The Spencer collectionIn 1892 Mrs Rylands purchased the Althorp Library from John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer. Considered to be the finest library in private ownership, the collection of over 40,000 volumes, included fifteen block books, over 3,000 incunables [link to Guide to Special Collections: Incunabula Collection] and an outstanding collection of Bibles, [link to Guide to Special Collections: Bible Collection] including copies of both the 42-line or Gutenberg Bible, printed at Mainz in c. 1455, and the even rarer 36-line Bible printed at Bamberg in 1458-60.
The majority of items in the collection were acquired at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century by the celebrated bibliophile George John Spencer (1758-1834), 2nd Earl Spencer. Building on the ancestral library of some 7,000 volumes, Spencer pursued his passion for English black-letter printing and continental incunabula through booksellers, auctions and by private treaty.
The purchase of the library of Count Reviczky in 1790 established Spencer's collecting interest in early editions of the Greek and Roman classics, and his aim to establish a complete collection of Aldines. This was the first of many significant acquisitions made by Spencer during his lifetime.
Spencer retired from public life in 1807, and was able to devote considerable energy to the improvement of his library. He played his part in the 'Bibliomania' which captivated wealthy collectors of the period, culminating in the Roxburghe sale of 1812.
The sale of the magnificent library of John Ker (1740-1804), 3rd Duke of Roxburghe attracted widespread interest. The highlight of the sale was the celebrated Valdarfer Boccaccio (1471) which caused a sensation when it was purchased by Spencer's cousin, the Marquess of Blandford, for the record sum of £2,260. A dinner held to mark the occasion led to the formation of the Roxburghe Club.
Although Spencer was outbid on this occasion, he was able to acquire the Valdarfer some seven years later for less than half the sum that Blandford had paid for it.
In 1819-20 Spencer toured the Continent with the aim of strengthening his holdings of works from the first Italian press of Sweynheym and Pannartz. The highlight of the tour was the purchase of the entire library of the Duke of Cassano-Serra. Rich in Italian incunabula, this acquisition has often been regarded as the high-point of Spencer's book collecting career.
Incunables and important first editions from the Spencer Collection are recorded in Thomas Frognall Dibdin's Bibliotheca Spenceriana, 7 vols. (London, 1814-23). Further details of the Spencer Collection can also be found in The Guide to Special Collections, and through .