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Spencer Collection Book of the Month: A Wotton Binding


Volume bound for Thomas Wotton (Detail)Volume bound for Thomas Wotton (Detail)After I'd spent four Sunday evenings in January engrossed in the doings of the Earl of Grantham and his household on the PBS "Masterpiece Classic" series Downton Abbey, this month's choice for Spencer Collection Book of the Month was obvious: a book that lingered for more than three centuries in the company of barons and earls, before being exiled from their presence in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Like last month's selection, it dates from the sixteenth century and is housed in a binding of the same period, and it was acquired for its binding rather than its contents. However, this time I would like to highlight neither the text nor the binding, but the provenance, or chain of owners, as nearly as it can be followed, from the original purchaser of the volume to modern times.

But first, a bit about the book, which is a collection of classical texts and commentaries by a 16th-century Benedictine scholar, Joachim Périon. Three separate works are included in the volume, all published in Paris in 1540; the first is a commentary on Aristotle bearing the Latin title De optimo genere interpretandi commentarii. On the title page, the publisher's device shows Time as a goat-legged figure with wings and a long forelock (the better to seize him by), wielding a scythe whose sharpness, as the Latin motto tells us, only Virtue can blunt. If so, the volume that encloses it is very virtuous, for has managed to resist Time's scythe for more than four and a half centuries now, and going strong.

Title page of De optimo genere interpretandi commentarii, with device of the publisher, Simon de ColinesTitle page of De optimo genere interpretandi commentarii, with device of the publisher, Simon de Colines


The man who acquired these works and had them bound was Thomas Wotton (1521-1587), a sixteenth-century English squire who is now remembered mainly for the remarkable bindings he commissioned, probably during sojurns in France in the mid-1500s (though there was once a theory that the work had been done in England). Wotton is sometimes called the "English Grolier" by binding nerds, because some of his bindings bore the gilt legend THOMAE WOTTONI ET AMICORVM (Thomas Wotton's and his friends'), apparently in imitation of the French bibliophile Jean Grolier's well-known device on his similarly-styled bindings. But the binding of the Spencer volume includes neither text nor the Wotton arms.

The Spencer Collection's Wotton binding, circa 1550The Spencer Collection's Wotton binding, circa 1550

The leather is a rich brown calf, elegantly gilt, with stylized foliage tools filled in with black paint, and a vaguely stirrup-shaped ornament repeated four times in the central part of each cover. (See the detail at the beginning of this post.) This tool is said to be "azured," because a pattern of horizontal parallel lines was the heraldic convention for representing the color blue when a coat of arms was engraved in black and white. Though there is no mark of ownership on the binding or elsewhere in the volume, the style of the ornamentation and in particular the stirrup tool are sufficient for scholars to have identified it as a "Wotton binding"—that and the traceable provenance, as we shall see.

Those who want to read more about Wotton bindings are now directed to H.M. Nixon's Twelve Books in Fine Bindings from the Library of J.W. Hely-Hutchinson (Oxford, 1953), p. 34-48, and to Mirjam M. Foot's The Henry Davis Gift, v. 1 (London, c1978), p. 139-147. Nixon classes bindings similar to ours as Group IIA of Wotton bindings, while Foot calls the presumably Parisian workshop "Wotton Binder B." Meanwhile, the rest of us will move on to a consideration of successive owners of the Spencer volume.

