Italian provenance and the LRI Library: Benjamin Gibson’s books

At the heart of the Liverpool Royal Institution’s library was a collection of books bequeathed by the sculptor and antiquary Benjamin Gibson (1811?-1851). Indeed, at around 170 volumes in total, Gibson’s donation represented almost half of the total collection.

A selection of Gibson’s books, many of which are bound in vellum.

Benjamin Gibson was born in Conwy, Wales, and grew up in Liverpool. His early sculptures were displayed at various locations around the city, including at the Academy of the Liverpool Royal Institution. In 1836, after the death of his mother, Gibson moved from Liverpool to join his older brother – John Gibson (1790-1866) – in Rome. John had been forging a successful career there for nearly 20 years already. Having studied under the master Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Cannova (1757-1822), he went on to run a bustling studio in the Via della Fontanella.

In Rome, Benjamin assisted his brother, as well as continuing to create his own works (many of which were commissioned by members of the LRI, and sent back to Liverpool). He also devoted a considerable part of his energies to buying books. Indeed, such was his bibliomania, on his death in 1851 John Gibson is said to have described Benjamin as more of a book collector than a sculptor.

Gibson signed each of his books.

An expert on Greek and Latin literature, Benjamin Gibson amassed a formidable collection Classical texts. Whilst particularly strong in Latin and Greek language and literature and in antiquities, Gibson’s books covered a great wide range of subject areas – from history to maths, through mythology and military science:

Flavius Vegetius Renatus,, “De re militari” (SPEC Y60.3.6), a treatise on Roman warfare and military principles.

The vast majority of Gibson’s books date from before 1800, with nearly half of them printed during the 17th century. Gibson also owned 30 books printed in the 16th century – the earliest work in his collection being a 1532 printing of Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) Peri genealogias deorvm (SPEC EP.D11).

A number of Gibson’s books have evidence of prior Roman owners. For example, three of his books bear the stamp “Biblioth: Corsinia vetus”. Founded by Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) – born Lorenzo Corsini – the Corsiniana family library was donated to Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, a science academy in Rome, by his descendant Tommaso Corsini (1835-1919) in 1883. The result of this merger, the Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana, is still housed in the rather magnificent Palazzo Corsini.

Ownership marks of the Biblioteca Corsiniana

Another three books are stamped “Libraria Colonna”, having belonged to the Colonna family, another papal noble family of Rome:

Indeed, Gibson’s books are rich in provenance, with previous owners from all over Europe. Other names associated with the collection include Spanish clergyman and intellectual, Jose Sáenz de Aguirre (1630-1699), Italian bishop and biologist Anton Felice Marsili (1651-1710) and French lawyer and journalist Jean-Jacques Lenoir-Laroche (1749-1825).


Roscoe, Ingrid, Emma Hardy and M.G. Sullivan. A biographical dictionary of sculptors in Britain: 1660-1851. Available at: (accessed 31/07/2019).

The Liverpool Royal Institution Library

Introducing our latest newly catalogued collection – the books of the Liverpool Royal Institution (LRI). This is a substantial collection of over 300 titles, published between 1516 and 1887. The LRI books relate chiefly to the Institution’s natural history and art collections, but they are also rich in classical texts, and works of history and politics.

The library and archives, partly destroyed in the bombing of Liverpool in 1941, were transferred to University College, Liverpool in 1894. A “Hand List of Books and Pamphlets of the Liverpool Royal Institution kept at the Tate Library, University College, Liverpool” (Liverpool, 1894) records books transferred to the University, including Gould’s Birds of Australia and Benjamin Gibson’s 1851 bequest of 171 volumes (more on this in our next post). The 1894 transfer was commemorated by a bookplate designed by Robert Anning Bell. A surviving borrowers’ register shows loans made 1859-1893.

Robert Anning Bell bookplate marking the 1894 transfer.

Liverpool Royal Institution was the brainchild of William Roscoe and friends, who published their detailed plan for its activities in 1814. Roscoe was the Chairman of its General Committee in 1814, its first President in 1822, and delivered the 80-page inaugural address at its opening, 25 November 1817.

