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The Hidden Library of Thomas Tyrwhitt

August 14, 2012

Guest post by Tim Pye, Curator of Early British Literature, The British Library

The British Museum Library of the eighteenth century thrived on the private collections of books amassed by eminent bibliophiles. The names of Hans Sloane, George Thomason, Clayton Cracherode and David Garrick will be familiar to researchers using the Library’s early printed collections. Many thousands of the pre-1800 books still used today arrived at the Library as a result of the donation or purchase of the aforementioned gentlemen’s personal libraries.

The majority of the Library’s early named collections have been the focus of study and research, and many have accompanying catalogues and lists; however, there is one exception. In 1786 a collection of between 800 and 900 books was bequeathed to the Library. These books, chosen by Cracherode and Robert Tyrwhitt (1735-1817), were marked with an inscription on the fly-leaves and then dispersed throughout the Library’s burgeoning collections. No list was created (or, at least, none survives to this day) and the bequest – by Thomas Tyrwhitt – appears to have been largely forgotten.

The flyleaf of Tyrwhitt’s copy of Ammianus Marcellinus’s Rerum gestarum (Parisiis, 1681 – BL shelfmark 586.k.12).

Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-1786) was one of the most prominent scholars of the second half of the eighteenth century. Considered by some to be the first modern editor of Chaucer, Tyrwhitt contributed to the great editing of Shakespeare undertaken by Steevens, Johnson et al, and was key to debunking Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley creations. His learning appears to have known very few bounds, as summed up in Nichols’s Literary anecdotes (1812):

“Besides a knowledge of almost every European tongue, he was deeply conversant in the learning of Greece and Rome. [… ] He was thoroughly read in the old English writers; and, as his knowledge was directed by a manly judgment, his critical efforts have eminently contributed to restore the genuine text of Shakespeare. The admirers of Chaucer are also greatly indebted to him, for elucidating the obscurities, and illustrating the humour, of that antient Bard.” (Vol.3, p.147)

Tyrwhitt’s personal collection of books must have been extensive and rich in early European and British volumes. We are probably unlikely to ever know the extent of his entire library but we do know that a proportion is located, and can be identified, at the British Library. I have therefore taken on the daunting (some would probably say foolish!) task of trying to recreate the Tyrwhitt bequest. Without a list of the books clues have to be sought out elsewhere; for example, in his published works or his extant papers. Slowly but surely a picture of the library of this great man of letters is beginning to form, providing us with a glimpse into his scholarly workings and an insight into the early growth of the UK’s national library.

At the Writers and their Libraries Conference I will discuss what I have been able to discover about Tyrwhitt’s books so far and talk about the methodology involved in trying to locate what is a relatively tiny collection of books in a repository the size of the British Library.


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