Friday, 2 September 2016

The Treasure Within 1 : Bell’s Poets

Among the LMI Collection’s treasures is a cluster of little gems, a set of very small, uniformly bound volumes: all 109 of them. 

Ten of LMI’s set of 109 pocket-sized Bell’s Poets volumes; 30cm ruler resting on top.

They have an intriguing past, not only in the history of London book production and bookselling, but in the air of mystery surrounding their acquisition by the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute in the second year of its life. Their collective name is Bell’s Poets, or as their richly illustrated title pages announce: Bell’s Edition – The Poets of Great Britain Complete, from Chaucer to Churchill.

Vignette of the author and half-title page for #52 in the series: Jonathan Swift, Vol I

(the quotation from ‘Corinna’ reads: ‘But Cupid with a Satyr comes; Both softly to the Cradle creep.’)

The ambitious goal of its founders for the Mechanics’ Institute was to make it a force for enlightenment that would attract the general public, and most particularly artisans, tradesmen, practical working men who might otherwise spend their time and money on frivolous entertainments, or worse still, drink. The greatest emphasis initially of these nineteenth-century social reformers was upon lectures and intellectually stimulating activities for larger audiences, but an accessible library was an essential component too. Scientific apparatus, natural history specimens and museum items were soon to follow.

In the few months following its founding meeting in March 1842 the Institute came to include many of Launceston’s leading citizens: Police Magistrate WH Breton, the Rev Charles Price, Rev John West, Rev. Dr Browne, Dr Grant, VW Giblin, James Robertson, Thomas Button and William Henty among others, whose donations put together an initial collection of books and periodicals. In the report from the Board of Management at the end of 1842 the Secretary (and Librarian) Mr TJ Connor noted 170 volumes. By October 1843 this had risen through donations not only by members but by others such as its patron Sir John Franklin, Lady Jane Franklin, and James Aikenhead, the proprietor of the Launceston Examiner. To these were added periodicals, including current newspapers from within the colony and elsewhere and by the purchase of the Penny, Blackwoods and Family Magazines and Chambers Edinburgh Journal.

It is in the Annual Report in October 1844 that alongside the donation by members Dr Kenworthy (of Lardner's Encyclopedia, 109 vols.) and Mr Oakden (8 volumes of Shakespeare’s works) that the first purchases of books are recorded. They are headed by: Novels of Sir Walter Scott (48 vols.), Bell’s Poets (109 vols.) and British Essayists (40 vols.) The cost altogether does not appear to be great, as the financial summary for the year has two listings of ‘Books as pr acct’, for £12.6.0d and £1.1.6d. By whom these accounts were presented, and whether they were local, wider colonial or London-based is not known. The partial unfolding of that story will wait for another post.

The early donations and purchases show a desire to provide a foundation library of reference for members, especially through the Lardner’s Encyclopedia volumes for information and the Bell’s British Poets for the best in literature, where it took its place beside works of Shakespeare, Scott and Byron, the latter two being the towering British literary figures of the earlier Nineteenth Century. 

It is not so easy now to recognise how pre-eminent poetry was in the canons of English literature from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, but there is no doubt that for the citizens of Van Diemen’s Land making connection to the finest cultural artefacts of the mother country, poetry had a central place. To have so encyclopedic a representation of English poetry in their library was a way of ‘covering the field’. It is particularly notable that in the next 20 years, during which the library grew to over 4,000 volumes, Bell’s Poets served as the core, a form of collective anthology to which specifically desired authors were added. The poets included by Bell were not in general represented in future purchases or the increasingly scarce donations.

So when and where did the idea of producing the works of the leading British poets in sets of pocket-sized volumes emerge?  The story is told in a fine history of an aspect of late eighteenth-century publishing, Thomas F. Bonnell’s 2008 study: The Most Disreputable Trade – Publishing the Classics of English Poetry, 1765-1810 (OUP).

A tradition of publishing the most famous of Greek and Roman authors spread almost universally throughout Europe with the dissemination of the technology of printing in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries. Accompanying the exuberant spirit of the Renaissance, too, came a growing pride in national literatures in Italy, France, Spain and, somewhat belatedly, in England for its greatest poets, dramatists and, later still, its prose writers.

Libraries of the aristocratic, the wealthy and the educated became filled with locally produced works, finely printed and often bound by the owners uniformly according to their own tastes, furnished with their family crests and bookplates. It was yet another step taken in the mid- to later Eighteenth Century for British publishers to bring out ‘pocket’ editions sufficiently small for them to be carried while travelling by coach or on board ship. Sometimes the publisher or bookseller would provide a custom-made travelling case for these miniature libraries.

The earliest in this mode of publication came from Glasgow with Robert and Andrew Foulis in 1765, followed soon after by William Creech and John Balfour in Edinburgh in 1773. The market was further stimulated by a change in copyright law in 1774 that no longer gave privilege to the old guard of London publishers who had claimed ‘the classics’ as their own territory.

An enterprising young London bookseller, John Bell, previously shut out by established rivals in the trade, saw his opportunity. Working with probably the best craftsman printers in Edinburgh, Gilbert Martin and his sons at the Apollo Press, Bell began his serial edition of the British poets in 1776. Starting with Milton, and working his way steadily through a further 49 earlier and later poets, he concluded with fourteen volumes of Chaucer in 1783.  Each one was furnished with its own engraving illustrating a few lines from one of the poems included, and a vignette of each poet at the start of the volume or subseries of his works.

Of the 50 poets featured, all but three, Chaucer, Spenser and Donne, flourished from the mid-Seventeenth to the mid-Eighteenth Century. Many of the remaining 47 are now largely forgotten, but at the time were popular and eminent enough to command an audience, and not just amongst the wealthy.  These works attracted sales from an educated middle-class and less affluent readership.

Bell’s terms were:  

Complete sets, 109 vols, neatly sewed and titled, £8 8s
Ditto, bound, calf, gilt and registered,   £13 13s.
Ditto, calf, gilt, elegantly marbled, and registered, £16 16s.
Ditto, superbly in Morocco, gilt edges, £3 3s.

It cost a further £2 2s. for a special case, ingeniously designed to look like two folio volumes (ref. Bonnell, p. 125).

Top half of an original folio case opened to show the first 52 volumes of Bell’s British Poets

These prices were certainly very reasonable, and opened what was otherwise an esoteric field to a whole new audience. Bell claimed the price of any one volume sewn in its plain wrapper at 1s 6d was a quarter the cost of any other publisher’s. And in the prospectus, like any bold entrepreneur, he vaunted ‘every page of the work may be admired as a typographical picture which displays at once the divinity and perfections in the art of printing.’ A more moderate twentieth-century estimate still praises it highly, however, by saying: ‘the type, though small, was clear and well spaced, the letterpress title-pages handsomely laid out, the engraved half-titles smartly conceived, and the portraits uncommonly well engraved from good originals.’ (both quotations taken from Stanley Morison, ‘John Bell: A Note Addressed to the Members of the First Edition Club, in Morison’s John Bell, Cambridge, Mass.,1960; quoted in Bonnell, p.130.)

It is clear why the LMI members should think of a set of Bell’s Poets to grace their new library. The set they bought has a mixture of the first and second editions, as well as later editions up to 1788, and the quality appears to the next-to-highest available.

So where did they acquire it, and what do the volumes themselves now in the Mechanics’ Institute Collection tell us about this phenomenon of British publishing and what was available to Launceston readers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century?  A later post will elaborate.

 Contributed by Mike McCausland