Alchemy at Glasgow: John Ferguson and his ‘Crowning of Nature’ Manuscripts

Guest blog by Dr Anke Timmermann, University of Glasgow Library Fellow in 2019.[1]

Health, wealth, and happiness were as desirable in the medieval and early modern period as they are today. However, five hundred years ago it was not science and investments, but chymistry that held the promise of a long and prosperous life. While some physical traces of actual experiments in alchemical workshops survive and turn up, on occasion, as archaeological finds, alchemical writings provide a much more vivid picture of the alchemical work. Remarkably, Glasgow University’s Ferguson collection – one of the largest and most important collections of alchemical books and manuscripts in Great Britain today – contains a number of the finest examples of illustrated alchemica. This blog post introduces one of the most colourful works depicting the process of making the philosophers’ stone and elixir of life, and the history of the manuscript copies of the work in the Ferguson collection.

Detail of a dragon in the ‘Crowning of Nature’, from MS Ferguson 110, f. 50r

The beautifully illustrated, 16th-century alchemical work now known as ‘Coronatio naturae’ (or the ‘Crowning of Nature’) shows the stages of making the quintessence in ca. 66 allegorical images. In a central circle or stylised vessel, substances represented by lions, toads, birds, angels, trees, a moon and star, and the full spectrum of rainbow colours are shown to conjoin, separate, dissolve, evaporate, and transmute.

Two stages of the alchemical process depicted in the ‘Crowning of Nature’, here in MS Ferguson 253, [unfoliated], images 49-50

Rather than being a simple depiction of the concepts of alchemy, the work actually translates into pictures what the alchemical practitioner saw in the workshop: the symbols – e.g. ‘moon’ for silver and ‘sun’ for gold – are customary Decknamen (code names) for substances; their movements inside and around the vessel show the materials’ behaviour during chymical reactions quite clearly; the colours used in the manuscript indicate the colour changes of the actual substances in the processes; and the surrounding circle or flask (sometimes closed with a stopper or left open) indicates exactly how the handling of the vessel would ensure the experiment’s success. In short, in its 66 images the ‘Crowning of Nature’ provides snapshots of the alchemical experiment in progress, and it does so in detail that is so obviously important to the success of the process that any variations from one copy of the work to the next – whether done by accomplished draughtsmen or amateur writers illustrating their own alchemical manuscripts – appear to be inadvertent.

Unsurprisingly, given its attractive presentation and practical application, the ‘Crowning of Nature’ was popular throughout the early modern period, and is believed to survive in some 43 copies, at times accompanied by an English or Latin text, and very rarely as an unillustrated text. However, as is often the case for untitled and anonymous manuscript treatises of the period, it is likely that more copies were originally produced.[2] What is remarkable, though, is that the appeal of the ‘Crowning of Nature’ endured as the craft of alchemy was gradually replaced with the modern sciences. In the 18th century, when alchemical themes experienced a renewed reappreciation in occult circles, one copy of the ‘Crowning of Nature’ was even offered for sale for the very high price of 200 guineas, and exhibited before its private sale for half a guinea.

Advertisement in the Morning Herald of 24 November 1797, for a manuscript of the ‘Crowning of Nature’

 

…to be disposed of for Two Hundred Guineas, pecuniary embarrassment rendering it indispensable to the present possessor, who, with the deepest concern, is thus necessitated to expose to public view that which for ages has been kept secret; yet, to prevent as much as possible the intrusion of idle curiosity, Half-a-Guinea will be demanded before the Manuscript will be shewn…

MS Ferguson 245, f. ii v. Text taken from the advertisement’s full transcription in Alan Philip Keri Davies, William Blake in Contexts: Family, Friendships, and Some Intellectual Microcultures of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England (doctoral thesis, University of Surrey, 2003), p. 241

Another copy was bought by General Charles Rainsford in the 18th century, and then owned by and beautifully bound for Hugh, Second Duke of Northumberland, in the early 19th century.

John Ferguson, photograph by John M. Thunsen, ca. 1869. Ferguson MS Photo A26, item 43.

