Subject: English literature
This collection comprises over 7,000 volumes of first and fine editions of English literature: poetry, prose, and drama. It is divided into five main sections:
- Authors before 1900
- Twentieth-century literature
- Private press books
- Illustrated and extra-illustrated works
The collection covers most high spots of English literature, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1492 edition) onwards. Some special highlights include two books printed by William Caxton; the first edition of Martin Luther’s New Testament (September 1522; one of very few items not in English); a set of the first four Shakespeare folios; three early Shakespeare quartos; a presentation copy of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé to Aubrey Beardsley; E. B. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, annotated acidly by Thomas Carlyle; and the original parts of three Dickens novels, alongside original parts of novels by some of Dickens’s contemporaries. Particular author strengths include Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Thackeray, W.B. Yeats, and Tennyson. Twentieth-century books retain their dust wrappers.
Private presses represented begin with Horace Walpole’s press at Strawberry Hill and peak with the entire Kelmscott Press output. Most English presses from the heyday of the Private Press movement are represented: the Ashendene, Essex House and Golden Cockerel Presses and, in Dublin, the Cuala Press, especially well. Productions by Rudolph Ackermann and George Cruikshank stand out among the illustrated books, followed by Walter Crane and Rockwell Kent.
Most manuscripts are literary; some are letters. The earliest are two manuscripts from about 1400 of William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Many are from the twentieth century: Rhys Davies, H. E. Bates, Compton Mackenzie, and letters to Charles Lahr among others. Highlights in between include letters by John Ruskin, Robert Burns and Robert Southey and literary manuscripts by Byron, Tennyson, and Swinburne.
The EMI record company director and bibliophile Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958; see ODNB) donated the nucleus of the collection (ca 4,200 items) in 1954, with an endowment to purchase additional material for the collection. The most notable such purchases were a complete set of books published by Dublin’s Dolmen Press (1994), which was founded to publish Irish poetry, and the so-called ‘Ilchester manuscript’ of Piers Plowman. Bequests and donations have enabled further growth. These include presentation copies and first editions of the works of Sean O’Casey and of John Masefield, given by Masefield’s widow, Eileen (1966) and O’Casey’s sister, Mrs Stockdale-Ross (1987), and a full set of specially bound books from the Gregynog Press, a private press in Wales, given by Sir David Hughes Parry (1966).
Sterling supplemented his literary collection with a small clutch of Napoleoneana and the first editions of such ground-breaking non-literary works as Newton’s Principia and Opticks and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.
William Shakespeare, The Tragoedy of Othello (1630)
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (1894)
A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press (1898)
Mary De Morgan, The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories (1880)
Letter from Robert Burns to Mrs Dunlop, 1791
The Gregynog Press was founded by Misses Gwendoline and Margaret Davies at their country house at Gregynog, near Newtown in Wales, in 1921. In its twenty-year lifespan 1923-1942, it published 42 books, usually in editions of 250 copies. At least fifteen copies of each book were specially bound in full morocco. The Welshness of many of the books extended beyond their place of production: seven were in the Welsh language; one was bilinguial English and Welsh; eleven English-language books were written by Welsh authors or authors with Welsh connections.
The Welshness of the Press is a link with the staunchly Welsh Professor Sir David Hughes Parry (1893-1973), who was born at Llanaelhaearn, Caernarvonshire, learned English only when he went to school, and spent part of his academic career at Aberystwyth. Parry was Chairman of the University Court 1962- and Vice-Chancellor of the University of London 1945-48. In 1966 he gave the Sterling Library a complete set of specially-bound Gregynog Press books. The gift was especially welcome as the original Sterling Library had contained only six Gregynog items, all in the standard bindings.
Gregynog: Gregynog Press, 1923
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – 1923]
Copy no. 32
This slim volume of poems by George Herbert (xv, 26 p.) is the first book published by the Gregynog Press. Its Welshness is assured not only by the nationality of the author, but by the fact that the poems were chosen by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941), chairman of the National Council of Music for the University of Wales 1919-1941. The wood engraving of Montgomery Castle, Herbert’s birthplace (shown here) is by Robert Ashwin Maynard, first Controller of the Press, and is the only illustration in the book; other adornment is provided by the typesetting, by red and black printing in two antiphons, and by large red capital letters, of which the ink does not match the less bright red on the title page. Three hundred copies were printed, the first 43 of which were specially bound in morocco.
