Thursday, 25 February 2016

Wrapping "fork handles": a recycler turned collector to the rescue

One of the most spectacular rescuers of waste paper was collector John Ratcliffe (1707-1776), a chandler* from Southwark, who became fascinated by the old printed blackletter books (bought by weight) from which he, like other shopkeepers, tore out pages for wrapping his goods (candles, oil, soap, paint and groceries, according to the Oxford Dictionary).

St Mary Magdalen Church, Bermondsey, where he was baptised.

He kept a library at his home in East Lane, Bermondsey, where he entertained wealthy collectors with "Coffee and Chocolate every Thursday morning" and they could peruse his latest acquisitions, a gentlemen's social event.  If he (a tradesman by class) later sold them copies of the fine books they had admired, it was seen as acceptable between collectors.   Among those visitors were Dr Anthony Askew (who had 7000 Greek and Latin books and manuscripts), Topham Beauclerk, friend of Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson,  and James West, MP and President of the Royal Society.  In his account of Bibliomania, or Book Madness  Thomas Dibdin compares their collections, judging  "West's more extensive, a magnificent repository,  and Ratcliffe's more curious, a choice cabinet of gems", with some thirty books printed by William Caxton.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales,   The Merchant's Prologue , 2nd edition printed c. 1483   
© the British Library

Wealthy enough to concentrate on collecting, rather than selling candles, for the last forty years of his life,  Ratcliffe was able to change his shopkeeper's "brown peruke and Russian apron for a gentleman's embroidered waistcoat, velvet breeches and flowing periwig".   A Dissenter, every Sunday he was seen proceeding slowly down the lower road to Deptford,  with his hat and his gold-headed cane, to hear Dr Flaxman preach.

A wig maker, powdering a wig   engraving by De Salliere c. 1780-90
(and see Georgian Gentleman)

When there was a fire close by and he needed his furniture and books removed to safety, he was in the street lamenting the loss of his precious Caxtons, until a neighbour proudly produced two of his very costly periwigs, with no idea that Ratcliffe was making such fuss over a few books. (As ten year old Fanny Burney would say in 1762 when she and her playmates ruined a ten guinea wig in a water tub, "What signifies talking so much about an Accident? The wig is wet! … and what's done can't be undone.") 

After Ratcliffe's death in 1776 his collection was sold by Mr James Christie. The British Library has an auction catalogue of the sale of  his library, Bibliotheca Ratcliffiana, annotated with prices achieved.   The Caxtons averaged around £9 a piece, with King George III buying a large number, which eventually were donated to the British Library.   Others from this "galaxy of Caxtons, Wynkyn de Wordes, Pynsons &c, &c," were purchased by collectors like Dr. William Hunter of Glasgow** (who paid £5. 15s. 6d for Higden's Polychronicon by Caxton),  and also ended up in public ownership.

Unlike the butcher Phineas Trott, who was tearing up an early Erasmus to wrap the meat in, we owe a great deal to John Ratcliffe, the little known Bermondsey shopkeeper.

Old Bermondsey,  the Abbey remains, from an engraving c. 1790

* An artisan whose trade it is to make candles:  Johnson's Dictionary
** Brother of Dr John Hunter, the anatomist,  my Collector no. 4.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

23rd February, 1633

Yesterday I was distracted by a lost phone and completely missed Samuel Pepys' birthday.  His family came from Cambridgeshire, but he was born in Salisbury Court, just beside St. Bride's.  Known as the printers' church, and where Wynkyn de Worde is buried, the church Pepys knew from childhood was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, and the famous church we see today, with its wedding cake spire, was built by Wren in 1672. (see

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, London
© photo Nick Weall

Although Pepys could be pompous, promiscuous, selfish and pleasure-loving,  he was also brave, far-sighted, enquiring and extremely hard-working.  Many of his birthdays were ordinary working days, ("up early and to the office,") but in February1662 it was --

"Lord's day.  My cold being increased, I stayed at home all day, pleasing myself with my dining-room, now graced with pictures, and reading of Dr. Fullers worthys.  So I spent the day; and at night comes Sir. W. Pen and supped and talked with me.  This day, by God's mercy I am 29 years of age, and in very good health and like to live and get an estate; and if I have a heart to be contented, I think I may reckon myself as happy a man as any is in the world - for which God be praised. So to prayers and bed."

