Exhibition | ‘Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors’

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on May 31, 2012

Two of the collectors from this Cambridge exhibition come from the eighteenth century: John Moore (1646-1714) and George Lewis (d. 1729), as noted below. From the exhibition website:

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Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors and Their Books
Cambridge University Library, 18 January — 16 June 2012

With more than eight million items on its shelves, Cambridge University Library is one of the largest accumulations of books and manuscripts in Europe, and one of the most important in the world. But its holdings are not a single, uniform entity: instead they consist of a great variety of different collections which, over the centuries, by one route or another, have come to be housed under the same roof. Some of the most remarkable of these are the collections gathered by ardent individual book-lovers, whose intensely personal passions for acquiring rare and beautiful volumes have, through the eventual deposit of their treasures in the Library, gone on to enrich the national heritage.

This exhibition presents ten such collectors, whose lives span the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. As well as placing on display some of the most splendid, distinctive and—in a few cases—unexpected items held in the Library, it allows us to observe the changing motives, fashions and tastes of book-collectors over the course of four hundred years.

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Great Industry, Accurate Judgement and Royal Favour: John Moore

John Moore (1646–1714), an undergraduate of Clare College and later Bishop of Norwich (1691–1707) and Ely (1707–1714), was one of the greatest bibliophiles of his day, celebrated for his collection of early English ‘black letter’ printing. The range of manuscripts and early printed books he acquired reflected the breadth of his interests, above all in medicine.

After he died, on 31 July 1714 (one day before Queen Anne), the collection was bought by King George I at Lord Townshend’s suggestion and presented to the University as a reward for Cambridge’s loyalty to the Hanoverian succession during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. It was known henceforth as the Royal Library. The manuscripts include such treasures as the Moore Bede and the Book of Cerne, and number among them some of the most valuable items in the Library. Yet in many cases comparatively little is known about their origins and provenances: the Library’s greatest accession of all remains in large part mysterious.

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The Archdeacon and his ‘Bibliotheca Orientalis’: George Lewis

George Lewis’s valuable collection of 76 manuscripts, mainly in Persian, came to the Library in 1727 in a wooden cabinet inscribed ‘Bibliotheca Orientalis’.

Lewis (d. 1729) was educated at Queens’ College in the 1680s and subsequently entered the Church. He travelled to India in 1692 where he was Chaplain to the East India Company settlement in Madras until 1714. He was a gifted linguist, proficient in Persian, and during his stay in India he collected manuscripts which closely reflected his own interests and expertise. The collection is strong in religious texts (Qur’ans and translations of the Bible into Persian), manuscripts on grammar, and dictionaries, including Lewis’s own unfinished dictionary of Persian. Significantly, there are texts by poets such as Hātifī and Jāmī and a rare volume by Rahā’ī—the literary traditions of the Islamic world were little known in Europe at this date.

Along with the manuscripts came an assortment of curiosities: coins, weights, inscriptions, miniature Indian playing cards on wood and tortoiseshell, and a pair of embroidered slippers.

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For more information, see the exhibition website.

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