The Life of Saint David
[Gregynog]: Gregynog Press, 1927
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – 1927]
Copy no. 20
The Life of Saint David, patron saint of Wales, is the first book for which the Gregynog Press used damped paper, subsequently used for nearly all its productions. The book has been admired for its three-colour printing, in red, blue and black; its hand-drawn paragraph marks by Horace Bray, redolent of those which adorned the earliest printed books; and for its wood engravings. These pictures, praised as “apt and charming and delicately and subtly coloured”, were hand-coloured by girls in the Gregynog Press bindery, under the direction of Horace Bray. One hundred and seventy-five copies were printed, the first twenty-five of which were specially bound in red morocco with a gilt Celtic cross.
The Fables of Esope
Aesop; trans. by William Caxton
Newtown, Montgomery: Gregynog Press, 1931
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – 1931]
Copy no. 16
The Gregynog edition of Aesop’s Fables caused a certain amount of controversy, concerning both payment to the engraver and the wording of a note at the end about editorial policy. The book contains 37 large wood engravings by Agnes Parker Miller – her first contribution to the Gregynog Press – in addition to large pictorial initials designed by the printer, William MacCance. Walter Lewis, printer to Cambridge University Press, wrote of this edition: “I do not think that I have ever seen such a beautifully printed book … an example of the finest presswork I have ever seen”. Two hundred and fifty copies were printed, of which the first twenty-five were in a special binding of tan-coloured morocco, with the title n reddish-brown within a deep gilt frame.
Caneuon Ceiriog Detholiad
John Ceiriog Hughes
Gregynog: Gregynog Press, 1925
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – 1925]
Copy no. 4
Caneuon Ceiriog Detholiad is the third book to have been published at all by the Gregynog Press, and the first of seven to have been published in Welsh. Its author (1832-1887), a Welsh national figure, has been described as the Burns of Wales. The book is printed in red and black, with red initials and a wood engraved frontispiece and thirty other wood engraving by Press controller Robert Ashwin Maynard and resident artist Horace Walter Bray. Four hundred copies were printed, the first thirty of which were specially bound.
Annual World Wireless Message of the Youth of Wales
[Gregynog]: Gregynog Press, 1935
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – Appendix] fol.
Between 1922 and 1941 the Gregynog Press generated about 235 ephemeral items: Christmas cards, concert and conference programmes, exhibition catalogues, posters, prospectuses, subscribers’ forms, invitations, orders of service and others. It published its first world wireless message of the youth of Wales (broadcast annually on Goodwill Day, 18 May) in 1923. While the design of the message varies, the arrangement of two columns, one each in Welsh and in English, with a red woodcut dragon between them, is fairly standard.
The Plays of Euripides
Euripides; trans. by Gilbert Murray
[Gregynog]: Gregynog Press, 1931
[S.L.] III [Gregynog Press – 1931] fol.
Copy no. 12
Comprising two folio volumes and over 500 pages, The Plays of Euripides is the largest enterprising undertaken by the Gregynog Press. The work’s engravings by Robert Ashwin Maynard and Horace Walter Bray (sixteen in each volume) are based on fifth-century Greek vase paintings chosen by the classical scholar T.B.L. Webster (1905-1974). The work was intended as homage to the translator, Gilbert Murray, for his work in the League of Nations. As a book, the Gregynog Euripides was praised by the Observer as “a magnificent folio edition” and “a fine example of modern book making”. But at twelve guineas for the cloth-bound edition (twenty guineas for the specially bound one), it was the Press’s most expensive venture and, published during the Depression, was the only one which did not sell easily. The Davies sisters therefore gave copies to various libraries and Colleges in Wales.
Twenty-five of the 500 copies were specially bound, some only as late as 1952 by John Ewart Bowen at the National Library of Wales. The Sterling Library copy is bound in one volume by the Gregynog Press, with its stamp on the back turn-in.