In the last year of his Diary, 1669,  on 23rd February he works at the office all morning, and later takes his wife and the maids to see Westminster Abbey (it was Shrove Tuesday): " and there did show them all the tombs very finely…; and here we did see, by very perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands.  And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen."

We can respect his ambition for self-improvement, but it his great zest for life which springs from the pages of his Diary.

Quotations from The Shorter Pepys, © R. Latham and W. Matthews, and Magdalene College, Cambridge

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Rescued from recycling: a Victorian benefactor

Old documents have always been at risk from fire, flood, decay, insects and vermin for numerous centuries, whether written on paper, parchment, vellum, papyrus or silk. As one Epharmostos writes, to his brother Zenon in 3rd century BC Egypt, 'Your last letter was eaten by mice.'  (British Library papyrus 2655).

Over twenty centuries later, the hapless Charles Pooter finds several pages torn from his diary: "Sarah said ... after the sweep had left, Mrs Birrell (the charwoman) had cleaned the room and lighted the fire herself.  Finding a burnt piece of paper in the grate, I examined it and found it was a piece of my diary.  So it was evident someone had torn my diary to light the fire.  I requested Mrs Birrell be sent to me tomorrow."   George Grossmith makes this a running joke in his Diary of a Nobody (1892), with Pooter's son Lupin remarking, "If it had been written on larger paper, Guv., we might get a fair price from a butter man for it!"

In a more frugal age, when most things were handmade and paper was costly, old manuscripts of all sorts were re-used, from parlour to kitchen to privy, and lost forever.   Yet, like John Evelyn's Diary, some amazing treasures have been rescued by diligent collectors.   Josiah Wedgwood's correspondence with his friend and partner Thomas Bentley were saved by Joseph Mayer, a Liverpool collector (1803-1886).

Thomas Bentley, attrib. Francis Rigaud,  1778
© Wedgwood Museum Trust

  Mayer was collecting Wedgwood ceramics well before it was fashionable, and according to Eliza Meteyard, "while few cared to learn (about Wedgwood's life and work) Joseph Mayer was hoarding up every little scrap of information, purchasing old deeds and papers"; until  "by a mere accident, as strange as it was interesting, a very large portion of the business papers belonging to Mr Wedgwood's works, passed into his hands."

Joseph Mayer the collector,   William Daniels 1848
© National Museum Liverpool

In 1848, he discovered various correspondence and old ledgers from the previous century being used in a shop and rescued them, recognising their importance to the history of Wedgwood.  Eliza Meteyard was able to use them in her classic biography, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood: from his Private Correspondence and Family Papers, published in 1865, and they are now safe amongst the Wedgwood archives, thanks to Joseph Mayer.

Staffordshire earthenware butter pot  c. 1650-1700
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Appropriately, these old manuscript pages were being used in a grocer's shop for wrapping butter - paper having replaced the earthenware pots once used to transport and store butter.  And wares like this had been part of the stock in trade of old pottery families, like the Wedgwoods in Burslem.  

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A Collector's Cabinet: John Evelyn 1620-1706

 Cabinet of John Evelyn, c. 1644-46, ebony veneered with pietra dura panels by Domenico Benotti, Florence.
© Victoria & Albert Museum

It was the historicizing late Georgians who embellished this famous seventeenth century collector's display cabinet with the gilded crest, handles and extra gilt bronze mounts. Imagine it as a rather plainer black frame for an early Grand Tourist's finest souvenirs from France and Italy. The young  John Evelyn had it made  to show off the 19 hard-stone mosaic plaques which he purchased during his stay in Florence in 1644. When back in England he also acquired the four classical figures and eight bronze animal plaques from Francesco Fanelli's workshop; and the drawers would be suitable for the smaller manmade treasures and natural curiosities of his collection.    

