Rare Books & Special Collections

title_2A massive tome of some 1630 pages, The herball, or Generall historie of plantes was first published in 1597. Essentially, a gigantic plant catalogue, it documented more than 1,000 species, many accompanied by hand-coloured illustrations. It brought John Gerard instant fame and remained highly esteemed for the next 200 years. Generally considered to be the best and most exhaustive work of its kind, it continued to be used as a standard reference well into the 18th century.

Gerard was born at Nantwich, Cheshire, in 1545 and received his only schooling at the nearby village of Willaston. Little is known of his parentage or his early education except that he was apprenticed at seventeen to barber-surgeon, Alexander Mason, in 1562. Although granted permission to establish his own practice, Gerard became interested in plants whilst studying in London. He divided his time between the gardens of Lord Burghley’s Cecil House at Hertfordshire, of which he was superintendent, and the Physic Garden at the College of Physicians, of which he was curator. He soon became popular and was presented with rare plants and seeds from around the world, and received offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen.

The herball, or Generall historie of plantes, arguably the most famous of all English herbals, was Gerard’s second published work. It described more than 1,000 plant species in more than 800 chapters and contained approximately 1,800 hand-coloured woodcuts. It documented the common and botanical names of the plants, their habitats, time of flowering and their various uses. It also included anecdotes on the folklore surrounding the plants. It was reprinted in 1633 and again in 1636, by which time it included more than 2,500 illustrative woodcuts.

"Virginian potato"

Although immensely popular, The herball was steeped in controversy, and was considered by some to be a translation of another’s work. A member of the London College of Physicians, by the name of Robert Priest, had been commissioned to translate Rembert Dodoens’ 1583 Latin herbal Stirpium historiae pemptades sex into English. Before the book could be published Priest died and the Queen’s Printer, John Norton, asked Gerard to complete the project. In fact Gerard claimed almost sole credit for the work, stating in the book’s preface that upon Priest’s death “his translation likewise perished” and that “the first fruits of these mine own labours”. Gerard reportedly changed how the plants were arranged, ordering them according to Mathias Lobel’s 1570 Stirpium Adversaria Nova, and took the majority of the woodcuts from Jacobus Theodorus’ 1590 Eicones Plantarum, which themselves had been reproduced from earlier herbalists. Accusations of plagiarism, coupled with Gerard’s lack of scientific training and resulting incorrect, even mythical, plant descriptions, led publisher, John Norton, to hire Lobel to proof The herball translations. Although Lobel claimed to have found more than 1,000 mistakes, Gerard grew increasingly frustrated, dismissing Lobel and forging ahead with what was a less than reliable publication.

Errors that appear in The herball include the description of the white potato which Gerard mistakenly believed to be native to America, calling it the “Virginian Potato” to distinguish it from the red sweet potato. He was also responsible for the “Goose-barnacle legend”, reporting in the book that the Barnacle goose essentially began its life by growing from a tree rather than an egg – a conclusion he reached after obtaining specimens of muscle-like shells from an old, rotten tree which showed evidence of feathers and soft down.

barnacle_goose_2The Library’s 1636 edition of The herball is the third printing which includes many corrections and new information based on empirical observation. Its editor, botanist and apothecary Thomas Johnson, added a further 800 new species and 700 illustrations. This revised edition reached a wider audience and was still being used in botany classes as late as the end of the 18th century. Despite the obvious shortcomings in Gerard’s earlier efforts, he laid the foundation for an impressive catalogue of plants which would set the trend for others to follow and which, today, allows gardeners to trace not only where plants originated from but when they arrived in Britain.

In 2012 The herball underwent conservation treatment. It was the test case that paved the way for what would become the Friends of the Library’s Adopt-a-Book program. The herball’s condition report outlines the repair work performed and also provides some fascinating photographs taken before, during and after the restoration process.

The herball, or Generall historie of plantes is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at SR/E 580.2 G356

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frontispiece_2John Dryden’s 1697 translation of The works of Virgil… is a massive folio edition, spanning some 640 pages.  It brings together three of Virgil’s finest works, including the Pastorals, the Georgics and the epic Aeneid.  Profusely illustrated by three of the finest engravers, it is considered to be one of the great publishing projects of its time.

Virgil, or Publius Vergilius Maro, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period.  He was born in October 70 B.C.E. in the farming village of Andes, on the outskirts of Mantova (now Mantua) in northern Italy.  The eldest of three sons, Virgil was thought to have come from a landowning family who could afford to provide him with an education.  He studied in Cremona, Milan and Naples, initially in the fields of rhetoric and law, before turning his attention to philosophy and poetry.  More congenial to his poor health and shy temperament, poetry offered Virgil a means of escape from the world of affairs.

