In July, a good friend of mine, Stuart , gave me a copy of Philipp Blom’s book on collecting.
To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting; Philipp Blom; The Overlook Press, Woodstock & New York, 2003.
Stuart has read all of his books and he thinks Blom is a gifted writer and is so knowledgeable about what he writes. Based on this book that I have now devoured and enjoyed, I must agree. The detail and minutia constantly presented in this book is amazing and at the time of the book’s writing the author was just over 30 years of age.
I have always been a collector and the majority of my customers are collectors. So, we all have a bit of a mania. I was astounded by the feverous collecting interests of some famous figures in history. And what they collected was both surprising and astounding – until he got around to books, which sure made sense to me! His subject was none other than Sir Thomas Phillipps, who is arguably the greatest bibliomaniac that the world has ever known. I have a 5 volume set of books on this character that I read back in 1979. No other collector of books has crossed my path that comes close to his bibliomania.
Let’s start off by looking at what Wikipedia has to say about this man:
Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1st Baronet (2 July 1792 – 6 February 1872), was an English antiquary and book collector who amassed the largest collection of manuscript material in the 19th century. He was an illegitimate son of a textile manufacturer and inherited a substantial estate, which he spent almost entirely on vellum manuscripts and, when out of funds, borrowed heavily to buy manuscripts, thereby putting his family deep into debt. Phillipps recorded in an early catalogue that his collection was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts. Such was his devotion that he acquired some 40,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts, arguably the largest collection a single individual has created, and coined the term "vello-maniac" to describe his obsession, which is more commonly termed bibliomania.
In 1808, when Phillipps was 16 years old, he already owned 112 books. Later in life he is recorded to have said that he wanted to own one of every book in the world.
A. N. L. Munby notes that, Phillipps would go into bookshops and purchase the entire stock; he would receive dealers' catalogues and buy all the listings; his agents bought entire lots of books at auction, outbidding his rival the British Museum. His country seat, Middle Hill near Broadway, Worcestershire, gave over sixteen of twenty rooms to books. After Sir Frederic Madden, the keeper of manuscripts of the British Museum, visited the house, he wrote in his diary - “Every room is filled with heaps of papers, MSS, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders &c.&c. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes! It is quite sickening...The windows of the house are never opened, and the close confined air & smell of the paper & MSS is almost unbearable.”
In 1863, Phillipps began to move the collection as he was fearful that his son-in-law, James Orchard Halliwell, would gain ownership of it when Phillipps's estranged daughter inherited Middle Hill. Halliwell was apparently a book thief (Phillips accused Halliwell of stealing his 1603 copy of Hamlet, which he sold to the British Museum minus the title page containing Phillipps' book stamp) and also a destroyer of other valuable old books, cutting out pages to stick them in his scrapbook. At least 105 wagon-loads, each drawn by two horses and accompanied by one or two men, were used to move the collection to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham over a period of eight months, leaving Middle Hill to fall to ruin.
During his lifetime, Phillipps attempted to turn over his collection to the British nation and corresponded with the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Disraeli so that it should be acquired for the British Museum. Negotiations proved unsuccessful and, ultimately, the dispersal of his collection took over 100 years.
Phillipps' will stipulated that his books should remain intact at Thirlestaine House, that no bookseller or stranger should rearrange them and that no Roman Catholic, especially his son-in- law James Halliwell, should be permitted to view them.
In 1885, the Court of Chancery declared this too restrictive and thus made possible the sale of the library which Phillipps' grandson, Thomas FitzRoy Fenwick, supervised for the next fifty years. Significant portions of the European material were sold to the national collections on the continent including the Royal Library, Berlin, the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Provincial Archives (:nl:Gemeentearchief) in Utrecht as well as the sale of outstanding individual items to the J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry E. Huntington libraries. By 1946, what was known as the "residue" was sold to London booksellers Phillip and Lionel Robinson for £100,000, though this part of the collection was uncatalogued and unexamined. The Robinsons endeavoured to sell these books through their own published catalogues and a number of Sotheby's sales. The final portion of the collection was sold by Christie's on 7 June 2006, lots 18–38. A five-volume history of the collection and its dispersal, Phillipps Studies, by A. N. L. Munby was published between 1951 and 1960.
Phillipps Studies No. I: The Catalogues of Manuscripts & Printed Books of Sir Thomas Phillipps – Their Composition and Distribution; by A. N. L. Munby, Fellow and Librarian King’s College Library, Cambridge; at the University Press Cambridge, 1951.
Phillipps Studies No. II: The Family Affairs of Sir Thomas Phillipps; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press Cambridge, 1952.
Phillipps Studies No. III: The Formation of the Phillipps Library up to the Year 1840; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press Cambridge, 1954.
Phillipps Studies No. IV: The Formation of the Phillipps Library between 1841 and 1872; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press Cambridge, 1956.
Phillipps Studies No. V: The Dispersal of the Phillipps Library; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press Cambridge, 1960.
I purchased this incredible set of books late in 1978. My pencil notation inside each of the 5 books reads “read 1979 – Excellent.”
I have since read that the British Museum later stated that they regretted the fact that Disraeli failed to purchase the collection, should I call it that, when the opportunity presented itself. I am quite confident that the British Museum to this day rues the failure.