Collecting Shakespeare at the University of London

My work on collecting Shakespeare at the University of London arose from various stimuli. I have been reading Library Committee minutes, the richest continuous source for learning about the history of Senate House Library, for several years now, vaguely noting certain points as I looked for others. One of the points noted on the side was references suddenly appearing from the 1950s or 1960s about the Library’s strong Shakespearean holdings – not just special collections with a Shakespearean interest, but generally strong Shakespearean holdings.

This struck me particularly because one of my interests, as the de facto Senate House Library historian, was in the library’s beginnings and its strengths. The official start of the library – as opposed to books in a bookcase in somebody’s office – came with the foundation collections of the mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan and the classical historian George Grote. De Morgan had a wonderful collection of early mathematical books, some very rare, which almost 150 years after the gift remain among the jewels of the special collections. But from a purely functional point of view, multiple early editions of Euclid or William Oughtred did not seem a particularly practical start to the University Library. Grote’s library was much broader, but still reflected his personal interests: classics, history, economics. There was little money in the early years to buy books. The next major gift, in 1903, was of economics books. English literature barely had a look-in. So the basic question was how the library got from there to here, i.e. from a position of weakness concerning England’s greatest playwright to one which the library vaunted.

The answer was fascinating for the number of contributory factors. Several exceedingly strong Shakespearean collections arise primarily or exclusively from the benefaction of a single man: Henry Clay Folger’s collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington; Shakespearean editor Edmond Malone’s collection at the Bodleian Library; editor Edward Capell’s collection at Trinity College, Cambridge; James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipp’s books at various places. Senate House Library’s holdings came together from disparate sources: most significantly the libraries of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (a Baconian), bequeathed by his widow, and Sir Louis Sterling, but enriched by various other gifts and purchases too.

Researching the paper, a few books stood out. These include:

  • A German translation / adaptation of Hamlet by Friedrich Ludwig Schröder, present in the Library from its earliest days (and currently in the Library’s Shakespeare exhibition). We know that it was held by the University of London even before the opening of a university from the form of the institutional ownership stamp, which was used from 1838 onwards but which had been discontinued by the arrival of the two founding collections in 1871. When I was reconstituting the very first bulk gift of books made to the University in 1838, I tentatively ascribed this edition of Hamlet to that donation, made by a medical practitioner from Ilfracombe. Language, format, genre and time of publication all fitted in; the only problem was that the book had been rebound, destroying clear evidence in the form of the man’s name (Nathaniel Vye) on an endpaper. By the time I started to work on Shakespeare at the University, my ascription of the volume to the Vye gift had become much more confident.
  • The second edition of John Upton’s Critical Observations on Shakespeare (1748). The final leaf has been cancelled, the cancellandum containing eight errata pertaining to the text and the cancellans adding two errata pertaining to the index, and the Senate House Library contains the leaf in both states. This book also has interesting provenance, having been owned by a fellow of University College Oxford, Samuel Horne (b. 1733 or 1734) from 1759 and, in November 1885, having been purchased at a second-hand bookshop on the Strand by James M. Beck of Philadelphia (1861-1936), a lawyer who later served briefly as assistant to the Attorney General of the United States and who wrote books and articles about the First World War and Germany’s responsibility. Like Sir Louis Sterling’s Shakespeare folios, this book crossed the Atlantic twice: the immediate source of acquisition of the book is the Shakespeare Memorial Library, one of a large batch of items purchased from it in 1951.

Shakespeare acquisitions at Senate House Library do not exist in isolation. Learning about Shakespeare is part of learning more about the library as a whole; a building block in a continuing process.

Dr Karen Attar spoke on this topic in a free public lecture on Tuesday 26th April at Senate House Library.

Blog post details

  • 25 Apr 2016

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