Liverpool Royal Institution drew on the cultural impetus Roscoe and his circle gave Liverpool during  the late 18th century – founding the town’s Athenaeum, Literary and Philosophical Society, Lyceum (with the Liverpool Library), Liverpool Academy and Botanic Garden – and put it to the service of “promoting the increase and diffusion of Literature, Science and the Arts” (1). The 1814 plan provided for a School, Public Lectures, accommodation for Societies, Collections of Books, Art, and Natural History, a Laboratory and other Apparatus, and meeting rooms for the Proprietors, its financial backers.

19th century watercolour drawing of the Liverpool Royal Institution building on Colquitt Street. Image by courtesy of the Liverpool Records Office.

Writing the LRI’s history in 1953, Henry Ormerod was struck by “how much of the intellectual life of nineteenth century Liverpool was centred in the Royal Institution, and how many of our modern institutions originated either as the direct creation of the Institution itself, or as guests within its walls” (2).

By the end of the 19th century as the LRI’s natural successors, particularly the Public Library and Museum and University College Liverpool, were founded and thriving, the LRI collections were dispersed and its activities curtailed. You can still find its legacy today in the Walker Art Gallery (paintings), Liverpool Museum (natural history), the Victoria Gallery & Museum (minerals), and in the University of Liverpool.

And the LRI archive and Library are both available via Special Collections and Archives, and include lists of subscribers and proprietors; committee minutes; correspondence; legal records; catalogues of the collections; records of gifts; visitors’ books; and financial records.


(1) Detailed plan of Liverpool Institution, as determined upon by the committee – 18. Aug. 1814. Ref: GR.1.2(3) B/8

(2) H.A. Ormerod. The Liverpool Royal Institution: a Record and Retrospect. Liverpool University Press, 1953.

The Lancelyn Green Pamphlets

This post was written by 2nd year History student Aneurin Evans, reflecting on his work on the Lancelyn Green pamphlets for the HIST200 module.

As an undergraduate history student at the University of Liverpool, I was given the opportunity to work in the Special Collections and Archives of the University library. This was through my module History in Practice which was focused on practical applications of a history degree in employment. I worked on a collection of pamphlets donated by Roger Lancelyn-Green (1918-1987) of the prominent Wirral and Cheshire based family. The pamphlets were mostly collected by Thomas Green (d.1747), and as such most were printed in the years surrounding his lifetime between 1680 and 1740, though there are some outliers as early as the 1620s and as late as the mid 1800s. In total I went through around one thousand pamphlets, sorting them by size while noting their other physical characteristics such as inscriptions, damage, stitching and binding.

The pamphlets are almost universally of a religious nature: printed sermons, essays and back and forth arguments on theology. They sometimes comment on political events such as the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, through a religious perspective, and there is general discussion of liberties and the rights of men. However, most comment on more down to earth issues such as day-to-day morals and religious practice, offering insight into the cultural and religious life of the time. It must be noted that the writings come from a very specific and homogenous section of society and contribute mostly top-down perspectives. However, they certainly are still useful sources. The prominence of the authors positions and the sheer number of them make this collection really valuable, especially for anyone studying the history of religion, politics or the printing and consumption of writings in this period. The focus of the pamphlets is an advantage in this sense as it can provide a historian with deep and specific detail. As part of my cataloguing I noted how many copies of each pamphlet were available at other British universities and institutions, using the ESTC (English Short-Title Catalogue) database. A considerable number of pamphlets in the Lancelyn Green collection were one of five or fewer , and in some cases the only copy.

Much of the value of this collection lies in the attributes I was recording such as the size, format, stitching and binding. The collection is particularly useful for historians wanting to research these material aspects of written sources as the pamphlets have almost all been kept unbound as they were originally issued. The intact and well preserved nature of the collection gives an insight into the way that pamphlets were collected and read, as well as a good idea of the kind of literature a man like Thomas Green would have had access to and been reading. The pamphlets were more visually interesting and varied than one might expect. Though most were of a simple black and white design with only text, many others had printed ornaments or other illustrations on the cover pages that I am sure would be of interest to researchers but also serves to make browsing the collection more engaging. One element of design that stood out to me were the numerous multi-coloured and marbled covers on pamphlets throughout the collection, something I did not expect of widely circulated publications from the period.

