Rare Books & Special Collections

quails_2 Arguably one of the most appealing pictorial books published during the mid-1800s, The Chinese Empire illustrated, (known also as China, its scenery, architecture, social habits &c. illustrated), truly is a remarkable book.  With 75 steel engravings, after the original sketches by Thomas Allom, and descriptive letter press by Irish clergyman, G.N. Wright, the book has a focus particularly rare for its time – on the life and daily activities of the Chinese people rather than the Country’s picturesque scenery.

English architect, artist and topographer, Thomas Allom, was born in Lambeth, South London, in 1804.  He initially pursued a career as an architect and began, in 1819, an apprenticeship with Francis Goodwin who was renowned for his church designs in the Gothic Revival style and civic buildings in the Neoclassical style.  Allom spent eight years with Goodwin, before studying architecture in 1828 at the Royal Academy Schools in London.  In the mid-1820s he exhibited some of his designs for churches and received considerable praise as an architect, affording him the opportunity to design buildings such as Christ Church in Highbury, the Church of St Peter’s in Notting Hill, the tower of St.Leodegarius Church near Nottingham and the William Brown Library in Liverpool.  He also designed workhouses in Kensington, Liverpool and Wiltshire, and collaborated with renowned English architect, Charles Barry, on projects such as the remodelling of Highclere Castle.  In 1834 he became a founding member of the Institute of Architects, now RIBA, and a fellow of the Institute in 1860.

Allom was as much an artist as an architect though, and he spent much of the 1820’s and 1830’s travelling through England and Scotland making a name for himself as a topographic illustrator.  He sketched his way around the Continent too, recording the architecture of countries such as Syria and Palestine.  In 1828, the extent of his travels broadened further, when he embarked on what would become a fifteen-year collaboration with Fisher Son & Co. to illustrate, with fellow artist William Henry Bartlett, many of the publisher’s Asian travel books.  That year the firm sent Allom to Turkey, where he produced hundreds of drawings, particularly in Anatolia, a great number of which were published as steel engravings in their Constantinople and the scenery of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Robert Walsh, 1838) and also in Character and costume in Turkey and Italy (Emily Reeve, 1840).

shop_2It’s clear the Near East, with its exotic buildings and monuments, was a tremendous source of inspiration for Allom.  Although documents relating to his time in Constantinople no longer exist, the sheer number of his drawings from the region suggest he spent considerable time there.  What’s less certain is whether Allom actually made his way to China, to pen all of the illustrations that appear in his four-volume set, China, its scenery, architecture, social habits, &c. illustrated (Fisher Son & Co., 1842).  Some sources suggest he did travel to the Far East but it’s generally believed that most of his Chinese illustrations are based on the works of other artists, rather than on his own firsthand views.  These artists include the likes of Lieutenant Frederick White of Britain and Captain James Stoddart of Scotland.  This is not to say, however, that Allom simply copied their works, rather that he saw and produced another version of them, in which architectural features appeared from different angles or where subjects performed different activities in the space.[1]

The Library’s copy of China, its scenery, architecture and social habits… is the third edition, published c1858.  Unlike the two earlier editions published by Fisher Son & Co. (1842) and Peter Jackson (1845), the London Printing and Publishing Co. edition features some additional illustrative plates from other artists.  Allom’s work is easily distinguished though.  His depictions of the country and seaside tend to have a romantic, almost dreamy, appearance, and his drawings of people going about their daily activities exhibit a similar idealised view of reality.  Despite this somewhat mystical view of China and its people, Allom’s work is incredibly important.  Until the early 19th century the western world really only had vague notions of Chinese culture.  Allom, through his exquisitely detailed drawings, was able to introduce the West to a view of China as comprehensive as possible in the mid-1800s.  Provided we understand and appreciate the mystical nature of his work, there is much knowledge to be gained about the customs, culture, dress, landscape, architecture and décor of China some 170 years ago.

China…, with its magnificent engravings of the Great Wall, Temple of Buddha and the Imperial Palace, together with more modest illustrations of merchant apartments, houses and places of business, is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at RB 915.1 A458c and RB 915.1 A458ce.




