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The Collation

Purchases from the Robert S. Pirie Collection, Part 2: the printed material

The Folger Shakespeare Library acquired 45 lots, 19 of them printed books, at the auction sale of the Pirie collection that took place on December 2–4, 2015, at Sotheby’s, New York (we’ve also put up the complete list of our acquisitions from this sale).

As we described in our previous post about the sale, a great deal of preparation went into this auction, and part of that involved comparing our current holdings with the items offered in the sale. While it was comforting to realize, when searching the Pirie catalogue, that we owned the majority of the titles on offer (Robert Pirie collected in the same areas as the Folger), we also discovered that some books were, surprisingly, absent from our stacks; books that one would assume to be part of the Folger’s collections. The Pirie sale was thus a great opportunity to fill in several of these gaps and in a couple of instances provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so.

The books we acquired fall into several areas of strength at the Folger.

Works of English literature:

Milton, Sidney, and Spenser represent an important literary triad at the Folger, where their works have been collected comprehensively both in print and in manuscript. We were therefore delighted to acquire three great books by these major writers.

The second edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets Astrophel and Stella is perhaps one of the greatest rarities of English literature.1 Despite the corrections it includes, this edition is closer to the first edition (which was suppressed and of which only two copies survive) than to the third edition (substantially revised and now the “standard” one), thus its significance. It is also an extremely rare book. Pirie owned one of two copies in North America (the other one is at the Huntington Library).

Before the Pirie sale, we owned only a microfilm copy of the first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion, a poem Spenser wrote on the occasion of the double marriage of the Earl of Worcester’s daughters. The book is thought to have been privately printed, as it does not appear in the Stationers’ register. Copies of it rarely appear on the market.

A title surprisingly not represented in the Folger collections was John Milton’s first edition of Of Education. This significant work on education was published anonymously as a small quarto, in a form similar to a political tract with its text compactly set on each page.

Page from Milton's On Education

We were also fortunate to acquire five works by the “Water Poet,” John Taylor, an author extremely well represented in our collections, and a rare copy of the presumed first edition of the verse satire The Knave of Hearts by Samuel Rowlands, an author whose works appealed to the English lower-middle class of the time.

Bi-color title page of The Knave of Harts

Title page of The Knave of Hart printed in black and red ink.

As expected, the Folger already owns all the works by Shakespeare offered in the Pirie sale. One item of Shakespeariana we were missing, though, was John Trussel’s The First Rape of Fair Hellen, thought to be a pastiche of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, which was published a year earlier.

Books of music settings:

The Folger Library has strong collections of early English music (see, for example, the items that were shown in our 2006 exhibition “Noyses, Sounds, and Sweet Aires”: Music in Early Modern England). We were therefore delighted to be able to acquire two important works in this field.

The first, Ayres by the English composer William Corkine, is a rarity. Our newly acquired copy is complete and includes both the first and the second books in one volume. There is no other copy of the first book in any American library, and as for the second book of this title, only two other copies are known—one in the British Library and one in the Huntington Library. The second book is also of literary significance as it includes the music settings for two poems written by John Donne, “Breake of Day” and “The Baite”.

Title page of the Second Book of Ayres

The second, Poems of Mr. Covvley and Others, includes music settings by the Oxford organist William King for poems mostly by the poet Abraham Cowley, whose works are well represented in the Folger collections.


Robert Pirie owned numerous books with distinctive bindings. We were fortunate to acquire two of these, which are welcome additions to our growing collection of English embroidered bindings. One of them especially caught our interest, as it has never been used to cover a book (from the biblical scenes it depicts, it was surely intended to cover a copy of the Old Testament) and so it is possible to view on its verso the intricacy of the stitches and therefore to better understand how the design was made.

Embroidered cloth intended to be used as a book binding

Embroidered binding that was never used.

Almanacs are collected comprehensively at the Folger, and we were therefore delighted to acquire an almanac in a contemporary chemise binding.

Other acquisitions include:

A copy of Rerum Britannicarum, an antiquarian compilation of works on England and Scotland, which we bought for its Stationers’ company’s “deposit certificate” on the final leaf of the book.

A copy of John Ray’s trilingual dictionary on natural history subjects, which fits nicely in our growing collection of early bilingual and trilingual dictionaries.

Finally, we were the successful bidders on a bound volume including two texts by the author Mercurius Melancholicus, one of them being a satire advocating for women to rule England.

If Robert Pirie took William Jackson’s bibliography course at Harvard, he must also have known Philip Hofer, Curator of the Printing and Graphic Arts Department at the Houghton Library and known as the “Prince of the Eye”. Traces of Hofer’s influence on Pirie’s collecting are evident in more than one way but mainly in his acquisition of illustrated books and prints (Pirie also owned two unique copies of Harrington’s translation of the Orlando Furioso previously owned by Hofer). We were therefore delighted to, in turn, acquire two of Pirie’s books with prints, one made after Peter Paul Rubens’ drawings, the other after Sir Anthony van Dyck’s drawings.

Electorum Libri II was written by the philologist Philippe Rubens, brother of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. The book is the fruit of the brothers’ collaboration while they were both studying antiquities in Rome: Philip wrote the text, and Peter Paul made the drawings after which the engravings were produced. Electorum is also significant for being the first edition of the first book illustrated by Peter Paul Rubens.

The final acquisition made by the Folger Library at the Pirie sale was a large album of prints by Sir Anthony Van Dyck depicting famous men who were his contemporaries. Van Dyck made all the drawings for these portraits and also etched the plates for 18 of the prints. This series of prints (Van Dyck’s only foray into printmaking) was influential in his time. The artist portrayed a number of Antwerp printmakers, engravers and woodcutters whose works are well represented in the Folger collections. Pirie’s copy includes 108 prints (some of which are different states of the same print) and belonged to Narcissus Luttrell, Master of the Revels to Charles II

Page from Sir Anthony Van Dyck's album of prints.

Page from Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s album of prints.

As William Bond wrote in his introduction to a compilation of essays by William Jackson, “The test of a librarian’s acquisitions is not rarity, curiosity, or monetary value. These are side issues too often mistaken for the main purpose of collecting. The real test is the use scholars make of the collections.”2 We hope that our new acquisitions will pass this test and we invite researchers to come here to work with these books as soon as they have been processed and are available in the reading room.

  1. Please note that the Hamnet records for all of items included in this post are incomplete, as we are still processing these items. The records will be updated with important things like call numbers as our catalogers work through the material.
  2. William A. Jackson, Records of a Bibliographer; Selected Papers. Edited with an introd. and bibliography by William H. Bond. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967, p.19.


Ooooo – love the binding cover!

Karen Nipps — January 19, 2016


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