Article reproduced with permission from the Times Literary Supplement, 4 Feb. 1939
Book-collecting is, comparatively, an inexpensive hobby. The value of a very fine library might not suffice to purchase more than one or two really first-class pictures. The Folger Library is the best of its kind in the world. It would probably be impossible now to make a collection of Shakespeariana equal to it. Translate its value into old masters, however, and it would be a long way below the best. The Gutenberg Bible is the only book that compares, in terms of money, with the most valuable pictures. Moreover, in the sense that collecting is one expression of the acquisitive instinct, it is satisfying because there is much to acquire. The collector of great pictures may buy one a year, or one in five years; the book-collector may find something almost every day which demands to be added to his collection.
This indulgence in bibliophilic Gemütlichkeit results from a visit to the library of Sir Louis Sterling. Here is a collector who observes a simple, if not very easily imitable, principle – namely, to buy the best whenever he sees it. He excludes no period or subject, and his double-lined shelves remind one irresistibly of the more swagger catalogues of the Anderson Galleries. Huth, Bishop, van Whitall, Kern and other similar collectors come to mind, and Sir Louis may be compared to them without disadvantage.
There simply is not a department of English book-collecting of which his library cannot show some brilliant example. Early printing and Kelmscotts, the Romantics and the Augustans, Rowlandson and Alken, Shakespeare and the moderns, a manuscript of Mozart, Powys, or Byron – all are fish to Sir Louis’s net, if only the catch be big enough to save it from being thrown back.
Evolution of a library
The stages of its evolution are not the least interesting features of such a library. There was no time to examine the purchases of Sir Louis’s shoestring period. We began with the bound sets of first editions of Hardy, Thackeray, Dickens, and others. Friendship and the example of Mr. A. Edward Newton and Mr. Jerome D. Kern showed Sir Louis the error of these ways and the next step is represented by fine copies, mostly in modern bindings, of the colour plate books. Almost all the best titles are in the library. To mention Pierce Egan, Surtees, “Dr. Syntax,” the quarto Ackermann “Microcosm,” and the rest is but to indicate the widely inclusive nature of this part of the library.
Perhaps to this period also belong the fine copies, often in modern bindings, of first editions of such landmarks as “Gulliver” and “Robinson Crusoe,” but the later acquisitions demand so much more detailed attention that only passing mention can be given to these and their companions, attractive though they are. Many of them, in fact, might be worthy corner-stones of some collections, and, although their owner referred to them as “just the ordinary stuff,” this was due less to a proper affection and regard for them than to the anticipation that the visitor would be more entertained by the library’s unusual possessions.
Not the least of these were the Alkens. His earliest productions, published under the pseudonym of “Ben Tallyho,” have not survived in large numbers, but Sir Louis has most of them in the finest state and in the original printed wrappers, among them “Sporting Notions,” ”Ideas,” and “Qualified horses and Unqualified riders.” His “Military Discoveries” and “Some do and some do not” are in similar condition. It may be heretical to suggest that this kind of book may be enhanced by a suitable binding, but I would rather have Sir Louis’s copy of “British National Sports” in its handsome contemporary straight grain morocco binding than any copy I have seen in original boards. Illustrators of another temper are Blake, who is finely represented by India paper proofs on large paper of the engravings for the “Book of Job,” and a set of Goya’s “Cappriccios” in fine state.
In English literature we may begin most suitably with Shakespeare and the English Bible. The four folios of Shakespeare and duplicates of all but the first, include a superb third folio in contemporary calf. There are also two Shakespeare quartos, King Lear, 1608, falsely dated (the Pavier-Jaggard second edition of 1619), and Othello, 1630 – first edition, 1622. The most important of the Bibles, is a perfect copy of the Authorized Version, 1611, with broad margins and not only the “He” reading in “Esther” but the first state of the map and all the other points. There is also the important Coverdale version of 1535 and the “Great” or “Cromwell” Bible, 1539, the first officially commissioned text ordered by Henry VIII to be read in churches. In this Coverdale also had a hand.
Herbert’s “Temple,” 1634, has the uncancelled title, and, if Sir Louis’s surmise about his copy is correct, it must be one of the most interesting in existence. He believes that its amateurish binding of inlaid leather is the work of the Little Gidding Community. Nicholas Ferrar, the head of this community, edited Herbert’s book, and nothing seems more likely than that some copies of it should have been bound by the members.
