Editor's note: Rupert Powell, the International Head of Books at Forum Auctions, has been part of the book world since 1985 (longer than I've been alive). After a long career at Bloomsbury, he has been with Forum since its founding in 2016. He provides below a far more in-depth and expert preview of an upcoming sale than I ever could.
- Tom McKinney
Since it was announced in late April, there has been a growing buzz around the book world regarding the now-imminent auction of one of the world’s finest institutional holdings of agricultural books, The Rothamsted Collection. Over 3400 volumes have been divided into 815 lots and the sale takes place in three sessions over 2 days (July 10 and 11). The door-stop catalogue is arranged chronologically with a handy index to assist with cross-referencing the numerous works on offer by the same author.
The printed books from the library, which date from 1471-1840, are therefore preceded by 3 fine medieval manuscripts – a near-complete copy of Walter of Henley’s Hosbondrye written in Anglo-Norman and dating to the early 14thcentury (lot 1, est. £10,000-15,000) and two early 15th century manuscripts of Palladius – along with Cato, Varro and Columella, one of the four great Roman writers on agriculture – one in Latin (lot 2, est. £10,000-15,000) and the other in Italian vernacular (lot 3, est. £8,000-12,000).
The first printed book on agriculture, the 1471 edition of Crescentiis’ Ruralia commoda, is offered as lot 4, here in a splendid copy previously owned by the Marquis d’Adda, a great Italian collector, and subsequently by Charles Fairfax Murray, whose magnificent library was sold at auction in 1917. This copy was acquired for Rothamsted by director Sir John Russell, the driving force behind the creation of the Lawes Library, in 1923 and now carries an estimate of £60,000-80,000.
There are some 20 other editions of Crescentiis’ work on offer, six of which are incunables, including the first edition printed in Italy (lot 6, est. £8,000-12,000) and the first illustrated edition, printed by Peter Drach in Speyer c.1490-95, with over 300 woodcuts and some of these coloured by a contemporary hand (lot 13, est. £20,000-30,000).
The provenance of many of the Rothamsted books is often of great significance – several books were previously owned by Richard Schwerdt, the great collector and bibliographer of works relating to Hunting and other rural pursuits; and others by André Simon, the equally revered collector and bibliographer of books on food and drink.
As well as the incunables and other early printed continental books, the collection is particularly rich in English 16th and 17th century works. A few of these are unique examples (i.e. the Rothamsted copy being the only one known); many are known in a handful of institutional copies only; and many more appear only very infrequently on the open market. By way of example, lot 38 is a copy of the first book on farming printed in England, John Fitzherbert’s The Boke of Husbandry, c.1534. But not only is this seemingly the only copy known, it also bears the ownership signature of William Lambarde, the author of the first work of British topography (Perambulation of Kent, 1576) and, significantly, an early translator into English of Walter of Henley. The copy is estimated to fetch £4,000-6,000.
Other notable early English works include Mascall’s A Booke of the Art and Maner, how to Graffe all sortes of Trees, first edition, 1569 (lot 100, est. £4,000-6,000); Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, 1573 (lot 111, est. £2,000-3,000); Reginald Scot’s A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden, 1576 (lot 118, est. £4,000-6,000); Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry, 1577 (lot 126, est. £1,500-2,000); and Thomas Hill’s The Gardeners Labyrinth, 1586 (lot 144, est. £4,000-6,000).
There are two important early works relating to food which catch the eye – lot 133 is Monardes’ Joyfull Newes out of the Newfound World, 1580, a rare work of American significance with mention of Christopher Columbus in the opening sentence and descriptions of the cultivation of rhubarb and ginger (as well as tobacco, quinine and cassava), estimated at £10,000-15,000; and the following lot entitled Here beginneth the Booke, named the Assise of Breade, c.1580, the only recorded copy, which bears an estimate of £6,000-8,000.
One of the most curious works is Leonard Digges’ A Prognostication everlasting of Righte Good Effecte…to Judge the Weather by the Sunne, Moone, Starres…, 1576. This legendary rarity is highly important because it contains the first translation into a vernacular language of the ground-breaking cosmological section of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Only three copies are recorded in institutional libraries and although the Rothamsted copy lacks the folding plate, it is still estimated to make £15,000-20,000.
There are several other books in the sale which can lay claim to be the “first” in a particular field or genre: Pena and l’Obel’s Stirpium adversaria nova, 1571 (lot 104, est. £800-1,200) contains the first published illustration of the tobacco plant (and another illustration of a man’s head smoking a long pipe); lot 313 comprises four separate works bound together in one volume and includes Forster’s England’s Happiness Increased…, the first book devoted exclusively to potatoes (est. £3,000-4,000); also featured are the first agricultural bibliography (lot 127); the first bibliography of hunting (lot 510); the first known illustration of a specially adapted case for transporting cut flowers (lot 315); the first gardening book for Scottish gardeners, sometimes also regarded as the first Scottish cookery book as the second part includes recommendations of seasonal dishes and drinks (lot 368); and lot 464, which includes the first detailed description in English of wine-making in the Champagne region of France.
The full catalogue is available online at www.forumauctions.co.uk, where you will also find images (often multiple) of every lot, plus information regarding extended viewing times in their Battersea offices as well as The Westbury Hotel in Mayfair (where the sale itself takes place), registration, bidding etc.