The Chinese empire: illustrated: being a series of views from original sketches, displaying the scenery, architecture, social habits, &c., of that ancient and exclusive nation / by Thomas Allom, esq., with historical and descriptive letterpress, by the Rev. G. N. Wright, M. A. The work will also contain a succinct account of the history of China; a narrative of British connexion with that nation, the opium war of 1840, and full details of the causes and events of the present war. Thomas Allom. G.N. Wright. The London Printing and Publishing Co. c1858


The Chinese outpost: Language. Culture. News. Products. Entertainment. Information. People. Accessed online 23 February 2017.
[1] http://www.chinese-outpost.com/history/thomas-allom-china-illustrated/

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retort_receiverThe physician John French was born at Broughton, Oxfordshire, in approximately 1616.  He entered New Inn Hall in 1633, one of Oxford University’s earliest medieval halls, and graduated with a Degree in Arts in 1637 and a Masters in 1640.  He pursued work in Great Britain’s Parliament army during the Civil War, eventually becoming one of only two physicians to the whole army, and was created Doctor of Physic in 1648.

furnaceFrench was a follower of Paracelsus’ school of alchemy, which was critical of certain aspects of traditional alchemy.  He lived in an era when the new science of chemistry was developing, and he was keen to discover fresh medical uses for various chemicals and compounds.  His bias against Galenic medicine, with its underlying principle of humorism or the four humors – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm – as advanced by the ancient Greeks, and which dominated Western medical science for more than 1300 years, is clear in his works.  In his 1654 publication, The York-shire spaw…, French explored the causes, virtues and uses of the ‘vitrioline’, ‘sulphur’, ‘petrifying’ and ‘Mugnus’ medicinal wells near Knaresborough, North Yorkshire.  The book is a fine example of French’s enthusiasm for new chemistry and its application to medicine.

sun_distillationIn approximately 1652, the first edition of French’s publication The art of distillation appeared.  Essentially a medical reference or handbook, it was considered representative of British chemistry of the period.  It was often referred to as the first definitive book on the subject of distillation, however suggestions that much of the book was merely translated from an earlier German work by Hieronymus Brunschwig have persisted.  Indeed, we know that French was a translator of numerous medical and alchemical treatises, including A new light of alchymie (1650), and that the publication timing of his own The art of distillation is coincidental to say the least – just two years after he’d translated German-Dutch alchemist, Johann Rudolf Glauber’s highly esteemed Furni Novi Philosophici into English.  Rattansi and Clericuzio certainly suggest in their 1994 publication, Alchemy and Chemistry in the 16th and 17th centuries, that French’s work was largely indebted to Glauber’s tracts.

using_furnaceThere have been other critics of French’s The art of distillation too.  In his 1692 book, Introitus apertus ad artem distillationis, or, The whole art of distillation practically stated…, William Y’Worth prefaces his text with an illustration of a distillery with the caption: “The Art of Distillation here behold, More perfect than before taught by tenfold.” He was clearly not impressed by French’s work and considered his instructions “defective, both in the exact Modus of working, the ordering of the wash and backs for a quick fermentation… as also in the great business of rectification.”[1]  However, French was renowned for his knowledge of chemistry, and the Irish modern chemist, Robert Boyle, known for his discovery of the pressure/volume relationship of gas (Boyle’s Law), was said to have greatly respected French and his Paracelsian beliefs.

The Library’s copy of The Art of Distillation (1667) is the second edition which is divided into eight separate “books” – essentially chapters on distillation, its three principle definitions, its methods, and the best furnaces and vessels to use in the process.  By far the most curious of chapters is number four, “Of animals”.  Here, the reader can find no less than 40 experiments which utilise human and animal organs, each said to offer medicinal relief for a variety of ailments.  Below are some of the more unusual experiments:

Elixir of Mummies is made thus.

“Take a Mummie (viz. of Mans-flesh hardened), cut small four ounces, Spirit of Wine terebinthinated ten ounces, put them into a glazed vessel, (three parts of four being empty) which set in Horse-dung to digest for the space of a month; then take it out and express it, let the expression be circulated a month, then let it run through Manica Hippocratis; then evaporate the Spirit, till that which remains in the bottom be like an Oyl, which is the true Elixir of Mummie.  This Elixir is wonderful preservative against all Infections, also very Balsamical.”

A Water and Oyl made out of Hair.

“Fill an earthen Retort with Hair cut small, set it over the fire, and fit a Receiver to it, and there will come over a very stinking Water and Oyl.  The Water and Oyl is used in Germany to be sprinkled upon fences and hedges, to keep wild and hurtful Cattle from coming to do harm in any place; for such is the stink of this Liquor that it doth affright them from coming to any place near it.”

To read French’s book and to discover more intriguing experiments, visit Rare Books & Special Collections where you will find The art of distillation at SR 660.4 F87



The art of distillation: Or, A treatise of the choicest spagyrical preparations, experiements, and curiosities, performed by way of distillation. Together with the description of the choicest furnaces and vessels used by ancient and modern chymists. And the anatomy of gold and silver; with the chiefest preparations and curiosities thereof; together with their vertues. To which is added in this fourth impression. Sublimation and calcination: In two books. As also, The London-distiller, exactly and truly shewing the way (in words at length, and not in mysterious characters and figures) to draw all sorts of spirits and strong-waters; Together with their virtues, and other excellent waters. John French. London: Printed by E. Cotes for T. Williams at the Bible in Little-Britain, 1667.