Thomas Wotton himself is described by his son's biographer, Izaak Walton (of Compleat Angler fame), as "a Gentleman excellently educated, and studious in all the Liberall Arts," to say nothing of "remarkable for hospitality, a great Lover, and much beloved of his Country." As a staunch Protestant, he served a term in prison during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary"), but if Walton is to be believed, it was his own uncle (Nicholas Wotton, Dean of Canterbury) who caused him to be imprisoned, to avoid a worse fate—he had been warned in two dreams that "his nephew was inclined to be a party in such a Project, as, if he were not suddenly prevented, would turn both to the losse of his life, and ruine of his Family." He was released around the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who would visit him with her entire court on one of her royal progresses and offer him a knighthood in exchange for his presence at court. Wotton refused, preferring to remain a country gentleman. He had two sons who would become more celebrated than himself, the diplomat Edward Wotton, First Baron Wotton, and the author Sir Henry Wotton, whose literary "relics" are preserved in the tome edited by Walton from which I've been quoting, Reliquiae Wottonianae (London, 1651). Before I leave it, I can't resist one more anecdote... about Thomas Wotton's determination not to remarry after the death of his first wife, or at any rate, if he changed his mind, "he was seriously resolved to avoid three sorts of persons":

Then he encountered "Mistress Morton, widdow to Robert Morton of Kent Esquire," who suffered from "a concurrence of all those accidents against which he had so serously resolved," but nevertheless ... "his affection grew so strong, that he then resolved to solicite her for a wife, and did, and obtained her." She was to become the mother of Henry Wotton.Sir Henry Wotton., Digital ID 811765, New York Public LibrarySir Henry Wotton, son of Thomas Wotton and the problematic widow

But it is to the eldest son, Edward, that we now turn our attention, at least long enough to note that he inherited his father's estate at Boughton Malherbe in the county of Kent, and with it his library. After a long and active life, much of it spent in various diplomatic missions in the service of Elizabeth and James I, he died in 1628 (not 1626, as previously thought; see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), and Boughton Malherbe passed to his son Thomas, the second Baron Wotton, who died just two years later without a male heir, extinguishing the barony (it was revived later on for his grandson).

It was the second Baron Wotton's oldest daughter Katherine (or Catherine) who now inherited Boughton Malherbe and its library, but she had little time for it, as she was a busy lady in the turbulent 17th century. In 1628, she had married Henry Stanhope, the son and heir of Philip Stanhope, first Earl of Chesterfield. She was widowed before her husband could inherit the earldom (her son would become the second Earl of Chesterfield in 1656), but years later she was made Countess of Chesterfield in her own right for her long and loyal service to the monarchy. Katherine, Lady Stanhope, by Van DyckKatherine, Lady Stanhope, by Van Dyck

Known as Lady Stanhope even after her second marriage, to a Dutch nobleman (Johan Polyander van den Kerckhoven, heer van Heenvliet), Katherine was a beauty painted (and courted) by Van Dyck. Her new husband-to-be had come to England around 1640 to negotiate the marriage of the Princess Royal, Mary (sister of the future King Charles II), then aged nine, to William, Prince of Orange and heir of the Dutch Stadholder, and two years later Lady Stanhope followed him back to the Netherlands as governess of the young princess, who would eventually give birth to William of Orange, the future King William III. During the years she spent abroad, while England was torn by civil wars and the monarchy was extinguished in the Commonwealth, Lady Stanhope continually gave material and political support to the royalist cause, sometimes to the annoyance of the princess's Dutch in-laws. She remained with her royal charge as lady in honor and close confidante, returning with her to England at the time of the Restoration, in 1660. Mary died shortly afterward, but Katherine, now Countess of Chesterfield, stayed at court, serving as Lady of the Bedchamber to Charles II's queen. Widowed for a second time, she married a wealthy Irishman, Daniel O'Neill, who left her everything when he died in 1664—including a monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder for the crown, and the postmastership, which she continued to operate herself. She died three years later, possessed of a huge fortune.

Meanwhile, what of Boughton Malherbe and its precious stash of books? For a time, it zigzagged among various heirs: first Katherine's younger son (by her Dutch husband), then the younger son of her older son (who you recall had become the second Earl of Chesterfield), and finally the older son of her older son. That would be Philip Stanhope, who became the third Earl of Chesterfield on his father's death in 1713. Thomas Wotton's library would then remain in the hands of the Earls of Chesterfield for more than a century and a half. The estate itself was sold by the fourth Earl (more on him shortly) in around 1747, but not before he had moved the books to the Chesterfield family estate of Bretby in Derbyshire.