The ten Eclogues, or “Pastorals”, as translated by Dryden, represent Virgil’s first collection of poetry.  Although modelled on the bucolic style popularised by the Greek poet Theocritus, Virgil’s poems are slightly more realistic.  Eclogues’ characters do not live in an idealised version of the countryside; they live in a harsh landscape, where the sun is scorching and the ‘plains burn’.  They live on farms, from which they can be unjustly evicted, and their experiences of poverty, exile and loneliness are very real.  The first poem, “Tityrus and Meliboeus”, reflects upon the days after Julius Caesar’s assassination, when residents of rural, northern Italy were dispossessed to provide land for returned soldiers.  Meliboeus is among the exiles who must leave his land, his goats, his livelihood, and make his way to a new home in Britain, Africa or Scythia.  Scholars have repeatedly drawn parallels between the poem and Virgil’s own experiences but the loss of his family’s farm, and attempts to regain it through poetic petitions, are now recognised as unsupported inferences from interpretations of the Eclogues.[1]

Continuing in the pastoral tradition, and likely spurred on by the success of the Eclogues, Virgil began his next great work, and the second part of The works of Virgil – the Georgics.  Spanning four books, and more than 2,000 lines, the poem was written at the request of Gaius Maecenas, wealthy patron of the arts and political advisor to Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adopted son).  Published around 29 B.C.E., the didactic poem which celebrates the power and beauty of nature, and the importance of living in harmony with it, took seven years to complete.  Filled with practical farming advice and instructions for ploughing, growing trees and keeping livestock and bees, the Georgics was in many ways a “superb plea for the restoration of the traditional agricultural life of Italy.”[2]  Virgil wanted its readers to see his beloved version of Italy, a view shared by the government at the time, which was keen to resettle the land.

horse_2The Aeneid, or Aeneis, as translated by Dryden, forms the third part of The Works of Virgil, and is arguably the poet’s finest piece.  Comprising some 12 books, the Aeneid is a dactylic hexameter, or rhythmic, poem, similar in construction to Homer’s Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Considered by many to be a literary masterpiece, the Aeneid became Rome’s national epic, and its progress was keenly followed during the eleven years that Virgil worked on it.  The Aeneid embodies Virgil’s ideal Rome; it tells the mythical story of the founding of Italy’s capital city through the journey of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans as they flee Troy in search of a new home – one that will become the Great Roman Empire.  It begins part way through Aeneas’ journey as he nears the city of Carthage, where he recounts, to its Queen, Dido, the story of the fall of Troy.  He describes how the Trojans were tricked by the Greek’s giant wooden horse filled with soldiers; the plague that forced them to leave Crete; their fight against the half-woman, half-bird Harpies, as well as their escape from the one-eyed cyclops and the death of his father, Anchises.  Upon hearing his story Dido falls in love with Aeneas.  He is keen, however, to continue his journey and his departure prompts Dido to kill herself with his sword.  Unaware of the tragedy and aided by a prophecy, Aeneas eventually finds his way to Laurentum.  Here, he will build the Great City and marry the King’s daughter, Lavinia, but not before a deadly duel with another suitor, Turnus.

At the time of writing the Aeneid, Virgil was already a national figure and a very rich man.  The Aeneid proved to be another great success, however Virgil would not see its results.  In 19 B.C.E., before the poem had received its final revision, Virgil travelled to Greece, possibly to obtain local colour for the parts of Aeneid set in Greek waters.[3]  During the trip he caught a fever and, weakened with disease, died soon after his arrival in Brundisium habor on 21 September 19 B.C.E.  According to legend, Virgil had intended to spend another three years on the poem, and before his death reportedly ordered his literary executors to destroy the unfinished manuscript.  That order was revoked by the Roman Emperor, Augustus, and the Aeneid was published with a few editorial changes, leaving readers to ponder those changes and any faults which Virgil may have planned to correct.

Since their publication, Virgil’s works have revolutionised Latin poetry.  They became standards in Roman school curricula, and poets following Virgil, such as Ovid, often referred to them to generate meaning in their own poetry.  More recently, his influence can be seen in the works of English poets Edmund Spenser, Alexander Pope and John Milton, who also progressed from pastorals to similarly ambitious epics.  Northamptonshire poet, John Dryden, was particularly inspired by Virgil, and his 1697 translation of the Aeneid was arguably the best ever produced in English.  Published by subscription to great fanfare, it earned Dryden approximately £1,400, a massive sum of money in the 17th century.  His translation was not without its critics though.  Some believed that he had expanded the passages unnecessarily, and certainly Dryden, by his own admission, did not see his role as one of literal translator. Some words he omitted; occasionally he added his own.  Nonetheless, it seems Dryden never intended for readers to see the words as his own, rather words which reflected Virgil’s intent, possibly even his secret intent.  This departure from the literal Latin actually gave his work a vitality, a sort of smoothness which has seen it remain the finest translation, without rival, to this day.

sixth_book_2The works of Virgil (1697) was funded in part by publisher Jacob Tonson, although the majority of Dryden’s income came from the subscribers who each paid 5 guineas towards the project.  In return they received a full-page illustration dedicated to them and engraved with their names and coat of arms.  Part way through the translation, a second subscription list was created; these subscribers paid only one guinea as down-payment and a further guinea upon delivery of the book.  They received the same work but its plates were not dedicated to them.  The names of both sets of subscribers can be found in the lists after the preface to the Pastorals.

The Library’s copy of The works of Virgil is the first addition with 101 stunning illustrated plates, each dedicated to a subscriber and produced by the finest European engravers – Michael van der Gucht, Wenceslaus Hollar and Pierre Lombart. It is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at SR 87 V5.D


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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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The 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 […]

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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. […]

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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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