The Redwood Library & Athenæum holds two copies of the volume Essays on Gothic Architecture. Published in 1800 by Josiah Taylor, a leading publisher of architectural treateases and pattern books, the book comprises a number of short contributions on aspects of medieval architecture by early scholars John Milner, Thomas Warton, James Bentham, and Francis Grose. Sometimes two copies of a book may be so close to one another that a comparison tells us little about the book and about its hidden life. When I pulled these two books to compare them, I found rather a perfect example of why having two copies of the same edition is truly special. Our two copies provide us with wonderful insight into book production and readership in the early 19th century. This layer of data on social history is encoded in details, some obvious and some very small.
The core text is a short, but important. Written by a number of antiquaries of varied standing and erudition, this volume is among the earliest serious architectural and historical studies of Gothic Architecture. Palladianism had been the primary fashion in British architecture in the 18th century. It was an erudite movement well in keeping with the intellectual fascination with Classical culture in literature, art, philosophy, and law that characterized the British Enlightenment. This book, printed in 1800, is conspicuous as an early example of antiquarians looking beyond the Classical and seriously studying the Medieval past not only as inspiration for interior details, but as an architectural grammar equal to the Classical and perhaps more indigenously relevant.
This edition—the only edition, in fact—is a short 150 pages, printed about quarto size, gathered in eights. It is accompanied by ten pleasant, but modestly-sized, plates. Even the two fold-out plates only extend the etched plates by a few inches.
This copy, bequeathed to the Redwood in 1883 by Joseph J. Cooke of Providence, does little to tell us about its reception or readership. It is bound simply with no tooling on the boards, gilt or blind. The spine is decorated with simple double fillets in gilt, some of them showing mistakes and corrections. The title label is titled in gilt, but is applied to so narrow a spine as to render it impossible to spell out architecture. Its page edges are trimmed and lightly sprinkled. And there are no marks of provenance beyond a Redwood bookplate and a cryptic pencil inscription that is likely a 19th century bookseller’s inscription. All in all, this book is bound in what appears to be a modest contemporary binding, perhaps the bookseller’s original binding. It tells us little about its market, use, and readership. We possess a second copy of this same edition however. And it shows a great deal of idiosyncratic intervention.
While the text and edition are exactly the same, one can clearly see from a side-by-side comparison that something is different. Beyond any stylistic analysis, the binding of copy 2 is longer and wider. And, more surprisingly, it holds between its covers more than twice the thickness of material than copy 1. It becomes apparent, upon even a cursory examination, that the second copy has been bound with numerous stubs, onto which are tipped a great number of extra engravings and etchings illustrating Gothic architecture and its details.
Whoever bought this text likely bought it as loose sheets or in a temporary binding. This would then be taken to a binder, who would have bound the loose pages in accordance with the customer’s orders. In this case, the customer was perhaps most interested in the contents than the binding. Tabs were inserted into gatherings so that a large number of illustrations could be tipped in. Illustrations printed independently as large sheets for display were carefully folded and inserted. The page edges were not trimmed down, the better to disguise and protect the extra material tipped in. This binding is a step up from that of copy 1. It is a treed calf binding over moderately thick boards with gilt decoration on the board edges and the spine. The spine decoration is competent but restrained, its gold-titled, burgundy morocco title label the most extravagant detail. The endpapers are a colorful and exuberant English marble.
It is a tasteful binding, but it is also not a terribly rich binding. It is the binding of someone who could afford to have books bound to order, but is not an overt display of conspicuous wealth. But who was this book owner? We have been talking abstractly, but in this case, we are lucky enough to have an ownership inscription.
Charles Clarke is a common enough name. We are lucky that his name is followed by ‘FSA,’ which means that he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a scholarly society in London. This allows for a hard identification. This Charles Clarke was a minor government functionary in the Ordnance Board. But he was also an antiquary. He was a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Society of Antiquaries’ journal Archaeologia. It was likely partly upon the strength of his contributions to the latter that he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1796. He continued to write and to edit volumes on historical architecture and monuments until his death in 1840.
His copy of Essays, particularly when set alongside a copy much closer to its initial printed state, allows us to learn something about the intellectual life both of the man and of antiquarian society in England at the turn of the 19th century. We can see a stratum of society characterized by interested and well-educated amateurs. Some of these were certainly of the gentry. Others were of more modest means, minor clergy or governmental clerks. And as a man of modest means, it is illustrative where money was spent enriching his copy. Clarke was a man who took care of this book, and had it bound nicely, but not extravagantly. Of more interest is that he carefully acquired prints, some of them quite large, to accord very specifically with the text of the volume in which they were bound. These extra illustrations were meant to illuminate for pleasure and study. It seems likely to me that the money spent obtaining the numerous engravings was far in excess of the binding. Furthermore we might think about the choice to fold large plates rather than bind them separately in a larger binding. There are two possibilities for this action. Perhaps Clarke did not wish to spend the extra money to have a second larger volume bound to house unfolded plates or perhaps he felt that having the plated directly alongside the text was most conducive to study. In fact, both of these may be the case. Given that in 1800 he was posted to the Island of Guernsey, perhaps smaller volumes were most efficient. In any case, the fine distinctions and differences in binding and provenance between the two copies held by the Redwood, allow us tantalizing glimpses into 18th century book culture.