own account and intended for the English market.
A summary of the various exhibits, brief as possible, follows: all further particulars can be derived from the Catalogue itself, of which we understand some copies are still to be had from Mr. Frank Karslake, the Hon. Sec. to the Association. This Catalogue deserves a word of commendation: it is really a carefully-edited and fully-indexed handbook to the subject, containing titles, colophons and notes on 1,229 items and representing about 750 separate presses; printed on good paper of crown 4to size, with ample margins.
The first item in the Exhibition was a specimen of Caxton's edition of Boethius printed in Westminster, c. 1478, but this was preceded in point of date by the Glanville of Cologne, c. 1472, in the production of which Caxton is said to have assisted, and the Histories of Troye, c. 1475, printed by Caxton at Bruges, and always notable as the first book printed in the English language. In this section also was the first English book with illustrations (woodcuts), viz., the Mirror of the World of c. 1481, and the first in the same language with any large number of cuts, viz., the Golden Legend of 1483; of the latter there were two copies on view, one with the leaf showing Becket's martyrdom, and the other with uncut edges, both rare circumstances with this book. The Confessio Amantis of Gower was there, a large copy having been fortunate enough to have been rebound only once during its whole existence, which is perhaps the reason of its escaping (with its companion above-mentioned) the "fury of the binder's knife" in the words of a writer long sincebut then as now, it must be borne in mind, there were binders—and binders. Passing from the other interesting Caxtons one next meets T. Rood, the first printer at Oxford, in 1478, with his Lattebury of 1482 which has round its first page an ornamental woodcut border. the first of its kind in English printing. Then comes the "Schoolmaster Printer" of St. Albans, a person whose name is unknown. with his Chronicle of England of 1483. Then the London printer William de Machlinia (of Malines), one item (Terence c. 1486) being represented by portions of leaves used as end-papers in an English binding of c. 1595: they have all the more interest as no perfect copy of the Terence is known. The Speculum Christiani, c. 1486, from the same press is an early instance of a book with the name of a London stationer Henr. Vrankenburgh, at whose expense the book was printed, a person first mentioned in 1482. The converse of this is seen when G. le Talleur of Rouen printed the Statham's Abridgment, c. 1490 for Pynson, who probably had been the former's assistant.
Other books printed abroad for the London market next follow, and then we come to Wynkyn de Worde, who may have been an assistant of Caxton in 1476: he certainly succeeded him in 1491 and took over Caxton's house and printing material. Wynkyn is represented in the Catalogue by 13 items, among which are the Higden, 1495, with the earliest specimen of English music-printing: Fitzherbert's Grande Abridgment, 1516, a noble book, with its price "xls." printed on one title: the Book of St. Albans by the shadowy Dame Berners, and the reprint of his master's great Golden Legend.