New Special Collections acquisitions: Joan Brossa, and book from ‘one of the crackedest men of his time’, private presses, Houdini and magic

Senate House Library’s Special Collections are made up of rare and early material and specialist research collections that have been deemed to be of particular value (in many senses).  Some of the collections continue to grow and develop through new acquisitions from our trust funds, set up by donors to enrich, develop and enhance the Library’s holdings. Below are some highlights from purchases from the first part of this year. Any of the items can be consulted in the Special Collections Reading Room by request.

The Edwin Deller Memorial Library fund was established in memory of the Sir Edwin Deller, the principal of the University from 1929 to 1936, who was fatally injured during the construction of Senate House in November 1936.  The purpose of the fund was to enable “the Library to buy rare or beautiful books and MSS., or books of specialised interest which the Library might not be able to acquire from its book fund.” Two recent acquisitions have certainly met those criteria.

  • Acquired through the Deller and Art collection fund, Joan Brossa’s Poemes Visuals is a complete collection of the pioneering Catalan poet and artist’s visual poetry (poesia plàstica), accompanied by a critical volume and a Poema Objecte “A amb punt.” Brossa principally saw himself as a poet, but his work was not concerned simply with the textual, but with the interaction between poetry, action and the visual. The book adds to the Library’s extensive holdings on Catalan language and literature, including the collection of bookseller and publisher Joan Gili.   
Cover of Joan Brossa Poemes Visuals
Joan Brossa Poemes Visuals


  • The mathematical library of Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871) is the founding collection of Senate House Library. So one might think we had all his books. In fact, De Morgan’s library was not static, and strays once in it turn up now and then elsewhere. We were delighted to acquire through the Deller fund one which surfaced earlier in 2017, William Pope’s The Triumphal Chariot of Friction (1829). In it Pope defines magnetism and develops the origin of magnetic attraction, the mariner’s compass, and the local attraction on board of vessels. He believed that his ideas would “be found serviceable to the Philosopher, the Divine, the Botanist, the Chymist, the Geologist, the Mineralogist, and the Navigator”. De Morgan disagreed. He scorned Pope’s views in his A Budget of Paradoxes (1872) and, with one of the annotations typical of De Morgan’s books, wrote on the title page of this copy of Pope: “A Rare Fellow: see p. 101”—the page on which Pope begins to expound the views De Morgan ridicules in print. Pope had given the book to one of De Morgan’s friend, the mathematician Olinthus Gregory (1774-1841), as shown by a letter tipped on one of the front flyleaves. It complements three other items in the De Morgan collections known to have belonged formerly to Gregory. Next to the letter De Morgan has written: “This is Dr Gregory’s excuse for having the book: mine is that the author was one of the crackedest men of his time”.
Title-page of William Pope’s The Triumphal Chariot of Friction (1829)
Title page of  The Triumphal Chariot of Friction with De Morgan's annotation



The Sterling Library is home to first and fine editions of English literature collected by Sir Louis Sterling.  The trust fund for the collection has allowed us to add many first editions and books from small and private presses.  The beginning of the year has seen the acquisition of several private press editions:

  • We have supplemented holdings from the Golden Cockerel Press with three new items: an edition of Napoleon’s Supper at Beaucaire (1945), the first in English, bound in full velum with gilt tooling in a honeycomb motif and the Napoleonic bee; and two books illustrated by Eric Gill: his essay Art and Prudence (1928) and The Constant Mistress (1934) by Enid Clay.  Gill was a frequent collaborator with the press in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was under the management of Robert Gibbings.  He also illustrated some of the presses most successful productions, including the Canterbury Tales (1929) and Four Gospels (1931), as well as designing the Golden Cockerel typefaces.
Golden Cockerel editions of Art and Prudence and The Constant Mistress
Art and Prudence and The Constant Mistress


  • We have also added to the Sterling Library’s collection of material from the Daniel Press with a copy of the charming book Sixe Idillia (1883) of Theocritus, reprinted by Emily Daniel from the unique copy of 1588 in the Bodleian.  The Daniel Press began in 1845 when Charles Henry Olive Daniel took up printing as a child, and he continued to produce books with his family in Frome and later Oxford, often using types and ornaments from the Oxford University press, including the famous Fell types.  The book marks a number of firsts for the small family press including the first to feature illustration in the form of an engraved frontispiece, the first book in quarto format, which become the preference for future productions and the first artistic use of ornaments for boarders and lines. As such, it is a valuable addition to the collection marking a key point the development of the Daniel Press. The copy is in its original binding of stiff velum with the title in gilt between ruled lines.
Title page and frontispiece of Daniel Press Sixe Idillia
The frontispiece of Sixe Idillia


The Harry Price Library is one of Senate House Library’s best known and most popular of the Special Collections. Originally developed by psychical investigator and ghost hunter Harry Price for his National Laboratory of Psychical Research, the collection covers a wide range of subjects relating to magic, the supernatural, spiritualism, the occult and unexplained phenomena.  We continue to add to the collection with popular and academic works in these and related subject areas. A small selection of the interesting acquisitions so far this year are below:

New additions to the Harry Price Library
New additions to the Harry Price Library
  • In Houdini’s Final Incredible Secret Bob Loomis, Magic Circle Librarian and Honorary Associate of the Inner Magic Circle, investigates the ‘one major Houdini mystery that the best minds in magic have not adequately explained’: the trick Houdini performed for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that convinced him that it could only have been accomplished with supernatural assistance. Based on years of research in archives and specialist collections (including the Harry Price Library), Loomis’s highly entertaining account presents his theories on what the illusion Houdini performed actually was, and how he succeeded in baffling Conan Doyle.
  • Jan Bondeson’s Strange Victoriana draws on an archive of the Illustrated Police News, perhaps best known from its graphic coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders,  to recount sensational Victorian incidents of ghosts, freaks, grisly murders, society scandals, heroic dogs and criminal animals.  The book began life as a series in The Fortean Times and includes stories of Russian giants, the Plumstead ghost, children carried off by eagles, animal hoarding in the former home of Thomas Carlyle and a range of mysterious crimes.  The book is a richly illustrated treasure trove of Victorian weirdness, but also gives an insight into nineteenth century popular culture, media and urban legend.
  • Magical Consciousness: an Anthropological and Neurobiological Approach by Susan Greenwood and Erik D. Goodwyn is an interdisciplinary study of how the mind responds to magical processes and ‘thinks magically’. Combining the anthropological study of magic with neurobiology, the book investigates the emotional and sensory experience of individuals of magic as an aspect of consciousness, not just as a cultural or social manifestation of what is frequently defined as irrational belief.  It reflects a growing academic interest in the emotional and psychological experience of magic and how this can be better understood and analysed.
  • Of Shadows is a celebration of The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, one of the largest collections of objects and artefacts relating to folk magic, Wicca, ritual magic and witchcraft in modern Europe.  The book covers 100 beautifully photographed objects from the collection, along with a history the museum by the current director, Simon Costin, and an introduction by the photographer Sara Hannant. The descriptions draw on the captions of the founder of the collection, Cecil Williamson, supplemented with information on contemporary practices by Hannant, with many of the original typescript captions also reproduced.  


With contributions from Dr Karen Attar