Personally the work gave me an opportunity to experience a level of history I had not experienced before. By that I not only mean direct contact with physical primary sources but also the more practical side of research and preservation. Up to this point I had been more focused on secondary sources or reprinted primary sources. I knew relatively little about how high-level academic historical works were researched, compared to my undergraduate essays, and the ways in which primary sources are located and used by historians. In conclusion I would recommend that anyone interested in relevant historical research consults the Lancelyn Green pamphlet collection.


Digitized copies of the texts (mostly from copies in other libraries) of the Lancelyn Green pamphlets can be consulted online (with institutional login) in the following databases:

  • EEBO Early English Books Online
  • ECCO Eighteenth Century Collections Online
  • Roger Lancelyn Green, the donor of the collection, wrote about the pamphlets as they were originally kept in the Library at the family home on the Wirral in: Poulton Lancelyn. The Story of an Ancestral Home (Oxford, 1948)

The Grace Library – Trigonometrica Britannica

This is the second in a series of posts by 2nd year History student Eddie Meehan. Eddie is working on The Grace Library of the Department of Applied Mathematics, a collection of 17th to 19th century mathematics texts, centred around the collections of Walter and Alicia Stott and Duncan C Fraser, and named after Samuel Forster Grace. The collection is rooted firmly in the city and University of Liverpool, and particularly in the Liverpool Mathematics Society and the Worshipful Company of Actuaries.

Another interesting item I came across in the Grace Library collection was the Trigonometrica Britannica, written by Henry Briggs (1561-1631) and published posthumously in 1633. The volume is notably rare, and is a table of trigonometric values that is noted for its high accuracy. Briggs prepared the tables while he was a professor of geometry at Oxford University, assisted by Gellibrand (1597-1637) who was a professor at Gresham College, London, and it was published in Gouda – at the time part of the Dutch Republic rebelling against Spanish rule.

Tables of logarithms were vital to mathematics prior to calculators, particularly for work on navigation, which Briggs was particularly interested in and spent much of his time working on. In navigation, multiplication of many digit numbers was necessary, which could be performed by the addition of their logarithms. Thus, Briggs worked to compile the first ever table of base 10 logarithms. This simplified laborious calculations for astronomers and navigators at the time, while also proving very significant for more modern mathematics (although Briggs did not have any understanding of powers as we know them today).

The work’s importance to navigation was particularly significant as Briggs also worked with the Virginia Company, who were a joint stock company created by King James I to create colonies in America. The improvement to navigation allowed greater European expansion into the Americas and also further European navigation of the ‘South Sea’, now known as the South Pacific. The work was also significant for astronomy, as prior to its publication many astronomers had feared that the difficulty of accurate calculations of logarithms would make many astronomical discoveries far more difficult.

The copy in the university library is an original Gouda publication, inscribed by what appears to be a ‘Johannus Derning’ and with notes throughout. The book was given to the university in memory of Samuel Forster Grace according to its university bookplate. He was one of the most brilliant mathematicians at Liverpool in the early 20th century and was known for his work on tidal theory, but sadly died in 1937 at just 43 as a result of wounds suffered in World War I. 

V is for Vellum

Vellum is a type of high quality parchment made from calf skin – parchment being prepared animal skin (usually calf, sheep, or goat) used for writing, printing and binding manuscripts and books. The British Library’s Making Manuscripts site has a short video illustrating vellum.

Vellum and parchment are most familiar as the material used for medieval manuscripts, but books have been printed on parchment from the start of printing in the mid-15th century onwards. SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10, the first printed edition of a classical author (Cicero) was printed on vellum in 1465. SCA also holds several early 16th-century Books of Hours printed on vellum and decorated in just the same way as their manuscript companions. Fragments of parchment repurposed from manuscripts also appear in the collection as bindings, spine labels, endleaves, and page dividers.

SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10 Cicero (Mainz 1465) printed on vellum

Books printed on vellum would be the exception, sometimes specially commissioned, and more highly valued than the larger run of paper copies. A few copies printed on vellum are a common feature of limited editions and particularly of the output of private presses, including the Kelmscott Press

A prime example of a prized book printed on vellum is the 1888 Roxburghe Club edition (SPEC H91.36) which was, appropriately, the first printing of a 15th-century manuscript.

The fine collection of private press books bequeathed by William Noble includes (SPEC Noble A.22.18) one of the 10 copies printed on vellum (out of an edition of 210 copies in all) of the Eragny Press edition of Keats La belle dame sans merci (1896).

SPEC Noble A.22.18. One of 10 copies printed on vellum.

Noble’s bequest also contains many copies printed on ‘Japon (Japanese) vellum’ – not in fact parchment of any kind, but a particularly durable paper prepared to resemble vellum.

‘Limp vellum’ or limp parchment is a term used to describe bindings common in the 16th and 17th centuries, which might be simple undecorated wrappers or ornately decorated, for example the 1595 works of Tacitus at SPEC Y59.T4.2. Later books are also commonly half- or quarter-bound in parchment.

SPEC Y59.T4.2. vellum binding, with tape added to secure by wrapping around the volume.

T is for Title-page

Like so many elements of book design (bindings, bookplates, typography), the appearance of the title-page has been subject to fashions, and the amount of information offered on a title-page has varied over time accordingly. For example, whilst the earliest title-pages were relatively simple, in the 17th century it became standard practice to cram as much information as possible onto the title-page – with extensive sub-titles and detailed author and publisher information, often in multiple types, and within decorative frames. This trend died off in the 18th century, as a tendency for more simply set-out title-pages (often accompanied by half titles) took its place. This pattern repeated; the 19th century saw a return to more elaborate title-pages, whereas the emergence of modernism accompanied a more stripped-back approach in the 20th century.

As engraving came to be used more widely in book illustration from the late 16th century, engraved title-pages emerged. Occasionally books contained additional engraved title-pages alongside a letterpress title-page, as in the example below.

The earliest of printed books do not contain title-pages at all however; nor do most medieval manuscripts. Instead, these texts are generally identified by the “incipit” and “explicit” – the opening and closing words of the text, from the Latin verb incipere (‘to begin’) and explicitus, meaning ‘unrolled’.

An example of an incipit from a work printed in 1481.

Early printed books often closed with a “colophon” – a closing statement, providing, for example, the name of those involved in the book’s production (scribe, printer, publisher), and place and date of publication.

Earlier in this series we met the half-title page: here it is worth noting that the history of the half-title page, as outlined in this earlier post, also helps to reveal how it was that the title-page came to be – “printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound”; a “blank sheet originally intended for protection came to be marked with a short-title in order to help differentiate one text-block from another, and it was this that then developed into the full title-page, with publication details as well as author and title.”

References and further reading:

Smith, Margaret M. “Title-page” in Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

Smith, Margaret M. The title-page: its early development 1460-1510, 2000.

British Library, Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, 2018

S is for Subscription

From the 17th to the early 19th century, and occasionally since then, books might be issued ‘on subscription,’ to solicit orders in advance of publication from subscribers attracted by a preliminary proposal. A printed list of subscribers’ names would often appear in the published work. The first known subscription list is that for the second edition (1625) of John Minsheu’s Guide into Tongues (SPEC Knowsley 349/oversize but without the list of subscribers).

Books whose publication was financed by subscription typically included particularly expensive books (for example highly illustrated books), specialist works (for example scientific and musical works), privately printed books, or special copies (for example, ‘large paper’ copies printed on a larger size of paper) making up part of an edition. The response to the subscription helped gauge the market for the work prior to publication and acted as a guarantee for the bookseller’s outlay on publication costs.

Subscription proposal for Milton’s Works (1757). SPEC Knows. pamph. 264
Receipt for the Countess of Derby’s first payment for Milton’s Poetical Works. Signed by Thomas Houlston.

