The Elzeviers: 1617-2017

On 4 February 1617, Louis Elzevier died. He had founded a family firm which was to be prominent in printing, publishing and bookselling in the Netherlands throughout the seventeenth century; whose books were to spread throughout Europe; and whose output would become highly collectable. Their ubiquity renders the anniversary noteworthy in the context of European publishing in the early modern age. It is especially noteworthy for Senate House Library, which houses the United Kingdom’s only dedicated Elzevier Collection, of over 700 books printed by members of the Elzevier family and approximately 450 books produced by other seventeenth-century Dutch presses.

The collection had been offered to London’s Guildhall on 1 Oct. 1900 by H.A.[?K.] Beaumont, whose signature appears in some of the books, for fifty pounds. It was not core to the Guildhall’s focus on London, and on 3 June 1946 the Guildhall’s then Librarian reported to the Library Committee that, due to a lack of storage space, it should be housed elsewhere, either on permanent loan or as an outright gift. The University of London received the collection as an inalienable gift in July 1950, and described it as ‘a representative collection of great importance’.

When Beaumont was amassing his books, Elzeviers remained eminently collectable. In 1886 Andrew Lang in Books and Bookmen translated a passage from 1699 about the desire in France to possess books printed by the Elzeviers. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Frognall Dibdin in The Library Companion (2nd edn, 1825) noted: ‘In France, at this moment, the Elzevir mania is running very high’, whilst John Ferriar wrote to the prolific collector Richard Heber in The Bibliomania: An Epistle (1809):

And dapper Elzevirs, like fairy elves,
Shew their light forms amidst the well-gilt Twelves.

The Elzevier Collection at Senate House Library contains evidence of a personal English collector of that time in the form of an edition of Lucius Annaeus Florus (1638) formerly owned by the famed book collector Sir John Thorold (1773-1831), a leading figures of the bibliomania of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whom Seymour de Ricci described as a ‘tasteful collector of Elzevirs’. An octavo edition of Julius Caesar in the Elzevier collection formerly belonged to the collector Benjamin Heath (1704-1766), who upon inheriting a fortune on the death of his father devoted himself to literature and to forming a library, and who published on the Greek and Latin classics. Heath divided a portion of his library during his lifetime between two of his sons, and the book is inscribed by his eldest son Benjamin (1739-1817).

Russia feu Moscovia itemque Tartaria
Russia, seu, Moscovia itemque Tartaria

From a collector’s viewpoint, Elzeviers were at the time of the Library’s acquisition distinctly passé. Six years later John Carter, discussing fashions in book collecting, referred to: ‘the indiscriminate craze for Aldines, the elevation of a tall Elzevir (most of the Elzevirs being dumpy little books) to a pinnacle of esteem, and all the other fashions of a century or so ago which now seem to us fads and fetishes’ (Books and Book Collectors (1956), p. 120). That did not matter to the University of London, which had received permission from London County Council in 1947 to convert the Senate House tower, hitherto an empty hulk, to book stacks, creating capacity for 300,000 more books, and which acquired several special collections during the 1950s and early 1960s. The University Library had been examining its relationship with the Colleges and where the respective emphases should be, and acquiring early printed books was seen as a function of the University Library.

The Elzeviers in the Elzevier Collection are complemented by books printed by the Elzevier family held elsewhere in the library, often acquired by their former owners for their subject matter: for example, books on mathematics owned by the mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan; items on usury and the grain trade held in the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature. To commemorate the founder and celebrate our holdings, a selection of Elzevier titles is being displayed throughout June 2017 in Senate House. Books have been chosen to represent various facets of the Elzevier output. The most significant single work is the first edition of Galileo’s Discorsi, which further serves as an example of the diversity of their publishing and of their rare excursions into Italian-language publishing. Further aspects of their publishing which are represented are: duodecimo classics popular with seventeenth century students; the equally popular ‘little republics’ giving the history, geography, and other information about various countries; fictitious imprints; the Elzeviers’ various devices; university dissertations; catalogues, a reminder of their involvement in the retail business; various fonts, including Syriac to celebrate their renown for oriental printing; and folios, to recall that the Elzevier output extended beyond the small books with which they are largely associated. To enjoy the display virtually - as a lasting one - visit the Elzevier Collection highlights page.


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