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Provenance Pitfalls

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1517), one of three books in the library of Archbishop William Wake (1657–1737) formerly owned by John Dee (1527-1608/9).

Most of the books in the main room of the Upper Library are shelved in named collections, each taking its name from a benefactor. In the past it has commonly been assumed that this was a reliable guide to their provenance, and that books in a particular collection could be assumed to have belonged to the person whose name was attached to it.

This is emphatically not the case. Close examination of the contents of individual named collections reveals that all of them contain significant quantities of material which demonstrably have nothing to do with the named benefactor. It is generally unwise to assume anything about the provenance of books without checking them carefully, and where possible consulting archival sources in the Library records.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1517), one of three books in the library of Archbishop William Wake (1657–1737) formerly owned by John Dee (1527-1608/9).

The following notes contain preliminary observations on the relation between the arrangement of books and their provenance in the Upper Library, made in the course of the recent recataloguing work. The shelves against the north wall of the Upper Library contain four collections: Nicholson, Aldrich, Stratford and Morris. Of these, only Morris can be linked with the named benefactor, and then only indirectly. The books are in fact arranged in a broad subject classification, beginning with Bibles in Nicholson and ending with Oriental languages in Morris. There is no evidence that this is a re-arrangement of an earlier provenance arrangement, or that the significance of the names on the cases is anything other than commemorative. Some books, however, contain shelfmarks of an earlier pattern, in which the name of the collection comes last: D.4.31.Ald. (now AD.8.3), I.3.16.Str. (now ND.7.11) or E.10.2.Strat. (now NC.1.2). These cannot be Upper Library shelfmarks and were probably assigned when the collections were housed elsewhere in the College whilst the New Library was being built. It seems likely that these earlier shelfmarks do reflect the provenance of the books, and this assumption appears to be supported by comparison with the surviving catalogues of the various bequests.

Nicholson commemorates Otho Nicholson, who paid for the refitting of the Old Library in the early seventeenth century, and who subsequently gave £100 to purchase books. These can easily be recognised by their characteristic gold-tooled armorial stamps, but few of these are in the named collection in the Upper Library; most are in the attic store rooms or the basement stacks. The 723 books in the section known as Nicholson come from a wide variety of sources, and consist mainly of Bibles and works of Biblical commentary.

Aldrich contains editions of classical texts and books on art and architecture, numbering 1089 in all. By no means all can be said to have belonged to Dean Henry Aldrich (1649-1710), and there are certainly books in other parts of the library which belonged to him. There are early catalogues in Library records, but these are difficult to use, and finding any one book in them can be extremely time-consuming.

Stratford contains books on history and modern languages, including some belonging to Canon William Stratford (1672-1729). A catalogue of his books will be found in Library records, but it is not alphabetically arranged and thus not readily searchable. There are a number of books in the Stratford section whose late eighteenth-century bookplates are marked 'G' or 'Gy'. These seem to be the books from the bequest of Dean David Gregory (1696-1767) which were temporarily removed to the Deanery in 1825 as a note in Library records 24 testifies. The majority of Dean Gregory's books are housed in one of the Upper Library attics.

Morris, numbering 1133 items, contains most of the Library's early oriental books. Many of these were presumably purchased by the trust fund established by John Morris (d. 1648), Regius Professor of Hebrew, but there is little evidence that many, if any, of the books belonged to Morris personally.

The two large collections shelved against the south wall present fewer problems. Most straightforward is Wake, which was administered separately until 1867 and has therefore been less susceptible to admixture with books from other sources. It certainly contains some material which did not belong to Archbishop William Wake (1657-1737), and though most of the books in it carry special engraved bookplates with his arms, these were printed for the library over a long period of time, and are not a reliable guide to provenance. Fortunately Wake's library catalogues, including an annotated 1674 Bodleian printed catalogue, survive in Library records, and these can be checked. The books are arranged in a broadly classified sequence similar to that along the north wall; many of those towards the west end are later additions.

The Orrery collection occupies the gallery, which was added to the original design when Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery (1676-1731) left his substantial library to the House2. It appears that most if not all of Orrery's books were originally shelved in this gallery, broadly arranged once again by subject. Unfortunately the shelves themselves were later altered and a considerable amount of rearrangement and addition continued to be carried out until well into the 20th century. The engraved Orrery bookplates are again not a reliable guide to provenance, since successive librarians pasted them into books shelved in the gallery which had nothing to do with the original bequest. Many books however bear previous shelfmarks similar to those from the Aldrich and Stratford bequests, such as E.9.47.Orr. (now Ol.3.11) and R.1.86.Orr (now OB.7.28) and these seem to be a better indicator of Orrery's ownership than the current shelfmarks. There is also a catalogue of the bequest in Library records

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