The lists of subscribers in the published work were often arranged hierarchically, giving the most eminent names first, and might include addresses and occupations. William Enfield’s 1773 Essay towards the history of Leverpool included views and a plan separately so subscribers could choose which parts of the work they wanted.

References and further reading:

  • Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford, 2010)
  • John Carter and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth edition (Oak Knoll and British Library, 2006)
  • P. J. Wallis, Book Subscription Lists: Extended Supplement to the Revised Guide (1996) and ‘Book Subscription Lists,’ Library 5/29 (1974)

R is for Rags

Making paper by hand.

During the hand-press era, the raw material for the production of paper for books was cloth rags – most often linen. Rags were bought in bulk by paper-makers, often sold to them by itinerant rag collectors; rag-and-bone men. The paper-making process began with washing the linen, which was left it in a damp heap to rot. After four or five days, the rotten rags were cut into smaller pieces, and then pounded down to form a pulp, using water-powered hammers. This pounding process was repeated two or three times; with pauses in between to allow for further rotting. By the 18th century the hammers had been replaced by a rotary machine which macerated the rags using knives – a much more efficient method. Invented in Holland, the machine was known as a Hollander.

Once the process of breaking-up and rotting down the rags was complete the pulp that remained was put into a vat and watered down to form a concoction resembling a watery porridge. Further stretching the porridge analogy – this mixture was kept warm and stirred occasionally using a paddle.

A close-meshed sieve made of metal wire (the mould) was then dipped into the mixture, before being lifted out with exactly the right amount of pulp in, laid flat, and skillfully manipulated to form a uniform ‘sheet’ of pulp across the mould. The mould was then expertly shaken, first forward and backward, and then side to side, to ensure the fibres crossed in each direction, which helped to strengthen the paper. The sheets were then removed from the mould and sandwiched between layers of felt. The resultant piles of paper interleaved with felt were put under a heavy press to squeeze out excess water before being hung up to dry.

The quality of the paper produced using this method was primarily determined by the quality of the rags used to make it. The best paper was produced from pure white linen; poorer quality paper from materials such as canvas, rope and wool. Linen rags were not readily available in England, where people wore wool rather than linen. This fact, combined with a lack of skilled workmen, meant that most paper used in the English book trade, up until around the middle of the 18th century, was imported from France or Holland.

By the 19th century, the demand for rags to make paper with was outstripping supply, and prices reflected this. This intensified the search for an alternative; which eventually resulted in the majority of paper being made using wood-pulp – and increasingly using machines, rather than by hand – from the middle of the century.

As it happens, a conference, ‘The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Materials, Networks’ took place in Erlangen, Germany, on the 26th and 27th February. You can read about current research in paper, as presented at the conference, by searching for the Twitter handle #EMpapertrade.

References and further reading:

Gaskell, Philip. A new introduction to bibliography, 1972

Burke, James. From rags to paper, 2013

University of Ilowa. Paper through time: nondestructive analysis of 14th-through-19th century papers (project website).

M is for Marginalia

“Marginalia”, or marginal notes, are marks made in the margins of books. In particular, researchers have become increasingly interested in the marks made by previous owners of a book. Whether these appear as comments, abbreviations, glosses, scribbles, symbols, or doodles, these marks offer an opportunity to better understand the different ways in which individuals have interacted with the book through the course of its life. The passages a reader has chosen to mark can reveal much about the concerns of that individual, and the ways in which they read, as well as about the social, political and religious circumstances in which they lived.

As a leading scholar on Renaissance marginalia, Bill Sherman, has written:
“Readers’ marks are better at providing examples (and still better at providing counterexamples) than general rules; but if we cast our net widely they can reveal both large-scale patterns of use and extraordinary encounters of individuals and their books. The former can correct some of our most deep-seated assumptions about reading and readers…” (Used books, p. xvi).

Pictoral marginalia in one of our incunables – Higden’s “Polychronicon”, printed by Caxton in 1482. This book boasts the ownership marks of five different former owners (SPEC Inc CSJ D3).

