Sunday, October 30, 2011

Collecting on a Biblical Scale

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (1611).  Its publication was a watershed event and it became the most influential volume published in the English language, rivaled only by Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).  This last week, I was asked to examine and appraise a folio first edition of the Bible for a private institution that was considering purchasing the copy.   My appraisal consulting services normally come with pleasant surprises and this time was no exception.   The owner of the volume, John Hellstern, was not only present but also his friend and fellow collector, Donald Blake.   Both men are deeply involved in Bible collecting and particularly the study of the first printing of the King James Bible.  They have just published a census of copies with much new bibliographical information discovered:  A Royal Monument to English Literature: The King James Bible 1611-2011.  

The printing history of the book is complex.  Our conversation was most convivial and soon an hour had passed with discussions regarding this copy and the variants encountered during compiling of the census.    I found out, too, that both men had placed their respective Bible collections, some 3,000 examples total, at the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University (  Being collectors, they didn’t stop there and continue to collect individually and to supplement the museum’s holdings.   The conversation with two seasoned collectors as well as the rare opportunity to page through the majestical King James Bible—an above average copy in this case—was quite thrilling. 
All this book excitement had me thinking on the drive home about Bible collecting in general.  Obviously, this is a well-trodden path but as Hellstern and Blake showed there is still plenty of opportunity in the field.  What American collector was the first to build a great collection of early English Bibles?  What American book dealer played a key role? 
The two Americans involved, James Lenox and Henry Stevens, are more famous for their collecting and dealing in rare Americana.   Both, however, were fascinated by rare Bibles and focused intense time, money, and effort gathering them.  Along the way, each became expert in the area.   Lenox’s collection of rare Bibles in all languages was unrivaled in America and reputedly surpassed that of the British Museum.  Earlier English collectors had gathered substantial Bible collections rather haphazardly but Stevens and Lenox were the first Americans to systematically research and hunt them in a modern manner.  A third man, an English collector named Francis Fry, played friendly rival to Lenox in English Bible collecting, and stood with Stevens as a pioneer researcher in the printing history of the early English Bibles.  Bookseller Stevens fostered both men as clients and friends. 
                Lenox (1800-1880), a New York businessman, devoted every spare moment to book collecting.  He carefully studied and catalogued each acquisition.  He would fill a room in his mansion with books until it held no more, shut the door, and start filling the next room.  Some contemporary scholars and historians chided him for not sharing his treasures.  It was true that he could be curmudgeonly and possessive, but his major challenge was simply finding the material that had been packed away!   (All this was perhaps a significant reason for a lifetime of bachelorhood.) Lenox late in life made amends by founding his own library in New York City available to serious patrons, foreshadowing similar efforts by Pierpont Morgan, Henry Huntington, and Henry Folger.   Lenox’s library, in contrast, eventually became a foundation collection of the mighty New York Public Library where the books remain today. 
                Lenox, president of the American Bible Society, was a “strict observer of the Sabbath” according to Stevens and would not transact business on a Sunday.  The one exception was when Stevens located at the time the only known copy of the “Wicked Bible” (1631) and needed an immediate decision by post.  Lenox did not hesitate to break his rule and purchase the rare bible – “Wicked’ because of the error in the Seventh Commandment that mistakenly read:  “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  (Not long after, Biblical book hound Francis Fry was able to track down another copy of the Bible as well.)   Lenox must also be remembered as the first book collector to bring a Gutenberg Bible to America.  Stevens tipped off Lenox in 1847 that a copy would be sold at Sotheby’s London.  Stevens examined the book and made arrangements for bidding.  Lenox purchased the book for a then record price of 500 pounds with legendary English collector Sir Thomas Phillipps being the under bidder.  Lenox at first regretted the huge expenditure (some $3,000 total) but later looked upon the book as the gem of his library.
                Henry Stevens (1819-1886), born in Vermont to a book collecting father, studied at Yale, and soon caught the fever of hunting rare Americana from which he never recovered.  He was a natural book scout and soon was finding and selling books to a variety of clients and institutions.  In 1845, he took a chance and moved to London to establish his rare book business.  At that time, much of the early Americana was found in English collections and on the continent.   His outgoing nature and book hunting skills quickly made him the top American bookseller in London.  Americana was always first and foremost for Stevens, but Lenox’s interest in early Bibles presented an opportunity to Stevens for both for profit and research.  He rose to the occasion and soon was not only supplying Lenox with desiderata but also was corresponding with the English collector of Bibles, Francis Fry.  
Francis Fry (1803-1886), a Bristol businessman, assiduously gathered early English Bibles with the intent to sort out the difficult bibliographical challenges presented.  His zeal was unrivaled during his time.  He published a number of related books and articles and Stevens and Fry regularly exchanged bibliographic information.  This interplay not only benefited the two men but also James Lenox who was keen on any new findings.   After Fry’s death, his collection of some 1200 early English Bibles was sold to the British Bible Society Library and later transferred to Cambridge University.  His stature is exemplified by the dedication to Fry of Thomas Darlow and Horace Moule’s landmark bibliographical work, Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society (1903).  The men drew heavily upon the Fry collection in compiling the bibliography.
So, we have two prominent American bookmen, 19th century entrepreneurs in every sense of the word, joining with an Englishman, to clear a path through a wilderness of Biblical proportions.  It’s a fascinating story just touched upon here.  For those interested in more, look to Henry Stevens’ Recollections of James Lenox and the Formation of His Library (1886, 1951). The 1951 edition, edited with extensive notes by Victor Hugo Paltsits, is the one to read.  Wyman Parker’s biography Henry Stevens of Vermont: American Book Dealer in London, 1845-1886 (1963) is also highly recommended.  There are various exhibitions celebrating the 400 anniversary of the King James Bible.  One at Cambridge features many of Fry’s books:
  I collect material on Stevens and Lenox so when an inscribed copy surfaced of Stevens’ The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition 1877 or a Bibliographical Description of Nearly One Thousand Representative Bibles in Various Languages . . . (1878) I bought it.   The exhibit / publication was a first of its kind and exemplified Stevens’ interest and knowledge.  My excitement about the recipient will become apparent.  There is also a fine letter from Stevens laid in to the same.
Stevens. The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition. (1878).  Inscr. to Fry.

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