Glasgow Incunabula Project and Exhibition update (12/3/15)

Our exhibition Ingenious Impressions has now been up and running for nearly two weeks and we are delighted with the overwhelming positive feedback we have received so far. If you have not had time to visit the Hunterian Art Gallery to check out our top selection of incunabula for yourself yet, don’t despair. You have until 21 June!

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The ‘hands on’ printing demonstrations using the replica wooden Gutenberg printing press on loan from the University of Reading were a great success, and we are extremely grateful to Martin Andrews and Alan May for running these informative and entertaining sessions. The University is now awash with pages from the Gutenberg Bible and we are all very proud of our efforts. We are planning on getting Martin and Alan back in May to run some more demonstrations, so watch this space for details on times and dates.

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In the meantime, our next incunabula extravaganza is a talk and display of books next Thursday 19 March. Run in association with English Language, our Glasgow Incunabula Project launch will begin at 4.15 pm with a talk on the background to the project in the Henry Heaney room in Special Collections on level 12 of the library, followed by a drop in display of books in the Special Collections reading room from 5.15 pm onwards. All are welcome and there is no need to book – just come along if you are interested. Wine will be served!

Bunny from Lactantius

Bunny from Lactantius

Behind the scenes we are still working away at adding details of the final one hundred books onto the project website. In this batch, in fact, are featured two books which our currently on display in the exhibition. These (perhaps by now) familiar faces are our copy of Caxton’s Cordiale, or Of the four last things (Westminster: 1479) – with its entertaining epilogue in which Caxton explains how he has printed and so multiplied it ‘to goo abrood emonge the peple’ – and the vellum printed Lactantius (Venice: 1471) which so eloquently demonstrates the similarity of the design of early printed books with manuscripts. What you can’t see in the exhibition, however, are the beautiful examples of historiated initials found throughout this book.

But there are yet more books here worthy of your attention. There is another English incunable in this batch (Walter Hylton: The ladder of perfection [Westminster]: Wynkyn de Worde, 1494), while our copy of Martin Franc: L’estrif de fortune et vertu ([Bruges: Colard Mansion, ca. 1484]) has an interesting provenance and claim to fame.

Opening of L’estrif de fortune et vertu printed by Colard Mansion

Opening of L’estrif de fortune et vertu printed by Colard Mansion

William Hunter purchased it from the Glasgow booksellers and printers, Robert and Andrew Foulis, in 1771. He had been alerted to its existence by a catalogue they issued in that year, from which Hunter purchased fourteen items. In the catalogue description, Robert Foulis explains that he had purchased the book ‘as a manuscript’ although:

upon nearer examination it appears to have been printed. It is without doubt that a number of letters are join’d together in the same piece, but whether the whole pages are in one block, is not so easy to determine …. They are made in the way which Caxton used in some of his books.

When Foulis sold the book to Hunter, its imprint details were unknown; since we now know of the Bruges printing connection between William Caxton and Colard Mansion (to whom this book was later assigned), this recognition by Foulis of the similarity of the type with that used by Caxton was an astute one.

Description from 1771 Foulis catalogue

Description from 1771 Foulis catalogue

What is more, there is a letter* dated 25 December 1771 from Robert Foulis to William Hunter which recounts some of the further adventures of the book. Apparently it (and the other books Hunter purchased) were dispatched to London from Glasgow on 11 December ‘in a waggon’; it was estimated that this journey south would take ‘ten or twelve days’. Foulis also mentions that the book was ‘shown to Dr. Franklin at Dr. Wilson’s. Both these Gentlemen thought it rather block than moveable Types’. This is a reference to a visit that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) made to Glasgow in 1771; as well as being renowned as one of the founding fathers of the United States, he was himself a printer of books, so would have had a professional opinion on how this book was created. Alexander Wilson (1714-1786) at this time was the University’s Professor of Astronomy, but also a type founder who supplied the Foulis press.

Page of Hunter's notes

Page of Hunter’s notes

Hunter was evidently intrigued by the book and examined it closely when it (eventually) arrived in London. His detailed notes on it survive. He declares it to be ‘evidently printed’ and also comments on the typography being like that of the script of French manuscripts and ‘very nearly such as Caxton brought to England’.

Of course, the book made its return voyage to Glasgow in 1807 along with the rest of Hunter’s collections. All Colard Mansion imprints are rare, and as David Murray remarked,* they are ‘bibliographical diamonds of the finest water’. If you would like to see this jewel for yourself, it will be one of the books on display at our launch event next week, so please do come along.

* See: David Murray ‘Some letters of Robert Foulis’ Scottish Historical Review, Vol. XIV, No. 55, April 1917 pp. 44-53 (see copy at Sp Coll Mu24-b.73)

The latest ten books to be added to the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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