More than half a century later, the Glasgow chemist John Ferguson (1838-1916) started searching for copies of ‘The Crowning of Nature’ to add to his collection. Ferguson had become interested in the practices of his historical predecessors as a young man, at a time when the popular interest in chymistry had somewhat ebbed. Over the course of the next six decades – alongside his career at the University of Glasgow, where he was appointed Regius Professor in Chemistry in 1874 – he put together a remarkable library of rare alchemical books and manuscripts, unprecedented in its scope. Expanding his knowledge of the then largely forgotten alchemical literature through his purchases, Ferguson sourced his books from antiquarian booksellers and at auctioneers in Great Britain and overseas. With time, he became a leading expert on the history and bibliography of alchemy. His monument is his Bibliotheca Chemica (1906), the two-volume catalogue of his fellow-chemist James Young’s alchemical collections, which remains a standard reference work in the field. Ferguson’s own collection eventually contained more than 4,000 volumes on alchemy, as well as 3,500 further volumes on related subjects (occult sciences, Cabbalism, Rosicrucianism, freemasonry, and witchcraft). Thanks to the foresight of the University of Glasgow and the efforts of Ferguson’s executor Dr David Murray, despite the fact that Ferguson’s will had been lost, the Ferguson collection eventually came to Glasgow University Library in 1921, as its owner had intended.

Invoice from the antiquarian bookseller Ludwig Rosenthal, Munich, to John Ferguson, dated 29 August 1913. From Ferguson’s papers in Glasgow University Archives, DC251.

Among the astounding number of 317 alchemical manuscripts within the Ferguson collection are no fewer than eight manuscript copies of the ‘Crowning of Nature’, forming the most extensive and important group of manuscripts of the work in any institutional collection today. Six of these manuscripts date from the 17th century, including two with later annotations that document the abovementioned exhibition of the work in 1797 (MSS Ferguson 245 and 253, the latter likely a copy from the former). One of the 18th-century manuscripts, which Ferguson apparently bought from Ludwig Rosenthal on 30 June 1910, is a gorgeous rendition of the images in vibrant colours, including gold and silver, together with the Latin text (MS Ferguson 110).[3]

 

Perhaps the most interesting of Ferguson’s ‘Crowning of Nature’ manuscripts, however, is MS Ferguson 8, which shows a very interesting connection to the Duke of Northumberland’s copy as well as a copy at Cambridge University Library (MS Gg.1.8). The creator of MS Ferguson 8 used one leaf per image, placing all illustrations onto the recto pages. The outlines of the illustrations, and notably also the somewhat archaically lettered captions, were then pricked with a needle, a process that would make it possible to transfer the design to another blank sheet by pushing a coloured powder through the holes and carefully removing the original, upper sheet to reveal the outline on the lower sheet (a process known as ‘pouncing’). MS Ferguson 8 does, indeed, seem to have been used for this purpose: its leaves, previously excised from the manuscript, are now pasted back onto the stubs that remained; there is some surface smudging, presumably caused by the pouncing process; and, most significantly, a comparison of this manuscript with the CUL copy shows that the illustrations in the two manuscripts agree so closely that the Cambridge manuscript is very likely a direct copy from MS Ferguson 8. The Duke of Northumberland’s copy is closely related to these two manuscripts, but is a slightly looser adaptation, and thus probably a later copy. In all three manuscripts the main work of the ‘Crowning of Nature’ is preceded by an additional diagram with a Hebrew inscription beneath. In the Cambridge copy a contemporary hand has interpreted this as indicating that one William Waldy was the owner of the work. But who Waldy was, and how exactly this relates to the Ferguson manuscript, remains a matter for future research.


[1] Anke Timmermann is a historian of science, writer, and partner at Type & Forme antiquarian booksellers. She received her MPhil from the University of Glasgow in 2003, and her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2007. Anke most recently researched the Ferguson collection as a University of Glasgow Library Fellow in 2019, and her fellowship findings were published in The Book Collector.

[2] An early online listing of known copies was compiled (from printed catalogues and consultations of the Ferguson Collection at the University of Glasgow) in the late twentieth century by Adam McLean on The Alchemy Website.

[3] Other copies of ‘The Crowning of Nature’ in Ferguson’s collection are (C17) MSS Ferguson 8, 208, 230, 237 and (C18) 155, the last two both acquired by him on 28 November 1898. I would like to thank David Waxman, Estates of Mind, Great Neck NY for providing me with further images from the Northumberland manuscript for my research.

Photographs the author’s own, except for the portrait of Ferguson and the page from MS Ferguson 253, which were kindly provided by the University of Glasgow Special Collections. All photographs taken and reproduced with kind permission of the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections; all web resources last accessed on 17 May 2020.



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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