In this period the library also includes a fine Herrick’s “Hesperides,” 1648, with the uncancalled leaves; Burton’s “Anatomy,” 1621, in original vellum; the first edition of Milton’s “Lycidas” – “Justa Eduardo King naufrago” – Cambridge, 1638; the first English translation of Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” 1620; Locke’s “Essay concerning Human Understanding, “ 1690; a superb copy, with fine impressions of the portrait and maps, of Drayton’s “Poly-Olbion,” 1613-1622, the first complete edition; a fine “Coryat’s Crudities,” 1611, in contemporary calf; and Newton’s “Principia,” 1687.
Slightly earlier in date are “Batman upon Bartholme,” 1582, which may have been Shakespeare’s source book for some of his scientific references; Gavin Douglas’s “Aeneid, “ 1553, the first classical translation into English; Florio’s translation of Montaigne, 1603, with its extravagant title-page running over on to the reverse and its fine portrait; the first collected edition of Chaucer, published by Godfray in 1532; the 1527 edition of Higden’s “Polycronicon”; and the 1570 edition of Barclay’s translation of Brandt.
The eighteenth century books in the library are especially notable because of their superb condition. Johnson’s “London,” Boswell’s “Johnson” and “Hebrides,” and Mrs. Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho” and “The Italian” are present in original boards or wrappers so fresh in condition as to make it appear incredible that they should have survived. The “Ode to Mrs. Thrale” 1784 (i.e., 1788), which gives Johnson’s name as the author on the title-page, but which Professor Pottle has proved to be by Boswell, is one of the copies in unstabbed sheets which Glen bought at the Auchinleck sale.
Sir Louis has an excellent Kilmarnock Burns; a signed presentation copy from the author of Wycherley’s “Miscellany Poems,” 1704, in contemporary calf and on large paper; a fine Walpole “Castle of Otranto,” 1764. Most of the important books of the period like White’s “Selborne,” a large paper “Dunciad” and Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” and “Sentimental Journey,” Fieldings, Smolletts, Richardsons and the like are first editions and in contemporary bindings.
An unusual and attractive book is Gray’s copy of Volumes 1, 4, 5, and 6 of the six-volume Dodsley “Miscellany,” of 1758.
Fine condition is also evident in the nineteenth-century books. Ainsworth’s copy, with his autograph, of Shelley’s “Adonais,” Pisa, 1821, in the original blue printed wrappers, vies with Lamb’s “Specimens of English Dramatic Poets,” 1808, with an inscription from Lamb to Southey dated at Keswick, “August 6, 1808,” its original boards covered in Southey’s “Cottonian” binding. Many other Shelley first editions are there in bindings, but “Rosalind and Helen,” 1819, is in wrappers with the label.
Other rarities and high spots of the century are too numerous to mention in detail. Such are Reade’s “The Cloister and the Hearth”; Thackeray’s “Flore et Zephyr,” and his novels in parts and cloth; Barham’s “Ingoldsby Legends”; Dickens novels in parts, and a collection of variants of the first and early editions of “Christmas Carol”; Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”.
Fine printing of various periods begins with two Caxtons – a perfect copy of “The Game of the Chess,” 1481, and “Cronicles of England,” 1480, with six leaves in facsimile and lacking two blanks – and ends with a complete collection of Doves and Kelmscott Press books and a selection of Ashendenes and Golden Cockerels.
Finally there are the manuscripts. The earliest and in some ways the finest of these is a fourteenth-century manuscript of Langland’s “Piers Plowman.” This is of the “C”, or final text, which is almost twice as long as the earliest version and dates from about 1395. Sir Louis has also the first printed edition of the poem of 1550, which is falsely dated 1505. There are two important eighteenth-century manuscripts, the one a letter from Burns dated 1791 incorporating his poem “The Song of Death,” fittingly addressed to Mrs. Dunlop, a descendant of Wallace; the other of some canons by Mozart.
