Page-turning detective tales

The Book Trade and its Customers 1450-1900
January 16, 1998

This is a volume of halves. A collection of 17 essays divided into those dealing with the producers and sellers of books and those covering the buying side of the trade equation. Conceptually, it functions partly as a Festschrift for Robin Myers - one-time schoolteacher and librarian, honorary archivist of the Stationers' Company and recently elected first female president of the Bibliographical Society - and partly as another valuable contribution to book history scholarship from St Paul's Bibliographies in the excellent tradition of its Publishing Pathways series. Like Myers, the book is erudite and generous.

On the front of the dust wrapper and the title page the titular "Book Trade" is set slightly larger than "its Customers": a reflection of the respective weights of the two structural "halves" of the volume. The trade section is the more homogeneous and the larger of the two, and it demonstrates a real epistemological progression in bibliographical studies, from examinations of the material components of paper, ink and type and the technologies and techniques of the printing process to wider social and economic analyses: of the dissemination of texts through the business relations of manufacturers, middle-men and traders in books; of commercial connections and the transfer of intellectual property through copyright and patents. The customer half is more catch-all. It includes a descriptive tour of some of the fine-bound volumes in the National Library of Wales alongside studies on the collection-building processes of bibliophiles such as Sir Edward Sherburne and Francis Fry; it comprises those contributions that did not obviously fit into the first section.

The essays in the volume divide just as naturally into another set of two: those that are discrete and complete exemplars of minutely argued bibliographical scholarship and those that shine brief but bright light on under-researched areas and invite others to take up the investigative challenge. Both classes of contribution use, and sometimes reproduce, previously unpublished primary source material.

Outstanding of the first type is Arnold Hunt's examination of early 17th-century book trade patents. Hunt takes the precision tools of painstaking bibliographical analysis of the old school - of Edward Arber, of Sir Walter Greg, of the Short Title Catalogue -Jand turns them to the wider commercial environment of the book trades. By demonstrating how patents were used to circumvent entries in the Stationers' Register as a means of determining copyright, Hunt argues for a re-evaluation of the role of the Stationers' Company in the 1600s "as a period when the Company's monopoly was seriously threatened". An annotated list of the 75 patents examined is generously reproduced, superseding those listings provided by Arber, Greg's Companion to Arber and the STC.

Complementing Hunt's contribution, Giles Mandelbrote's study of late 17th-century copyright ownership is based on the shareholdings in the Shakespearean oeuvre of the energetic and imaginative bookseller Richard Bentley, before their more comprehensively documented passing to Richard Wellington and Jacob Tonson II in the 18th century. Mandelbrote's primary source, a vellum indenture document between Bentley's widow and the duke of Wellington from the Public Record Office, is reproduced for the first time at the end of the essay.

T. A. Birrell's account of the acquisitional zeal of Sherburne is the product of the identification and attribution of a 1680s library catalogue of some 2,000 titles from the manuscript collections of the Bodleian. Michael Treadwell's study of Richard Lapthorne, an upmarket book-runner of late Stuart London, is based on unpublished correspondence. It saves from obscurity a figure who is "very much a Robin Myers type of character".

Of the suggestive rather than comprehensive articles, Esther Potter's account of the changing role of the trade bookbinder through the 19th century is attractively discursive. In collections such as this, the essays on bindings tend to get all the good illustrations; but, for a change, the focus here is not on splendidly personalised copies for private collectors but on mass-production packaging: Potter's plates include one of the blind-stamped, cloth-bound My crochet sampler by Miss Lambert, price 2/6 of 1844.

Christine Ferdinand's short survey of the role of Magdalen College as a customer to the late 15th-century book trade in Oxford is a tempter for her forthcoming history of the college's library, while other essays are a call to arms for fellow researchers. Michael Harris's account of mid-18th-century engraving and print-selling argues for a broader approach to the study of the interdependent areas of text and illustration production and commerce. The Tottell family documents, which detail the business connections of a 16th century stationer, are introduced by Anna Greening, who takes the opportunity to encourage others to exploit the newly available bibliographical resource of the Stationers' Company archives, where the Tottell papers are preserved.

Other essays of encouragement include James Tierney's call for a less anglocentric analysis of 18th-century Dublin-London publishing relations, and David Pearson's brief plea for explanations for the incorporation of the Stationers' Company's arms in gilt-tooled, panel stamped bindings of the early 17th century.

It comes as little surprise that all of the essays in this volume are scrupulously referenced and annotated; what is perhaps less expected is that many of them tell good, readable, even rollicking stories. Elisabeth Leedham-Green's tale of the attempt by a young orphaned son of a bookseller-printer to break into the Cambridge book trades of the 1590s is not only an economic story of a restrictive market but also a theological one of Calvinist zeal and ecclesiastical intrigue. There are more frustrated ideological aspirations and more theological factionalism evident in Scott Mandelbrote's account of the abortive attempts to produce a successful subscription Bible in Dublin in the early 18th century to counter the dominance of London imports.

The story of the publication of John Clubbe's Antiquities of Wheatfield in 1758, a satire on Philip Morant's historical study of Colchester and on antiquarian bookishness in general, is presented by Alison Shell as a battle between antiquarianism and wit, between ancients and moderns, in which the different impulses governing the physical formats of the two texts are as marked as the ideological divide. Her approach takes book studies towards the territory of modern critical theory, though she handles the terminology lightly and adroitly enough to avoid laying herself open to easy satire.

The blockbuster of the collection is James Raven's charting of the relations between the enthusiastic Charleston Library Society in South Carolina and their serial suppliers in the London book trades, complete with tales of pirates and hijacks on the high seas. What also emerges is a rather more prosaic and familiar story of London booksellers failing to meet the exacting and optimistic standards of their American clients.

The thumbnail sketch and the personal memoirs of Myers from colleagues and friends that conclude the volume are unexpectedly domestic. But, by this time, a strong sense of the archivist of the Stationers' Company has already become apparent, not least from the duality of the collection that so accurately reflects the delicate double act of the bibliographical archivist: as primary researcher in textual analysis and scholarship and as catalyst and facilitator of the research of others. It is an apt and useful tribute.

Christopher Phipps is administrator, London Library.

The Book Trade and its Customers 1450-1900

Author - Arnold Hunt, Giles Mandelbrote and Alison Shell
ISBN - 1 873040 42 3
Publisher - St Paul's Bibliographies and Oak Knoll Press
Price - £46.00
Pages - 316

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