Jessica Leeper, Exeter College, Oxford
DPhil student in History
shortlisted for the Colin Franklin Prize for Student Book Collecting, 2021
My antiquarian collection began by chance in the winter of 2011 on a snowy day in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I discovered an illustrated 1946 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a tiny downtown bookstore. Since that day my collection has grown to include over 230 volumes and prints, spanning the period between 1484 and 1980. Though my collection includes a variety of themes, there is one overwhelming theme that has become increasingly evident in my collecting. As a student of history, I have focused my research since my undergraduate days on the lives and works of the American presidential Adams family. My undergraduate, masters and now DPhil research has been an examination of the political lives of John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine. Because of my interest in them, I have acquired a significant number of books and prints related to their life, their times, and their library. The association has led me to collect books which are not only antiquarian and beautiful, but also extremely useful for my research.
Most notably, I have a first edition copy of William H. Seward’s Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, published in Auburn, New York in 1849. I also have several newspapers of the General Advertiser, the Edinburgh Evening Courant, and the Nile’s Register, documenting the American Revolution up through Adams’s cabinet career in the early 1820s and the tumultuous election of 1824. The General Advertiser copies have Adams’s name inked at the top of the first page, indicating that they may have been delivered directly to his office in Washington D.C.
However, the majority of my books and prints are those that were directly mentioned in the Adams family’s letters and diaries and appear on the listings of their private library collections in Boston. Many of these are classical texts, such as my 1653 works of Statius, and Lucan’s Pharsalia. My copy of the latter was printed in Leiden in 1612, and it is the oldest book in my collection, still maintaining its original vellum binding and red wax seals on the pastedowns. This gorgeous duodecimo bears the signature of its 17th century owner, Peter Wybrants, who does not let me forget that it is still “his booke.” Being able to claim something as mine from a year when Shakespeare was still alive is extraordinary to me.
I also have a large number of texts that were written in the 18th century, which would have been household names to the Adamses and their circle of acquaintances. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator was read again and again by the Adamses, and was referenced often in their letters. My set of The Spectator was published by Jacob Tonson in 1726, and they are some of the most beautiful books in my collection, still appearing polished and practically untouched. However, the crown jewel of my collection is my first edition two volume set of Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, published by Andrew Millar in 1752. This work was also referenced in the Adams family writings, but my set is uniquely fascinating: these two volumes bear the 19th century library stamp of the first Earl of Lovelace, who was married to Ada Lovelace, the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron. It is astounding to me to own two books which once belonged to their home.
Why I Collect Antiquarian Books
Old books offer a direct physical access to the past, while also revealing a glimpse of the passing of time. Old books offer first-hand physical evidence of the lives of our predecessors, their social norms, their popular culture, the kind of collections they might have had. Collecting antiquarian books allows me to engage in a form of micro-historical case studies, with primary sources on my own shelf for my own leisure and study.
I like to imagine that the Romantic poets would sigh to see how their own books have lasted and aged, to see my 1847 Waverley Novels for instance. I think they would be amazed to see how their books have ignored the passing of time and have denied the end of their own familiar eras. Though their books have been cast into this new world of technology, industry and speeding lights, they remain like picturesque ruins standing monumentally out of place in a futuristic world. They are a reminder that life was different once.
With all of my books I like to imagine their origins – the sort of print shops they came from, what the printer looked like, etc. How many were in great and noble libraries? How many were thoroughly abused by uninterested students? How many were read or printed during wars? How many were the last book someone ever read, or someone’s favourite book they ever read? How many were never read even once? How many were read in horse drawn coaches, or carried along to spring hillsides? How many have never been overseas, or have sat on shop shelves for years before I came along? How many have seen politicians like the Adamses, or suffragettes, or servants and lords? How many were cherished as much as I cherish them now? I like to imagine women in corsets and men with cravats reading them, some lounging in a sitting room by a winter’s fire, some hunched over a desk reading by candlelight. Some of my books are fourteen times my age, reminding me that I am only a passing figure in their long existence, a number in its list of owners. Antiquarian books are incredible relics, and I consider it a sort of job looking after them all. I am all in one the historian, the conservator, the curator, the archivist, the exhibition curator, and the amazed museum spectator.