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First Impressions

George John, 2nd Earl Spencer 1758 - 1834

Over a thirty-five year period from 1788 George John, second Earl Spencer (1758-1834), created one of the greatest private libraries in the world. He was one of a small group of aristocratic book collectors - bibliomaniacs they called themselves - who spent vast sums competing to acquire early and rare printed books. This was a time of unparalleled opportunities in book collecting. On the Continent many aristocratic and monastic libraries were dissolved during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Millions of books were destroyed or changed hands, including many incunables (books printed before 1501). Ten of thousands found their way into the great libraries of England.

Spencer's main interests were in collecting English 'black-letter' printing, especially the works of William Caxton, continental incunables, particularly the first editions of the Greek and Latin classics, and Aldines - books printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius and his successors. However, he also collected finely printed and illustrated books of later periods.

Spencer inherited a fine library at Althorp in Northamptonshire, which he developed both by acquiring entire libraries and through countless individual purchases - at auction, from booksellers and agents across Europe, and directly from other owners. At the sale of the Duke of Roxburghe's library in 1812, Spencer famously clashed with the Marquess of Blandford, over the Valdarfer edition of Boccaccio's Decameron (1471). Blandford was obliged to pay £2,260 for it, then a record price for any book. Spencer had the last laugh, though: when Blandford was forced to sell his library in 1819, Spencer snapped up the Valdarfer Boccaccio for only £918.

Spencer made three large-scale purchases, all highly important. In 1789 he bought the library of Count Károly Reviczky, one-time Imperial ambassador in London. Reviczky collected early continental books and Aldines. Spencer paid only £2,500 for well over two thousand books, the bargain of his career. In 1813 he bought the library of Stanesby Alchorne for £3,400, mainly to improve his collection of Caxtons. In 1820, during a tour of Europe in search of bibliographical rarities, he purchased almost the entire library of the Neapolitan nobleman, the Duke di Cassano Serra.

Like most collectors of his day, Spencer would regularly dispose of duplicates, and most of the Alchorne library was quickly sold on. Spencer also 'improved' copies, swapping leaves with fellow collectors, and cannibalizing two or more defective copies to make one good copy. Frustratingly for modern researchers, he sometimes had his books washed, to remove dirt and early inscriptions (these can tell us a lot about how early books were used). He also had many books rebound, particularly if they were in poor condition. In the process many earlier bindings were discarded, and with them information about former owners.

By the time of Spencer's death in 1834, the collection contained some 40,000 volumes, including the Gutenberg Bible, the Mainz Psalter, and fifty-three Caxtons, valued at over £60,000. He had assembled a library to rival the finest public and royal libraries in Europe.

In 1892 George John's grandson, the fifth Earl Spencer, decided to sell the family library at Althorp; his income had been hit by an agricultural depression and he needed to raise money. There were widespread fears that the collection might be broken up or sold abroad, but Enriqueta Rylands negotiated to buy it for £210,000, for the library she was constructing in Manchester. Thus the Spencer Collection is one of very few aristocratic libraries from the early nineteenth century to have been preserved more-or-less intact.