left to right - Lawrence: A collection of Roses; Gould: Plate from Birds of Asia; Suberbum: Lily
24 September - 22 December 2006
THE HESKETH COLLECTION
What do you think about when someone says Rare Book Archive? Dusty books, boring old documents? Then think again! Lancaster University Library has just become the custodian of an exciting collection of books lent by Lord Hesketh, whose ancestral home was Rufford Old Hall in Lancashire. The books belong to the trustees of the late second Baron Hesketh, and they will retain ownership. Lord Hesketh (the 3rd Baron Hesketh) is well known for his active role in politics and for creating Hesketh Racing, which designed and developed the Formula 1 cars raced by James Hunt in the 1970s.
The books cover many topics including natural history and ornithology. A lot of the books contain engravings that were then hand-coloured. Hooker’s Pomona Londinensis has pictures of fruit so realistic that you want to pick them off the pages to eat. However, to describe the whole collection would take too much space and employ far too many superlatives so let me confine descriptions to some of the choicest items.
The star of the collection is undoubtedly John James Audubon’s double elephant folio of Birds of America. What is double elephant I hear you ask? Double Elephant paper measures 27" x 40" (68.8 x 101.6 cm approx). Audubon insisted that each bird be depicted life-size and when you realise he painted the White Pelican, the flamingo and the wild turkey, amongst other birds, the necessity of choosing 'double elephant' paper becomes obvious.
Audubon was an American naturalist who attempted to paint and describe all of the birds of America. He drew birds in the wild whenever possible rather than from stuffed specimens alone. The massive 4 volume set contains 435 hand coloured engravings taken from Audubon’s finely drawn original watercolours. The work was originally to be produced by Lizars of Edinburgh but, after a strike by the people employed to colour the plates, production was subsequently moved to Havells in London. Birds of America was offered on subscription from 1827 to 1838 for £225 – a fraction of what it would cost today. Audubon managed to gather only 161 subscribers in total and it is estimated that between 175 and 200 complete sets of the double-elephant folio were printed. Many of these sets have been broken up and sold as individual prints and only 119 now remain intact, the majority in the USA.
The smallest birds, though arguably the brightest in colour, can be found in books by John Gould, who has been called the greatest figure in bird illustration after Audubon. The pictures in the books on the birds of Asia and humming birds show a vibrancy of colour that is rarely seen and the iridescent sheen of the birds’ plumage is amazing. Gould was fortunate in being able to call on a group of dedicated artists, lithographers and colourists, including his wife Elizabeth and Edward Lear, to translate his initial sketches into finished illustrations. The only birds to rival those of Gould are contained in the “Monograph of the Paradiseidae, or Birds Of Paradise, and Bowerbirds” by R. Bowdler Sharpe, who was John Gould's assistant for many years.
From birds to flowers and two wonderful exponents of their art, Pierre Joseph Redouté and Mary Lawrance. Redouté is perhaps the most popular botanical painter of all, thanks largely to the plates collected in the three volumes of Les Roses (1817-24). As well as painting roses, for the last fifty years of his life, Redouté served as drawing master to the queens and princesses of France including Marie-Antoinette. Redouté's sensitive and botanically meticulous portraits of roses are some of the finest ever created. The Hesketh Collection is lucky enough to contain 52 of his original drawings on vellum. A large number of Redouté’s other watercolours on vellum are in the collection of the Musée National de La Malmaison in France.
Mary Lawrance was a teacher of botanical drawing who exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1795 to 1830. A Collection of Roses from Nature is the earliest published work devoted entirely to the rose and is dedicated to Queen Charlotte, a patron of botany. Lawrance produced a number of flower books but her fame as an artist is linked to this work in particular. The illustrations in Lawrance’s books were etched and coloured by Lawrance herself. The books themselves are rare with only five complete copies of her Collection of Passion Flowers known to exist.
If ornithology, flowers and engravings aren’t quite “your thing” then how about illuminated manuscripts? There are two stunning fifteenth century illuminated Books of Hours from France and England, each containing hand painted miniatures with intricate initials in gold and colour. Two other manuscripts also contain pages of miniatures, each painted in minute detail. The oldest item in the collection is a manuscript on vellum of Druthmar’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew containing pen work initials of grotesque creatures and entwined stems.
On the historical side, there are letters from Elizabeth the First, Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham to Sir Ralph Sadler about Mary Queen of Scots imprisonment at Tutbury Castle in 1585, only two years before Mary’s execution. They are proving to be a fascinating glimpse into the past and include such things as an inventory of the linen Mary took toTutbury. The documents are in the process of being transcribed – a painstaking but rewarding task.
As if this wasn’t enough there is also a first folio edition of Shakespeare, the first collected edition of his comedies, histories and tragedies, and a first folio of Ben Johnson’s Works. All in all it is a wonderful collection, and one that any librarian and/or archivist would be happy to get their hands on. Working with it is a privilege and Lancaster is lucky to have been chosen as its repository. Members of the public will be able to see some of the items in an exhibition to be held from October 2006. Consultations are available to bona fide researchers by prior arrangement with Lancaster University’s Rare Book Archive Curator, Helen Clish.
(Article, by Helen Clish, first published in Lancaster University's Alumni magazine)
Images are reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the Second Baron Hesketh's Will Trust
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