Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors and their Books at Cambridge University Library

By Culture24 Reporter | 18 January 2012
A photo of a colour illustration of an ancient King and two servants from a book
A miniature showing a bishop joining the hands of a couple, from the section of the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX concerning marriage, in a copy produced in Venice (circa 1475). From the collection of John Moore, given to the Library in 1715 by King George I
Exhibition: Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors and their Books, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, until June 16 2012

"For this exhibition, ten different curators have chosen ten different collectors, whose lives span the 16th to the 20th centuries," explains co-curator John Wells.

"It really was very difficult to narrow down the field. We had an initial long-list of 20 to 30 collections – all outstanding – which could all have justified a place in the exhibition.

"In fact, it would have been possible to replace almost every item in the exhibition with something of similar importance.

"What visitors will experience is really ten mini-exhibitions rolled into one. They can see everything from priceless illuminated manuscripts to German propaganda from the First World War.

"The central theme drawing these elements together is the allure that books and manuscripts have held for collectors over the centuries – an attraction which thousands of people, from all walks of life, still feel today."

Reflecting the current trend for cherishing collectors as much as collections, one of the most revered libraries in the country has had more than eight million items, held within miles of shelving inside its impressive Giles Gilbert Scott labyrinth, to pick from.

They've turned up a hand-coloured copy of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle – magnificent as a chronicle of world history, let alone a tome from hundreds of years ago – alongside 9th century Merican prayer books, the second-oldest surviving copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People and a velvet-bound sermon book once gazed over by Elizabeth I.

There are handwritten manuscripts by John Donne and Virginia Woolf, journals from the trenches and military monies from the Austrian-occupied zone of Italy, borrowed from the 10,000-strong War Reserve Collection of First World War ephemera.

A rare parody by trench poet Rupert Brooke and works by former Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker also feature, as well as the Chinese library of Victorian diplomat Sir Thomas Wade, described as one of the best in the west.

"Shelf Lives isn't just about the books, it's about the collectors themselves and the history of collecting," adds fellow curator Ed Potten.

"There's a social context to this and interesting questions about why collecting was – and still is – so significant to people.

"In some cases it is an obsession, and in others an expression of philanthropy. It's fascinating to uncover how and why people acquire things."

  • Open 9am-6pm (4.30pm Saturday, closed Sunday). Admission free.
More pictures:

An image of a piece of quill writing in black ink on a piece of ancient parchment
An entry written by the poet John Donne for inclusion in the album of Michael Corvinus, later owned by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (September 27 1623)
An image of a monochrome drawing of a Goddess-like woman in a garden setting
Illustration from a manuscript of Mary Tighe's poem, Psyche, formerly owned by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (early 19th century)
An image of an illustration of a soldier on the front line in the First World War accompanied by a handwritten poem
This First World War Christmas card is one of several held in the War Reserve Collection
An image of a wartime illustration showing the world being attacked by a multi-limbed red spider-like creature
A pro-German propaganda booklet published in neutral Sweden during the First World War, from the War Reserve Collection assembled by Francis Jenkinson
An image of a crest-like illustration surrounded by drawings of angels as the frontispiece for a series of sonatas
Three Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte, with an Accompanyment for a Violin & Violoncello. Score from the Haydn collection of Marion Scott
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
Related listings (100)
See all related listings »
Related resources (129)
See all related resources »