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Spencer Collection

Date range: 15th-19th centuries

Medium: Printed

Number of items: 43,000 items (dispersed).

In 1892 Enriqueta Rylands purchased from John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer, what was acknowledged to be the finest library in private ownership, especially notable for its outstanding collection of early printing

The majority of the items were acquired at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century by George John (1758-1834), 2nd Earl Spencer. Over a thirty-five year period from 1788 Spencer 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.

Lord Spencer's prime concern in building his collection was to acquire first editions of the Greek and Latin classics and to establish a complete collection of editions from the press of Aldus Manutius and his successors. He also collected early English printing, especially the works of William Caxton. There are also finely printed and illustrated books from later centuries.

There was already a fine library at Althorp in Northamptonshire, which Spencer developed both by acquiring entire libraries and through countless individual purchases - at auction, from booksellers and agents across Europe, and directly from other owners. He 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 copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the Mainz Psalter, and fifty-three Caxtons, valued at over £60,000. Today the Spencer Collection is of fundamental importance for the history of printing in Europe in the era of the hand-press, with all the important presses represented.

See also:

Further information:

  • Recorded in Library Search.
  • Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana, 7 vols (London, 1814-23).
  • Anthony Lister, 'The Althorp library of Second Earl Spencer, now in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester: its formation and growth', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 71, no. 2 (1989), pp. 67-86.


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