Bretby Hall, Derbyshire, by Mark WaltonBretby Hall, Derbyshire, by Mark WaltonThe present Bretby Hall, looking ready for its closeup in a "Masterpiece" mini-series, was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century for the fifth Earl and appears to have held the Wotton library until 1919. (The image at left is © Copyright Mark Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.) But back to the fourth and most famous Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773), "politician, wit, and letter-writer," as the Dictionary of National Biography called him. He is best remembered now for his posthumously published Letters to His Son (first edition; third edition, digitized). From the following quotation from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it's easy to see that Lord Chesterfield would today be characterized as a "helicopter parent."

Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of ChesterfieldPhilip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield

"At their peak, from 1748 to 1752, the long and earnest homilies were landing on Philip's table at the rate of one a fortnight. They constitute one of the heaviest intellectual bombardments ever attempted: 'You chiefly employ, or rather wholly engross my thoughts,' the boy was told... There was no escape, since Philip was asked for comments and replies and was warned that he would be questioned about his understanding of them. The subject matter was adjusted as Philip grew. When he was eleven... he was asked: 'Are you sufficiently upon your guard against awkward attitudes… and disgusting habits, such as scratching yourself, putting your fingers in your mouth, nose and ears?'... Later they dealt with questions of dress and deportment—how to enter and leave a room with ease, to be polite to servants, to smile often and never laugh, to avoid drink, gluttony, and gambling, to flatter vicariously and bait one's hook, to avoid low company, to choose a wife with discretion, and to make friends and avoid making enemies—what Chesterfield called 'the necessary arts of the world.'"

The unfortunate young man (who was not even Chesterfield's legitimate offspring) predeceased his father, dying at just 36 in 1768. Lord Chesterfield's successor in the earldom was his distant cousin and godson, Philip Stanhope, charmingly knowh as "Sturdy"—who had also been the victim of letters from his relentless relative. (Letters of Philip Dormer, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, to His Godson and Successor, not published until 1890; there's a Google Books edition.)

Lord Chesterfield's letters to "Sturdy" were published by the fourth Earl of Carnarvon, who had discovered them in Bretby Hall. The Bretby estate had passed from the earls of Chesterfield to the family of the earls of Carnarvon after the seventh Earl of Chesterfield died unmarried in 1871. The earldom went to a third cousin, while Bretby was supposed to go to the earl's sister, Evelyn, the Earl of Carnarvon's wife. But her mother, the dowager countess of Chesterfield (a confidante of Disraeli's), was living there, and there she remained until she died in 1885, ten years after her daughter. It then became the property of Lady Carnarvon's son, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert (1866-1923), who would succeed as fifth Earl of Carnarvon in 1890 (a rather breezy sketch of his life is here). "And he it was," as H.M. Nixon put it, "who sent the cream of the library to Sotheby's in 1919 as 'The Property of a Nobleman.'"

Lots 1-395 in Sotheby's sale of 8 April, 1919, came from the Bretby library. Of these, Nixon notes "twenty-four mid-sixteenth-century decorated brown calf bindings" as having been bound for Thomas Wotton; nine of these had no mark of Wotton ownership, including the present Spencer Collection example, sold as Lot 299.

Lord Carnarvon, of King Tut fameLord Carnarvon, of King Tut fameBut Lord Carnarvon may have had good reasons for selling out the heritage of eleven generations (if I'm counting right), since one of his hobbies was a particular drain on his pocketbook. Persistent health problems after he smashed up one of those new-fangled motor cars in a racing accident had led him to flee England annually for the milder winters of Egypt. Bored, he developed an interest in Egyptology and soon became an ardent amateur in that field. As a British aristocrat, he had no problem pulling the necessary strings to join the ranks of the active excavators, and he started his digging in the vicinity of Thebes in 1907. Later, realizing he needed to work with "a learned man as I have not time to learn up all the requisite data," he entered on a partnership with the archaeologist Howard Carter that would last for sixteen years. From 1915, with an interruption during the Great War, their operations were based in the Valley of the Kings, where Carter was convinced they would find the as yet undiscovered tomb of a certain New Kingdom pharaoh.

