A bibliophile's Theocritus
Greek bucolic poetry this week, and an absolute joy it is, too. The works of Theocritus in quarto, published in Paris in 1561 by Guillaume Morel, who had succeeded Turnebus as King’s Printer in Greek in 1555. The woodcut Basilisk device (a play on the Greek “Basileus”) is on the title-page. Our copy is red-ruled - always an indication that care and attention has been lavished on an early book - and it has been rebound in red morocco by an eighteenth-century bibliophile. In his seminal Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics, Thomas Frognall Dibdin describes Morel’s Theocritus, printed in Claude Garamond’s grecs du roi, as a “very beautiful edition… it is also rare”. So far, so good, but here’s where it gets interesting. Dibdin also records that “a fine morocco copy was sold at Mr Croft’s sale, no. 2045, for 1l. 13s.” A note on the free-endpaper of our morocco example reveals that this is the very copy sold at the dispersal of Thomas Crofts’ magnificent library in 1783, which was then purchased by Augustus Henry FitzRoy, statesman and third Duke of Grafton. It is a direct link with the golden age of British bibliomania Dibdin observed and celebrated. It later passed into the libraries of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), British writer and critic, a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group, and Anders Örne (1881-1956), Swedish politician. Our Theocritus has been in some very good libraries, but it’s Crofts and the direct link with Dibdin which has got my pulse racing. I wonder if it was Crofts himself who stripped off the shabby sixteenth-century binding (with who knows what earlier marks of provenance) and replaced it with something tasteful and modern in the best goatskin. The idea of preserving an old binding which had outlived its purpose probably never occurred to him… Crofts’ life makes for fascinating reading: at least three Grand Tours, a spell as chaplain to the English Factory in Aleppo, and a circle of friends and colleagues which included William Hunter and Joseph Banks. From his hands into the library of a former Prime Minister, who had lately served in the North Ministry during the American Revolutionary War. They were part of a glittering circle of wealthy, often aristocratic bibliophiles who bought fine books as one means of demonstrating their taste and erudition, an era captured by Dibdin - “the most prolific chronicler, anecdotist and publicist in the history of bibliophily” (Carter, in Taste & Technique in Book Collecting). Dibdin’s Introduction has guided collectors for two hundred years. Highly opinionated, it remains a great starting point - my own copy is much battered.