Incunables identified

Written by Erika Delbecque, UMASCS Librarian

Last month we wrote about the process of identifying loose leaves from incunables, books printed in Europe before 1501. We also asked for your help in identifying the remaining four leaves. With help from Geert Lernout and the team behind the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, all leaves have now been identified!

The leaf below was identified as part of Jacobus Magni’s Sophologium, printed by Adolf Rusch around 1470. It is a popular anthology of extracts from ancient and medieval writers including Muhammad Abu Mashar (Persian astrologer), Seneca, and Chaucer. Adolf Rusch (1435-1489) was a printer and paper merchant based in Strasbourg. He was one of the first printers north of the Alps to start using roman instead of Gothic type. Because he did not include his name in the books he printed, he was initially known only as the “R-printer”,  referring to a special Roman type capital “R” he uses in his early works. An example of this letter is included on our leaf. Some have argued that it is in fact a monogram derived from his initials, A.R.

Unidentified edition of Summa de exemplis by Giovanni da San Gimignano. May be early 16th century

Magni, Jacobus. Sophologium. Strassburg: The ‘R-printer’ (Adolf Rusch), about 1470.

The  striking capital R used by Adolf Rusch

The striking capital R used by Adolf Rusch

A complete copy of this publication can be browsed online here.

The other unidentified fragments were identified as a leaf from Casus longi Sexti et Clementinarum by Élie Regnier (Strasburg, 1496), a leaf from Agenda sive Benedictionale (Basel, 1518) and a leaf from Postilla super totam Bibliam by Nicolaus de Lyra (Rome, 1471-72).

From the cradle of printing to binder’s waste: incunable leaves in the John Lewis collection

Written by Erika Delbecque, UMASCS Librarian

Earlier this year, we shared some exciting early printing finds from the John Lewis Printing Collection on this blog. In the past few months, I have been researching these leaves, so that they can be catalogued and the collection can be made more accessible. In the first instance, I have been focusing on leaves from incunables.

The cradle of printing

Incunables, from the Latin incunabulum (“cradle”) are books that were printed in Europe before 1501, in the infancy of the art of printing with movable type, which was introduced by Johannes Gutenberg in ca. 1450. These books from the cradle of printing can give us a glimpse into the early stages of one of the most significant human inventions.

Often a hybrid between manuscript and print, with hand-painted initials and decorations sitting alongside the black ink of the printed text, incunables embody the gradual transition from a world where the manuscript was the prime medium for the transmission of knowledge to one where the printed word took on this crucial role.

Hand-painted initial (Alighieri, Dante. La Commedia. Venice: Wendelin of Speier, 1477)

Hand-painted initial (Alighieri, Dante. La Commedia. Venice: Wendelin of Speier, 1477)

Hand-painted initial and decoration (Beauvais, Vincent of. Speculum historiale .  Strassburg: Johann Mentelin, 1473)

Hand-painted initial and decoration (Beauvais, Vincent of. Speculum historiale. Strassburg: Johann Mentelin, 1473)

Some of these craftsmen reach an astonishing degree of esthetical perfection in those early stages. Consider, for example, the woodcut from a leaf from the famous Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) below, or the leaf from Plutarch’s Vitae illustrium virorum, printed by the Venetian printer Nicolas Jenson in 1478. The typeface that Jenson designed for his printing business would later be praised by William Morris for its elegance and beauty, and it continues to influence type design to this day.

Detail from a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493)

Detail from a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493)

Jenson's celebrated roman type (Plutarch. Vitae illustrium virorum. Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1478)

Jenson’s celebrated roman type (Plutarch. Vitae illustrium virorum. Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1478)

We owe the survival of these leaves to the thriftiness of early modern craftsmen. Rather than wasting new paper, which was a relatively expensive commodity, bookbinders recycled leaves from earlier documents to reinforce the spine and covers of a book. Some of the leaves in our collection provide clues as to why they ended up in the bookbinder’s stack of wastepaper: the pages of this double leaf from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance that was printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499, are in the wrong order.

Pages printed in the wrong order (Colonna, Francesco. Poliphili Hypnerotomachia. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499)

Pages printed in the wrong order (Colonna, Francesco. Poliphili Hypnerotomachia. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499)

Incunable leaves in the John Lewis Collection

Although it is uncertain how these leaves ended up in the collection of John Lewis (1912-1996), a typographer and graphic designer whose collection of ephemera we purchased in 1997, the foreword in his book Printed ephemera provides a clue:

A dozen years or so ago, I bought from a bookseller in Ipswich, Suffolk, an album compiled about the year 1820 by a Dr Lodge, sometime librarian to the University Library at Cambridge. Dr Lodge’s album contained a wide variety of printed matter including […] an Indulgence printed by Thierry Martens.
As librarian to a great library, Dr Lodge’s opportunities for collecting pages from damaged books and packings from broken bindings were extensive. It would seem that this particular Indulgence may well have lurked for three hundred years or more inside some vellum or calf-bound volume, doing duty for the paste-boards which in those days did not exist.

Thus, it is possible that these leaves spent centuries sitting undisturbed in the bindings of their younger relatives on the shelves of Cambridge University Library, before ending up here at the University of Reading through the rather dubious collecting efforts of this Dr Lodge…

On the trail of early printers

Identifying what work these leaves are part of often requires quite a bit of detective work, as the features by which an early printed book would normally be identified, such as the title page, the incipit or the colophon, are lacking.

