Blog post by Becca Gauldie, an M.Sc Art History (Collecting and Provenance Studies in an International Context) student, on placement in Archives and Special Collections.
My project has been to find and identify books which belonged to the antiquarian, and librarian, David Laing (1793-1878). This has been a fascinating occupation and I have managed to locate several volumes in addition to those previously identified as having belonged to him.
Born in St David Street, Edinburgh, in 1793, David Laing was very much the product of his parentage. His father was William Laing, bookdealer and printer on Edinburgh’s South Bridge. Each year, William Laing produced catalogues of over 12,000 new acquisitions. The Laings’ bookshop was described as “a regular howff for literary men, and their shopkeeper their personal friend”.1 This makes it sound rather more of an elite gentleman’s club than a bookshop. Indeed, it was also noted that, “[a] woman seldom crossed the doorstep; there was nothing for the woman of that period to see or buy.”2 Laing senior became a wealthy man and as well as the shop, he was a director of the Commercial Bank (now a part of the Royal Bank of Scotland). The difference between father and son is that William’s money was invested and held in his business premises, whilst David spent his money, buying widely and almost fanatically for himself.
Although David was the third surviving son of a family of twelve, it was he who inherited the business. His eldest brother, William, became a minister in Crieff and his other brother, James, having been apprenticed into the book trade, was thought to be too frail for the Edinburgh climate. James was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and quickly became deputy postmaster general and editor of the Ceylon Times. The way was free for David to continue in his father’s footsteps. Laing, a “sociable man, who could both give and take a joke, but who was never found in so called ‘society’”3, learnt his trade, not from great academic study at school and university, but from hands on experience, and whiling away his days reading the contents of the shop.
By the age of 16, David was already travelling for his father, attending book auctions. He visited London in 1809, Dublin in 1810 and London again for the important Roxburghe sale in 1812,4 Holland in 1817 and travelled widely in Europe in 1819.5 Like a surprising number of British people, the Laing family took full advantage of the dispersal of aristocrats’ goods following the French Revolution, making regular trips to Paris to buy.6 But, it seems Laing suffered from one terrible disease that, when it affects any dealer, can ruin their trade; Laing was a truly obsessional collector. His father kept his rare books at work, instead preferring to invest in gallons of whisky. Indeed, his estate, at the time of his death, mentions 14 ½ gallons of the spirit. David Laing’s great love was for early Scottish books, which can be seen in the collections he left behind.
He seems to have bought from a huge variety of sources. Some of these were of the usual kind, auctions and clearances of libraries from grand country homes and titled people. But he also had, what one can only call, a special relationship, with one Gilbert Adcock, an Edinburgh waste paper merchant.7 Adcock was a runner, or picker, for Laing, supplying him with letters, documents, parchments and broadsheets that other people had thrown out. He tantalised Laing with letters, saying he had “5lbs weight of the old deeds, sasines, etc” or had in his possession “a great quantity of letters” from Highland aristocracy “in perfect confidence of their being destroyed or torn up without meeting another eye by your own”.8 I am sure there was an element of being nosey and acquisitive but it is fair to say that Laing truly did save such things that would otherwise have been destroyed.
William Laing made his son partner in the family firm in 1821 and on his death in 1832, David took over the running of the business. The shop, around this time, is described by John Gibson Lockhart, Laing’s close friend, in Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk: “remarkably neat and comfortable …, and even a lady might lounge in it without having her eye offended or her gown soiled”. He describes David as “the most genuine specimen of the true old fashioned bibliophile that I ever saw exhibited in the person of a young man”.
However, no sooner had his father died than Laing started to look for opportunities elsewhere, eventually securing the role of Principal Librarian to the Society of Writers to his Majesty’s Signet. One must assume, from his ongoing buying, this was to allow him the freedom to buy only for himself, rather than the distraction of the business.
In 1834, the Signet Library’s bankers went bankrupt, taking the Signet’s money with them. From being a relatively wealthy organisation, with the means to buy and rebind books at will, they found themselves with little to no ready cash.9 Through his numerous contacts Laing obtained both newly published and estate books for the library, at what was then regarded as very advantageous terms. Laing continued his collecting, editing and publishing, even when established in his new role. This reason has been given, perhaps accurately, for his lack of attention to his job at the Signet Library. I feel this is a little unfair. However, there are numerous reports that his cataloguing skills were not up to scratch and that he had procrastinated with the library catalogue.10
Laing died at 12 James Street, Portobello, in 1878 and was buried in the family graveyard. Clearly, he would have liked his life’s work to stay together, writing, “[h]aving during the course of a long period at considerable expense and trouble, formed an extensive Collection of Books and other materials intended to illustrate the History and Literature of Scotland, and although I never can accomplish this object, I cannot but regret to have the Collection altogether broken up and dispersed”. He did, however, realise this would happen, leaving instructions that the books should be dispersed in London, not Scotland: “The whole of my printed books shall be sent to London for sale by public auction in two separate divisions, where such books are more highly appreciated and more carefully catalogued than in this place”.11 The auction took place over 14 days in 1879.
The sale of his books realised £16, 536 over 11,743 items and 13 days of auction. My aim has been to identify those which were bought by the Glasgow lawyer, David Murray, and donated to Glasgow University in 1928.
It is amusing to consider what David Laing would make of someone examining books for signs of his ownership some 139 years after his death. From what I have gathered of the man, the shock would not be that I was doing this, but that someone had neglected to note where each of his books was in the past. I think he might well have been quite horrified, especially that they have been so dispersed, but possibly not surprised that the cataloguing was as yet unfinished.
1 Gilbert Goudie, David Laing, L.L.D, a Memoir of his Life and Literary Work (Edinburgh: T and A Constable, 1913), p. xxix(Sp Coll Mu11-d.20)
3 ibid., p. xvii
4 “This was the greatest private library of the previous age, and the sale was confidently expected to break all records, and it did” (“The Roxburghe Club.” The Roxburghe Club – The Oldest Society of Bibliophiles in the World. http://www.roxburgheclub.org.uk/history/. [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017])
5 Gilbert Goudie, David Laing, L.L.D, a Memoir of his Life and Literary Work (Edinburgh: T and A Constable, 1913), p. 15
6 ibid., p. xxvii
7 ibid., pp. 128-130
9 George H. Ballantyne, The Signet Library Edinburgh and its librarians, 1722-1972 (Glasgow: Scottish Library Association, 1979).
10 ibid., p. 62
11 “this place” being Edinburgh. Gilbert Goudie, David Laing, L.L.D, a Memoir of his Life and Literary Work (Edinburgh: T and A Constable, 1913) p. xxxiv