Byron and Tennyson
The nineteenth-century manuscripts in the library are of great interest and importance. Five cantos of “Don Juan” entirely in Byron’s hand include Canto XVII, which remained unpublished until the present century, when it was printed in Murray’s collected edition, 1903. A manuscript of the third canto of “Childe Harold” is in the hand of Mary Wollstonecraft with corrections by Byron. There are several Tennyson manuscripts, the most interesting of which is the first draft of “Sir John Oldcastle,” which was printed in “Ballads and other Poems,” 1880. In this manuscript the poem has been sketched out in pencil, sometimes leaving lines unfinished; more frequently a line is left without its couplet, the imperfections being supplied later in ink. Other Tennyson manuscripts include “The Voyage of Maeldune” from the same volume and seven stanzas of “Early Spring” (“Tiresias,” 1885).
Original manuscripts of Scott’s “Death of the Laird’s Jock” and “A Highland Anecdote” published in The Keepsake for 1829; Swinburne’s “Robert Davenport,” written for the Fortnightly Review, November, 1890, partly in pencil; the manuscript of an essay by Carlyle; and Borrow’s manuscript of “Szekeley,” an article for the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” are also in the library. Of considerable bibliographical importance is the correspondence, from both sides, between Mrs. Davis and Charles Dickens about the character of Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” She charges Dickens with anti-Semitism, but Dickens neatly rebuts the charge, and eventually satisfies her of his good-will to the Jewish race.
Sir Louis’s interest in modern authors is to be seen in his acquisition of their manuscripts. Among these are Mr. Compton Mackenzie’s “Carnival,” Mr. James Hanley’s “Boy” and “Maelstrom,” and others by Mr. T F. Powys, Mr. H. E. Bates, Mr. Rhys Davies and Mr. Siegfried Sassoon. It is their owner’s intention to bequeath all the manuscript material to the British Museum, apart from the Dickens correspondence, which will go to the Jewish Historical Society.
The description of such a collection as this cannot give more than brief reference to some of its high-water marks and thereby attempt to indicate the catholicity of its owner’s tastes. Few collectors in this country now attempt – let alone achieve – anything on quite so extensive a scale, for the younger generation prefers its own more specialized – and, some might say, more scientific – methods of collecting. The great charm of Sir Louis’s library lies precisely in its rambling nature and in the evidence of his determination to follow no set path, but to buy whatever he happened to like. It is comforting to know that the tradition is not entirely extinct.
Digital versions of most books printed before 1801 (not of our copies) are available via Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. You can find digital versions of our copies of the following on Bloomsbury Medieval Culture: a Piers Plowman manuscript (SL.V.17), The Canterbury Tales () and The Cronicles of Englond (1480). These are all subscription databases.
- LS: Sterling papers
- SLIV and SLV: manuscripts belonging to the collection
- Literary first editions in other special collections, especially the Durning-Lawrence Library
- Portrait of Sir Louis Sterling
- Chesterfield portraits of literary giants, given by Sterling
- Byron, George Gordon, Lord Byron: ‘Don Juan’ Cantos X, XI, XII and XVII Manuscript: A Facsimile of the Original Draft Manuscripts in the University of London Library, ed. by Andrew Nicholson (New York and London: Garland, 1993)
- Carlyle, Thomas, and Jane Welsh Carlyle, The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, vol. 32: October 1856-July 1857, ed. by Ian Campbell et al. (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2004)
- Martland, Peter, Since Records Began: EMI, the First 100 Years (London: Batsford, 1997; for Sterling himself)
- Mosser, D. W., ‘The Manuscript Glosses of the Canterbury Tales and the University of London’s coy of Pynson’s  Edition’, Chaucer Review, 41 (2007), 360-92.
- Piper, David, ‘The Chesterfield Library Portraits’, in: Evidence in Literary Scholarship: Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, ed. by René Wellek and Alvaro Ribeiro (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 179-95
- ‘Private Libraries: Sir Louis Sterling’, Times Literary Supplement, 4 Feb. 1939
- The Sterling Library: A Catalogue of the Printed Books and Literary Manuscripts Collected by Sir Louis Sterling and Presented by him to the University of London ([England]: privately printed, 1954)
- Walworth, Julia, ‘Sir Louis Sterling and his Library’, Jewish Historical Studies, 40 (2005), 159-75
- Entries 2, 7, 32, 39, 43 and 46 in Senate House Library, University of London, ed. by Christopher Pressler and Karen Attar (London: Scala, 2012)