In April 2015, State Library Victoria received the most significant and valuable donation of rare books in its 160 year history. The collection of over 5,000 titles was assembled by Melbourne barrister John Emmerson between 1968, when he began collecting, and his death in August 2014. The collection comprises mainly 16th and 17th century English printed works, with a particular focus on the reign of King Charles I and the events surrounding the English Civil War.
One year on, we thought it was timely to look back over the extraordinary work being carried out by our rare book cataloguers Derrick Moors and Richard Overell, who are currently cataloguing the collection. Below, Richard tells us something about their experiences working with this incredible collection.
It was just after Easter last year that Derrick Moors and I began to catalogue the 5,022 titles in the John Emmerson Collection. Progress has been brisk and we have now done 2,290.
As rare books cataloguers you expect to have the opportunity of working closely with many beautiful and priceless items but the Emmerson Collection is truly exceptional. It is by far the best collection of early English books in Australia, and its concentration of books from the 17th century, especially those produced during the English Civil War of the 1640s, give us the opportunity of closely examining many very scarce items produced in that turbulent time.
There are several outstanding books in fine bindings, possibly the best of these is The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James, (1616) a presentation copy given by the King, James I, to his son Charles, later to be King Charles I.
There are also embroidered bindings, one of which, Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Policy (1635), is thought to have belonged to Queen Henrietta Marie, Charles I’s wife.
We are cataloguing the books item by item, shelf by shelf, keeping them in the order in which John arranged them in his own book-cases, so we are often taken by surprise at the next book we open. An example is a copy of the Eikon Basilike (1649). This is one of the most common books from the period. It was published in 36 editions in 1649 alone. It appeared ten days after the execution of Charles I and is presented as the King’s thoughts in his own defence. It has an intriguing symbolic frontispiece centred on the King himself. We were cataloguing at least a shelf of these when we opened yet another inconspicuous small volume, but this one had the folding frontispiece with beautiful hand-colouring.
The collection also includes another copy of the Eikon in an embroidered binding.
John did not collect primarily for the fineness of the bindings. He certainly preferred to buy books in contemporary bindings and he preferred the pamphlets from the period to be untrimmed and in as close to original condition as possible. This was all a part of his aim to achieve through his collection as authentic a feel for that early era as possible.
During the 1640s in particular, pamphlets poured from the presses at the rate of several a day and were quickly circulated, essentially as propaganda for the opposing sides, the King’s Cavaliers and the Parliament’s Roundheads. John had them arranged in day by day order so we can track the turmoil as it happened. Many of these were official announcements but they also include graphic descriptions of victories and defeats on the battlefields up and down England.
One of the aspects which John collected as exhaustively as possible were the books and pamphlets concerned with the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, one of the most successful and charismatic of the Cavalier Generals.
The enemies of the King made much of Rupert’s poodle dog, “Boy” which he would take into battle with him. “Boy” appears in many pamphlets and satirical woodcuts. At the moment we are steadily working our way through hundreds of Civil War pamphlets, giving us the daily news. When we arrived at the accounts of the Battle of Marston Moor, (2 July 1644), among them was one with a woodcut on the title page, Ruperts sumpter, and private cabinet rifled, and a discovery of a pack of his jewels (1644).
This tells of the flight of Prince Rupert from the battle-field, leaving behind his pack animals and bags, and also his dog, who was killed by one of the Parliamentary soldiers. So we see the dead dog, (poor “Boy”), the contents of Rupert’s pack including a crucifix and various Papal Bulls (Rupert was a Catholic), and, so well-concealed we did not at first notice it, Rupert himself hiding in a bean field, as he apparently did to evade capture.
Incidentally the dog was killed by “A souldier skilled in necromancy” as “Boy” was supposed to be Rupert’s “familiar”, in league with the devil, who could, through his infernal power, deflect bullets. Only thus were the Puritans able to explain Prince Rupert’s success on the battle-field.
The cataloguing of the books themselves involves detailed description of the pagination and the gatherings (the sequence of letters printed at the foot of the pages, often a more accurate way than the pagination of determining the completeness or not of an early book; and detecting the possibility of corrections having been made during the printing, a frequent occurrence during the events of those times). We also describe any manuscript markings. These help point to the unique nature of each copy. Sometimes they are corrections or comments by contemporaries or early readers. As an example, we have been discovering pamphlets with the mark (a cross inside a circle) and shorthand notes of John Rushworth, a contemporary and one of the earliest historians of the period.
The provenance of the book is also noted, in particular ownership marks such as signatures and bookplates. John collected heavily from important libraries dispersed through the auction rooms in the period during which he was buying. The books belonging to John Evelyn, the seventeenth century diarist and those from the Fairfax family library feature strongly in the Emmerson Collection. The Fairfax family were descendants of Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), general and Parliamentary commander-in-chief during the English Civil War.
For those who wish to look at the records, they can all be retrieved by the term “John Emmerson Collection”. We include that in one of the note fields, followed by the acquisition number which John assigned to each book.
Though there is still a great deal to do we are hopeful that we will be able to have the Emmerson Collection fully catalogued late next year.
A selection of early printed books from the John Emmerson collection can currently be viewed in the Library’s Mirror of the World exhibition, located on level 4 of the Dome Galleries.