The Foulis Brothers Book Receipts Project: how much can an invoice tell us?

Guest blog by Belén Hernáez Martín, an Art History student studying Collecting & Provenance in the University of Glasgow

My online placement within the Archives and Special Collections consisted in using eighteenth-century invoices to research the books sold by Robert and Andrew Foulis, and/or bound by them, for the University of Glasgow Library. The Foulis brothers are widely known in the context of eighteenth-century Glasgow for their printing and publishing and Art Academy; yet they also acted as booksellers and binders. These invoices are essential to understand the provenance of many of the books still in the library today, and they continue to shed new light on the relationship between the Foulis and the University.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions the placement had to take place online: the staff from the Archives and Special collection digitised the invoices and, working from home, I transcribed them and matched the books they describe with those I could locate in the Rare Books Catalogue. The invoices contained information about the acquisition of books and manuscripts and about their binding and gilding. Each followed a fixed structure: the work required, the book titles and price, and the confirmation of the payment (Fig. 1). Yet, each of them is unique, and information within them varies a lot: while some offer name of the author, title, place, date, and size (Fig. 2), others just list a word (e.g. the author’s name), making them virtually impossible to match to a specific edition and surviving copy (Fig. 3).

Fig. 1. GUA8890. Archives and Special Collections.
Fig. 2. GUA8504. Fragment. Archives and Special Collections.
Fig. 3. GUA19576. Fragment. Archives and Special Collections.

However, the information given in these invoices goes beyond being able to make a successful match, which, by itself, is a very exciting event. If we look, for example, at GUA19614 (Fig. 4), 24 of the 38 books listed have their price not only in pounds but also in guilders and stuivers. This was the currency used in the Netherlands, a very important bookselling centre in the eighteenth century, which tells us that these books were probably acquired there. The invoice is issued in 1752, and the year before Robert visited the continent with one of his brothers, James, to acquire paintings for the academy and visit Greek scholars in order to prepare one of his publications. The books listed in this invoice could have been purchased during that trip as well.

Fig. 4.1 GUA19614 front. Archives and Special Collections.
Fig. 4.2 GUA19614 reverse. Archives and Special Collections.

Nonetheless, most of the titles that I have been working with are of books bound and/or gilded by the Foulis. For example, GUA21163 (Fig. 5) lists a total of 165 titles which can be categorised through their formats, allowing us to see how much was charged for each. Folios were four shillings Sterling, 4tos two shillings and 8vos nine pence, amongst others (Fig. 6). This provides us valuable information about the inner history of the Foulis business in relation to the University.

Fig. 5. GUA21163. Archives and Special Collections.

FolioLarge 4to4toSmall 4toLarge 8vo8voSmall 8vo
£0-4-0Ca. £0-2-6£0-2-0£0-1-8£0-1-0£0-0-9£0-0-7
Fig. 6. Chart of binding prices per size. Created by the author.

After matching the books listed in the receipts, the next stage of research typically involves a physical examination. Alas, given the current situation, this has not been possible in the majority of cases. This helps discarding plausible matches that, although from the online catalogue might seem reasonable, lack the physical information necessary, such as the Old Library Bookplate (Fig. 7). Nonetheless, of the few volumes that have been consulted, some included signatures and other marks of ownership, which would continue to enrich their provenance (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7. Artist unknown, ‘Glasgow University bookplate’.
Fig. 8. Sp Coll Bi10-e.1. See the handwritten annotations.

Through this blogpost I have tried to briefly offer an insight of an ongoing project carried by the Archives and Special Collections and of the small role played by a work placement student in it amidst the Covid-19 crisis. The undertaking, as big and ambitious as it is, will pave the way for a deeper understanding of the Old Library collection and, through it, it will be possible to learn about the provenance of many different volumes, about how the Foulis bound books, about the finances of the University and, more broadly, about the inner history of the institution.


Brown, Stephen W. and Warren McDougall. The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, vol. II. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

Fairfull-Smith, George. The Foulis Press and the Foulis Academy: Glasgow’s Eighteenth-Century School of Art and Design. Glasgow: The Glasgow Art Index in association with the Friends of Glasgow University Library, 2001.

Fairfull-Smith, George. “Robert & Andrew Foulis, the Foulis Press, and Their Legacy”. Accessed April 14, 2021.

Murray, David. Robert and Andrew Foulis and the Glasgow Press. Glasgow: MacLehose, 1913.

Ovenden, Richard. “Foulis, Robert”. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 14, 2021.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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2 replies

  1. Dear Bill,
    Apologies for the delayed reply to this — we didn’t spot it when you first posted it. While Belén’s placement has now finished the project is ongoing (I’m hoping another student will continue the work this semester). I’ll email you with a bit more detail and we can perhaps schedule in a Zoom chat to discuss further. All the best,


  2. Dear Belén

    This is very investing work you are doing. I have often thought about the Foulis books and their ‘own’ binding of them. In my collection I believe there are a number of examples, although substantiating this archivally is, as you indicate, a challenge. Perhaps we could discuss this further on a Zoom, when I could have some of the would-be examples in my hands for you to see and for us to discuss. Some of the books, such as those for Glasgow Univ. student prize books, might be a very good place to start. Of course, there are a number of these in the University Library collections which I have also seen as part of a project on Scottish Student Book Prizes.
    Best wishes, Bill Zachs

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