Dante at Christmas

Now that it’s Advent, if you like, or the Christmas season (if you’re in marketing), one’s thoughts turn to family and the giving of tokens of affection. It’s easy to be cynical, as Tom Lehrer was in his Christmas Carol, but I prefer to be solemn and joyous, if I can muster it. If you’re not contemplating the Christ-child, you can at least take the time from work and contemplate, well, something else. It seems to me that, on balance, most old books have been gifts within families; this is quite significant. I have elsewhere outlined my theory of The Book’s Progress:

1. A book is loved and desired and bought.
2. A book is passed down, and loved for being loved by the donor.
3. A book is passed down and number of times, and becomes set-decoration, or, more optimistically, a hollowish token of beauty and erudition.

There are, of course, exceptions. Perverse as it may seem, I spend a little too much time thinking what I would rescue from the shop were there a fire. My answer isn’t our most valuable or the rarest or the most consequential, it is, though, the most constant and potent source of joy to my eye:

Dante Alighieri, ed. Baldassare Lombardi. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri col comento del P. Baldassare Lombardi M.C. Ora nuovamente arrichito di molte illustrazioni edite ed inedite. Five volumes. Padua: Tipographia della Minerva, 1822.

Bound in contemporary vellum, stab-bound, the spines and covers are extra-gilt, with jolly red for title-piece and deep deep blue for number-piece. When we bought it, it was nearly coal-black, but with great timidity — perhaps temerity? — we cleaned it Elgin-marbles-style (i.e., with good sense), and now it truly glows.

Dante is, of course, a natural subject for Christmas (no in-laws–hell-fire jokes, please); so much of the narrative of descent and ascent is likened to birth and redemption. More poetically (than Dante?), I can see these volumes flickering in the light of a fireplace, their bow liquid at their heels.

A gift-inscription on the first free end-paper of each volume reads:

Margaret Lindsay
from her Affectionate
Grandmama — 
Rome 31st December
1838 — 

What a delightful gift to have received on one’s Grand Tour. But who was this Margaret Lindsay, and who her Affectionate Grandmama? Margaret Lindsay was born 31 December 1824 (what a fourteenth birthday present!), and received this set from her maternal grandmother, Lady Trotter (Margaret (née Gordon), wife of Sir Coutts Trotter, 1st Bt.); her paternal grandmother (the Hon. Mrs. Robert Lindsay (Elizabeth, née Dick)) had died in 1835. In 1846 Lindsay married her cousin Alexander Lindsay, who would in 1869 become the 25th Earl of Crawford and 8th Earl of Balcarres. The Earldom of Crawford is among the oldest in the United Kingdom. The 25th Earl and his son together built up the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, which at the turn of the twentieth century was one of the foremost private libraries in Europe. The present item does not bear a bookplate of the Lindesiana, perhaps because it remained in the personal collection of the countess. There are pressed flowers in the middle volume.

It is not hard to imagine why the countess held these books close, perhaps passing them to one of her daughters.

In the face of all the Tickle-Me-Elmi and Ex-boxes, let us all hope to receive books of beauty, and to give them to our daughters and granddaughters.

A Ducal Voyage

Booksellers cherish provenance, and yet they are so often the engines of its destruction. I’m not sure that I’ve anything more profound than that to say on the matter, but if one’s going to rejoice in something, one must acknowledge one’s hypocrisy in the rejoicing, lest one be a hypocrite.

First, let’s sing the praises of the book itself.

Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World. Describing particularly, The Isthmus of America, several Coasts and Islands in the West Indies, the Isles of Cape Verd, the Passage by Terra del Fuego, the South Sea Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico; the Isle of Guam one of the Ladrones, Mindanao, and other Philippine and East India Islands near Cambodia, China, Formosa, Luconia, Celebes, &c. New Holland, Sumatra, Nicobar Isles; the Cape of Good Hope, and Santa Hellena. Their Soil, Rivers, Harbours, Plants, Fruits, Animals and Inhabitants. Their Customes, Religion, Government, Trade, &c. Three volumes. London: Printed for James Knapton. Vol. I: fifth edition corrected, 1703; vol. II: third edition, 1705; vol. III: second edition, 1709.