[1] Introitus apertus ad artem distillationis, or, The whole art of distillation practically stated, and adorned with all the new modes of working now in use : in which is contained, the way of making spirits, aquavitae, artificial brandy, and their application to simple and complex waters in the exact pondus of the greater and lesser composition, as also many curious and profitable truths for the exalting of liquors, being the epitomy and marrow of the whole art, supplying all that is omitted in the London distiller, French and baker &​c., experience being the true polisher hereof : to which is added, the true and genuin way of preparing powers by three noble menstruums, sc. a purifiedisal armoniak, the volatile salt of tartar, and Sal Panaristos, through which they are exiled to an higher degree of perfection than any hitherto extant, together with their virtues and dose : illustrated with copper sculptures. W. Y-worth, London: Printed for Joh. Taylor, 1692.

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It’s our Birthday! Saturday March 4th marks 85 years since the official opening of the Barr Smith Library. Designed by Architect Walter Hervey Bagot, and built with funds donated by Sir Thomas Elder Barr Smith, the Library was officially opened by the Governor, Sir Alexandar Hore-Ruthven, VC, in a widely attended public ceremony in 1932. The building was named the Barr Smith Library in memory of Thomas Elder Barr Smith’s father, Sir Robert Barr Smith. You can read the official opening ceremony book over on our Digital Archive

The original library was in two parts, the main area, which held the undergraduate collection and served as a reading room, and the basement level stack room which contained the periodicals and those items available only to professors, lecturers and advanced students. All up the library was designed to hold 15,000 volumes in the reading room and 100,000 volumes in the stack room. The room was ventilated naturally, with air vents located above the shelves, and heated by the means of foot rails in each table (which have since been removed) Designed to receive as much natural light as possible, no matter the time of day or season, thanks to the many windows. additionally 5 magnificent pendant lights hung from the nave vaulting, with 22 smaller pendants from the aisle ceilings. Mysteriously, all of the pendants have disappeared, with no records to indicate where to or why. If you happen to know where they went, please let us know! More information about the design and details of the library can be found in the opening ceremony booklet linked above.

Much of the original documentation and plans of the Barr Smith Library are held here in Rare Books & Special Collections as part of the Library Archives, including the beautifully hand-drawn and coloured plans, the original specifications book and this rather interesting map detailing the Dewey Decimal Classification breakdown of the books in the Reading Room. As you can see from the map, all of the books fit in the reading room, where now the collection has expanded so much that we can only fit half of the 900s in there! Even after our recent relegation project.

DDC Plan Full Light


A brief overview of the History of the Barr Smith Library can be found on the History of the Barr Smith Library webpage
You can find more historical photographs of the Library on our Flickr page

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With its lithographic text surrounded by wide and profusely illustrated borders, Maxims and precepts of the Saviour is a beautiful gift book containing a selection of Christian morals as described in the Four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  The precepts selected, such as “Behold the fowls of the air…” and “Consider the lilies […]

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Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Barr Smith Library’s online bibliographic system, Biblion! In 1979 it was recommended by the Select Committee on the Future Development of the Barr Smith Library that the Library should commence work on a project to develop an online catalogue. The library at the time had recently introduced high-density remote […]

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A statistician, biologist and geneticist, R.A. Fisher was born in England on the 17th of February 1890. Fisher had a highly successful career for which he became known as “the father of modern statistics” as well as “the greatest biologist since Darwin.” During his lifetime he founded over a dozen theories and methods relating to […]

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This exhibition showcases the contributions of Rare Books & Special Collections to learning and research throughout 2016.  We have supported undergraduate students with assignments, researchers with source materials and creative projects with inspirational works.  We have also responded to queries from interstate and international researchers ranging from Broome to Russia, and supplied resources to exhibitions […]

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A folio of sixteen aquatint plates with fine original hand-colouring, Views in the South Seas is the only colour-plate book relating to James Cook’s voyages.  Coupled with fifteen leaves of descriptive text from the official account of Cook’s third voyage, John Webber’s engraved plates collectively form one of the most vibrant and romantic visual statements […]

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On display in the Rare Books & Special Collections foyer until the 31st January 2017 is a festive exhibition featuring Christmas books, cards, recipes, prints and theatre programs.  Visit us during Library opening hours to discover some of the earliest records of Christmas!

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  “Of all the sciences cultivated by mankind, Astronomy is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful.  For, by knowledge derived from this science, not only the bulk of the Earth is discovered, the situation and extent of the countries and kingdoms upon it ascertained, trade […]

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