Sherman’s own study of over 1000 books from the first two centuries of printing has helped to shed light on the ways in which many Renaissance readers used writing – or even drawing – in the margins as a means to aid the memory. For these readers, reading was very much intended to be purposeful, equipping a reader for success in  work and in society. Today we might feel we can rely upon near constant access to the internet to provide us with information at the point of need, but for previous generations it was important that readers were able to memorise, or quickly access the information learnt through reading. Engaging the hand in note-taking, or drawing, is thought to have helped to help concentrate the mind and strengthen the learning process, enabling readers to commit passages to memory, as well as ensuring the most important passages could be quickly returned to when needed.

Renaissance readers often employed a range of symbols to help categorise and arrange the texts they read. One of the most frequently recurring of these is the pointing hand, or “manicule”.

Marginal notes can also be used to comment upon, criticise or explain the main text, and as such offer a means by which to trace the reception of specific works and ideas. In a recent Bonnier Lecture given at the University of Liverpool, Professor John O’Brien of Durham University showed how attending to the marginalia left by ‘ordinary’ early modern readers of Montaigne’s Essais, led to unexpected deductions about the ways in which they interpreted Montaigne, and the passages they found to be of most interest. As he noted, these findings can, in turn, help to us to see more current perspective (and its attendant biases) in a new light.

This 1687 copy of the works of Lucian of Samosata contains commentary and cross-references in the margins in more than one language, in a rather neat contemporary hand (SPEC Y68.2.44).

Marginalia offer a rich resource for researchers then, as well as providing an often touching insight into the life and mind of individuals living hundreds of years ago. Indeed, as an important source of paper – a relatively luxurious commodity for much of the history of printing – margins have been put to a wide range of more quaint uses; for handwriting practice by readers learning to write, for example, or to record familial births, deaths and marriages.

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A previous reader has gone to town on the paper offered by front cover of this 17th century pamphlet. Handwriting practice, perhaps?


References and further reading:

Sherman, William H. Used books: marking readers in Renaissance England. (2008)

Grafton, Anthony and Lisa Jardine. ““Studied for action”: how Gabriel Harvey read his Livy”. Past & Present, 129 (1990).

O’Brien, John. “What Montaigne meant to them: the Essais and their early modern readers”. Annual Bonnier Lecture in French Studies, University of Liverpool (2018).


L is for Leaf

The smallest element in bibliographical descriptions of books: the piece of paper comprising two pages. The front side is called the recto and the back is the verso.

A leaf numbered on the recto may be referred to as a folio – foliation (numbering each leaf) is often seen on manuscript texts and became a common printing practice in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Books from 1600 onwards have more usually been printed with pagination (a separate number for each page, or side of the leaf).

Fraser 567: Nicolas Monardes, Ioyfull newes out of the new-found vvorld (1596) showing foliation

The physical description statement in catalogues gives the make-up of the book in sequences of leaves (if the printed text is foliated) or pages (if the text is paginated). Descriptions by number of pages always give an even total to account for both the recto and verso of the leaf, even if the verso if the final leaf is blank.

Description ix, [1], 533, [1] pages, [1] leaf of plates: illustrations; 20 cm

Illustrations such as woodcuts may be included as part of printing the text, and not separately numbered, but illustrations such as engraved plates printed by a separate process are numbered as leaves, since the illustration is on one side of the leaf only.

Leaf may also be used in terms describing parts of a book: endleaves (or endpapers) are the additional leaves before and after the printed text; flyleaf is sometimes used to refer to a leaf at the beginning of a volume. They are normally mentioned in catalogue descriptions as the location of bookplates, owner’s inscriptions, etc., or for their decorative qualities.

An interleaved copy of a book has additional blank leaves bound in for the owner’s notes, either as an integral part of the publication, or for an individual owner after publication:

2017.b.008 – Liverpool shipping register for 1835 interleaved for corrections and additions.

JUV A727.1 – The illuminated scripture text book with interleaved diary for memoranda and a coloured illustration for every day by Edmund Evans (1875)