The work was tremendously expensive, but the money ought to have been there. Like the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, Carnarvon had married for it. Almina Wombwell, Countess of Carnarvon, was generally believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothchild; at any rate, Rothchild provided her with a huge dowry, and upon his death in 1918, with a huger bequest. With all this wealth, did Carnavon really need to dispose of the Bretby library? Maybe he just didn't care for upstartish antiquities from so recent an era as the sixteenth century. However that may be, in 1922 he threatened Carter with withdrawing his funding of their apparently futile quest. But Carter convinced him to back one more season, and shortly thereafter, the pair was able to announce "the most sensational Egyptological discovery of the century," as it was breathlessly described in the New York Times on November 29, 1922: the tomb and funeral paraphernalia of Tutankhamen. The gods of Egypt on cigarette cards, circa 1924Egyptomania: The gods of Egypt on cigarette cards, circa 1924

The find set off a wave of Egyptomania all over the world and left lasting impressions in the architectural and decorative arts style of the era... Art Deco.

It would be nearly three years after this initial discovery before Carter was finally able to uncover the actual mummy of the young king with its spectacular golden mask. Lord Carnarvon, alas, did not live to see the day. He had perished in April 1923 of an infected insect bite (and not, as immediate and persistent rumors had it, of a mysterious Pharaonic curse). But the earldom lives on. The present eighth earl, great-grandson of the fifth, continues to live in Highclere Castle in Hampshire, home to the Carnarvon family since 1679 and site of an Egyptology exhibition in honor of his famous ancestor. And, oh yes, Highclere Castle just happens to be (are you ready for this?) the principal filming location for Downton Abbey. A second series starts shooting there this month.

Highclere Castle, from Glimpses of Old English Homes (1890), by Elisabeth BalchHighclere Castle, from Glimpses of Old English Homes (1890), by Elisabeth Balch

What became of Wotton's books after the Sotheby sale? Unfortunately, that is not as clear as their whereabouts from circa 1550 to 1919. The Spencer "Wotton" was purchased by the bookseller Sabin for the sum of £59, and its only other known owner until it was acquired for the Spencer Collection in 2008 was Henri Bonnasse, a late 20th-century French bibliophile who pasted his leather book label inside the front cover. Perhaps some Egyptologist of modern cultural history will one day uncover the missing links in the chain that otherwise stretches unbroken from a sixteenth-century English gentleman to the present-day Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library.


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what a great Valentine to Mr. Spencer and the art of the book

How great that Mr. Spencer's extraordinary bequest allows NYPL to continue to add such treasures to its collections--and what a wonderful and witty account of the book's provenance. I look forward to more of your posts!
An excellent article. Your readers may wish to know that Almina Wombwell, the wife and widow of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, is the subject of my biography of her " The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon". The importance of the Chesterfield/ Stanhope ( Bretby ) links are fully appraised in the book, as indeed is the life and times of George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, with a new reflection on what really first prompted him to take up digging in Egypt. The 90th anniversary of the great discovery of Tutankhamun by Carter ( and paid for by Rothschild money )falls in November 2012. It would be worthwhile to aim to have that story and the Carnarvon- Carter- Tutankhamun timeline accurately recorded for that event.

Medieval Bindings

I am an amateur bookbinder interested in Medieval Vellum Limp bindings. In January, I plan to be in New York and wonder if if (a) you have any manuscripts that fit this description and (b) if it would be possible for me to view them. I am doing research on Limp Vellum bindings and need to handle the books to better understand the manner of binding. I'm commenting here as I can't find a link to email your department. Your blog is quite interesting, I look forward to reading more posts. thanks, Freda

information about accessing

information about accessing Medieval and Renaissance Western Manuscripts here:

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