He was very taken by the fashionable Cabinets of Curiosities - both whole rooms and items of furniture, which he saw on his travels,  describing those in the Palazzo Vecchio Tribune:  "a Cabinet of an octangular form so adorn'd and furnished with Christals, Achat, Sculptures &c as certainly exceeded any description…Likewise another which had about it 8 oriental columns of Alabaster on each whereof was placed an head of a Caesar, cover'd with a Canopy so richly beset with precious stones, that they resembled a firmament of Starrs:…"
Here Evelyn saw the "incomparable tables of Pietra Commessa, which is a marble ground inlaid with several sorts of marbles and stones of divers colours:"...  some by the leading artist, "Domenico Benotti, of whom I purchased 19 pieces of the same work for a Cabinet. "  He may have been dazzled by all the Medici treasures and curiosities,  but he was not taken in by "an Yron-naile, one half thereof being converted into gold by … a German Chymist,  look'd on as a greate rarity [but it plainly appears to have been but sother'd]".

Evelyn in 1650, engraving by Robert Nanteuil
© British Library

Evelyn's cabinet follows the architectural style of the period,  and although its pieta dura plaques and bronzes were stock designs, not specially commissioned items, the whole would provide the essential showpiece furniture to amaze and amuse his friends and visitors.  The term 'cabinet', for a private room or closet, derives from the Latin for enclosed seats at the theatre, and a theatrical experience is what the display cabinet provides, as drawers and doors are opened to reveal yet more novelties.  The central arched door opens to show a bronze figure of Orpheus charming the beasts (like those on the exterior), with mirrors  enhancing the optical illusion.  The contemporary humanist would have appreciated the conceits linking art and nature, science and the classical world in the design of Evelyn's cabinet.

And why was the cabinet so decorated with extra gilt mounts in the 1830s?  It was following the publication of his famous Diary (i.e. his Kalendarium, a combination of notes and memoirs) in 1818, for this was considered to be the ebony cabinet in which his surviving manuscripts were discovered. 

Drawing of the family house at Wotton by Evelyn, 1640
© The British Library

 Librarian William Upcott was visiting Lady Evelyn at Wotton House in 1813,  and she showed him a drawer of old papers, some left over from cutting out dress patterns, saying, "Sylva* Evelyn and those who succeeded him kept all their correspondence, which has furnished the Kitchen with abundance of waste paper."  Upcott went away with more rescued bundles kept in "the ebony cabinet in the Billiard Room," and eventually  Evelyn's Diary was published by William Bray and Upcott .   Its public success led to the Keeper of the Library at Magdalen College, Cambridge, having the manuscript of Samuel Pepys' Diary deciphered and published in 1825.     

*Sylva, or a discourse of Forest Trees, 1664  was Evelyn's comprehensive and influential work on arboriculture.

Evelyn quoted from The Diary ed. E.S.De Beer 

Monday, 1 February 2016

February in Somerset: Woeful and Joyful

"This is still, essentially, a landscape dominated by water in all its forms, eloquently described by local poet William Diaper, writing soon after the Great Storm of 1703:

'Eternal mists their dropping curse distill
And drizzly vapours all the ditches fill:
The swamp land's a bog, the fields are seas
And too much moisture is the grand disease.'


Further along the rhyne I notice two smaller birds, diving down into the murky water, then bobbing up again like animated corks.  Even tinier than a moorhen or teal, these are our smallest waterbird, the little grebe or dabchick.

Dabchicks, as their name suggests, look rather like the offspring of a duck or moorhen; so tiny you cannot believe they are indeed full-grown. At this time of year they are greyish-brown with a fluffy white rear-end. But in a month or so they will moult into their handsome breeding garb: richer and darker, with a deep chestnut-brown neck, and the tiniest lime-green spot behind their bill, as if someone has daubed on a dash of luminous paint.  This is a colour rarely seen in nature, and all the more striking for that. 

Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds   Stephen Moss