Nothing new under the moon

The Perseid meteor shower in mid August provided a spectacular show, but if you missed it you will have another chance – next year. The night-time display was identified as an annual event in 1835, and may have inspired the 17-year-old Thomas Glazebrook Rylands (1818-1900), future amateur astronomer, book collector, and University benefactor, who built an observatory with a revolving dome at his home in Cheshire. Rylands bookplate Rylands, a Victorian philanthropist and polymath, sought out books (his “tools”) to explore each new subject which attracted his attention. The list of his ‘pursuits’ in a privately-published family Memoir reads like a University prospectus:

music, phrenology, natural history, botany, entomology, meteorology, geology and mineralogy, astronomy, ancient geography, architecture, heraldry, archaeology, mathematics.

The book collection he eventually bequeathed to University College Liverpool – the predecessor of the University of Liverpool – was the largest gift the college had received and remains one of Special Collections and Archive’s finest separate collections. Ironically, the full range of the collection has been obscured as the medieval manuscripts and early printed books were recognised as uniquely valuable and kept separately.

In the Rylands catalogue (published by the University Press in 1900) the Librarian, John Sampson, took a book history approach in arranging the fifteenth and sixteenth century printed books by country, city and date of printing. This system was continued for later additions to the Library but the early printed books sequences are now being rearranged to bring back together donations such as Rylands’ to make their provenance histories easier to explore.

The focus on provenance also highlights the character of collections from different former owners, and it is not surprising that Thomas Glazebrook Rylands, who was “attracted and fascinated [by astronomy] when quite a young man” later owned books on medieval science which include some very rare astronomical texts, as shown by these three examples:

  • SPEC Inc.Ryl.3 (SPEC E.P.I.A395.1) is one of only five British copies of an astronomical work translated from Arabic
  • SPEC Inc.Ryl.51 (SPEC E.P.I.A338.4.1) contains Albert the Great’s work on meteors – the only other complete copies in Britain are in the British Library and the Royal Astronomical Society – in a volume in its original medieval binding
  • SPEC Inc.Ryl.2 (SPEC E.P.I.A595.1) is the only known copy in the world of this 1496 astrological calendar

Rylands portrait