First man to circumnavigate the globe thrice (a stretch, but a long stretch) and first Englishman to land deliberately on New Holland (present day Australia – oi, oi, oi!), William Dampier was a buccaneer promoted to the captaincy of a Royal Navy ship largely on the strength of the first volume of this book (which was originally published in 1697 as a stand-alone account). His accounts of the Southern Hemisphere – Brazil, Chile, China, Vietnam, Australia – gripped the nation so much so that he went on two further circumnavigations to satisfy their curiosity.

The influence of the work cannot be overstated. It contains the first natural historical observations on (and illustrations of) the species of Australia, and these helped to shape Darwin’s theories of evolution by natural selection. Its analysis of global currents and winds informed the explorers that succeeded him. Its Nachleben is equally literary: Dampier is mentioned by name in Gulliver’s Travels (and it seems quite clear that the Yahoos are taken from his description of the Hottentots); Alexander Selkirk, who was a likely model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a crew-member on Dampier’s 1703 voyage; and Simon Hatley, who shot an albatross as a sailor aboard another of Dampier’s voyages, is immortalized in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Shouldn’t that be enough? Now to the provenance of the volumes. Behold: the full and florid signature of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817) along with the date.

The stature of Marlborough need hardly be rehearsed. Blenheim Palace is the only non-royal non-episcopal palace in England; just outside of Oxford, it is magnificent, and its library, called Sunderland after one of the secondary titles of the Duke (usually used as a courtesy title by the heir apparent: the Earl of Sunderland), was once one of the greatest in England. The fifth Duke, George Spencer-Churchill, was a noted bibliophile. Yet by the time of the seventh Duke (grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill), the finances of the estate were precarious, and he sold off pictures, furniture and books –  including the present volumes – 

to reverse his fortunes, which was not achieved until the marriage of his grandson, the ninth Duke, to Consuelo Vanderbilt, heiress of the Vanderbilt railroad fortune.

Second, a bookplate with the arms of the Wharton family (that’s a maunch, a stylized sleeve):

It is difficult to ascertain which Wharton’s bookplate is found in the volumes, and whether he was the owner before or after the Duke of Marlborough, in whose library it remained from 1779-1882. If before, it belongs to Thomas Wharton, M.D. of Old Park Hall, County Durham (†1714, son of Thomas Wharton, M.D., who was instrumental in ending the 1666 plague of London). The shape of the shield with its characteristic “ears” as well as the style of the engraving does point to an eighteenth-century date. If after, it belongs to a descendant of Thomas Wharton, Henry Wharton of Highfield, Canterbury, New Zealand (b. 1844), who will perhaps have bought it at the Quaritch sale of 1885-6. It would seem that the placement of the bookplate in vol. I respects the placement of the Duke’s signature, whereas the other two bookplates are centered on the page. The strong association of the work with the Antipodes would have made it attractive to the New Zealander.

We purchased it (in the interest of full disclosure) on the East End of Long Island, whither it came from some Gold Coast Mansion, no doubt.


Vol. I: A-Mm8 Nn4 [$4; –A1]. 284 leaves, pp. [10], I II-VI, 1-384 387-550, [4] [=xvi, 548, 4]. Three engraved folding maps, one engraved map. Collated perfect with British Library copy (303.h.22).

Vol. II: A4 B-M8 N4 Aa-Hh8 Ii4 Aaa-Ggg8 [A]4 [a]4 [B]4 [b]4 [C]4 [c]4 [D]4 [d]4 [E]4 [e]2 [$4; –Ii3; Ddd3 mis-signed as “Dd3”]. 258 leaves, pp. [8], 1-184, 21-132, [4], 31-112, [76]. Four engraved folding maps. The third and fourth maps (before 31 [Aaa1]) are reversed; otherwise collated perfect with British Library copy (303.h.23). 

Vol. III: A8 a4 B-M8 2A-O8 [$4; –A1, 2A1; H4 mis-signed as “G4”]. 212 leaves, pp. [24], 1-162, [14], [16], 21-198, [10]. Two engraved folding maps, thirty-one engraved plates (14 in part I, 17 in part II). British Library copy (303.h.24(1) and (2)) has plates of part I out of order; the present item is correct; else collated perfect.