The first step is the identification of the text. Search engines like Google are immensely useful for this purpose in many cases, but for more obscure texts skim-reading the pages or translating a part to form an idea of the content is more fruitful. This can be particularly challenging when dealing with a text in heavily abbreviated Latin, which many of these leaves contain! Then, a search on incunabula catalogues, such as the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, will reveal which editions of this text were printed in the fifteenth century. Finally, a comparison with digitised copies, if available, will let you determine what edition the leaf was once part of.

Fifteen leaves have been identified in this way. They are currently being catalogued onto Enterprise, our library catalogue, and our holdings on the ISTC have been updated. However, four leaves remain unidentified. If this blog post has inspired you to try your hand at researching an incunable leaf, have a look at the photographs of the leaves below. Let us know in the comments section if you discover anything about them!


Lewis, J (1976) Collecting Printed Ephemera. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan.

Nancy Astor: Reading and Parliamentary Archives collaborate on exciting new project

Special Collections are delighted to have been supporting this collaborative project, which celebrates the parliamentary career of Nancy Astor. We have been working closely with Dr Jacqui Turner in the History Department and with the Parliamentary Archives.

Viscountess_Astor (1)

Nancy Astor, sketch by John Singer Sargent, 1923. From:

A new leaflet has been produced to accompany the project.

Look out for more Astor news in 2016 as we continue to explore the archives of this amazing political family.

Celebrating 100 years of Ladybird

Shopping with Mother (used with the kind permission of Ladybird)

Shopping with Mother (used with the kind permission of Ladybird)

In 1915, jobbing printer Wills & Hepworth published the very first Ladybird book in Loughborough. They soon registered an official logo and devoted themselves creating ‘pure and healthy’ literature for children. After the WWII, the publisher expanded its remit to include educational nonfiction, and Ladybird books have been a beloved part of many childhoods ever since. As a publisher, it’s range has changed to suit the needs of today. Alongside its famous classics, the current portfolio includes Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty and Lego, as well as digital publishing ventures.

Ladybird, now part of Penguin Books, celebrates its centenary this year. Here at Special Collections, we’ll be celebrating too, as we hold the records of Ladybird Books. The collection comprises 700 boxes of original artwork, proofs and some documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby. The collection also covers the wide range of subjects Ladybird published, ranging from What to Look for in Spring to Transformers: Laserbeak’s Fury.

Most recently, we welcomed the BBC Breakfast team into our archives to discuss Ladybird with leading design illustrator Lawrence Zeegen, author of the upcoming book Ladybird by Design. The programme aired this morning and is available on the BBC website.

We’ll be contributing to and taking part in further events throughout the spring. If you’re interested in illustration, you can view quite a few of our Allen Seaby pieces at Reading Museum’s current exhibition, Allen Seaby: Art and Nature (through 22 March). On Tuesday 10 March, we’ll be hosting a lecture by Lawrence Zeegen, who will discuss Ladybird by Design, which investigates the design history and cultural impact of these ‘well-considered, well-written and well-designed, affordable little books’. Guests will have a chance to view a special pop-up exhibition of items from the Ladybird Archive before the lecture (for more info, please see our What’s On. To book, email


A strange sad week in the Beckett archive


Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

It has been a very sad week for all of us involved with the Beckett Collection, as it marked the passing of two people associated with him, as well as the 25th anniversary of his death. Billie Whitelaw is widely recognised as having been Beckett’s favourite actress and the foremost interpreter of his work. Our colleague Professor Anna McMullan paid a fulsome tribute to Billie and noted her long association with the University of Reading.

The news of Billie’s death came on Sunday. On Friday we had announced that the University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation had purchased the archive of Billie’s work with Beckett, and we were (and remain) full of excitement about that. The purchase has been the result of Special Collections staff working closely with academic colleagues to raise the necessary funding. It is this type of collaboration that created the Beckett Collection here at Reading and that helps to sustain and enhance it.

On Sunday we also learned of the death of veteran photographer Jane Bown. Her encounter with Beckett was less collaborative than those of Billie Whitelaw: Bown surprised him in an alley outside the Royal Court Theatre after he had spent the day avoiding her lens. The result was a portrait that has become one of the most iconic images of the author.

The co-incidence of these two extraordinary women dying on the same day  perhaps enables a moment to reflect on the strange and different ways in which works of art comes to be “born”. Billie Whitelaw’s brilliant interpretations of Beckett’s work were the result of long rehearsal periods and many hours of discussion, and of a close, friendly association – Dr Mark Nixon has called it a “crucial working relationship”, and the archive will throw more light on exactly how they worked. Jane Bown’s incredible image was certainly not the result of a collaborative venture – it was spontaneous to a large extent. In some ways it is a reminder of the fable about Picasso charging an exorbitant sum for a quick sketch (“It took me my whole life”).

While mourning their passing, we celebrate the extraordinary lives of these three people and the incredible art that their encounters – both long and short – generated.

New acquisition: Actress Billie Whitelaw’s Beckett archive

BillieWhitelawdress_2web617394_37793The University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation are delighted to announce the purchase of a unique archive of actress Billie Whitelaw’s work with playwright Samuel Beckett.

The £35,000 acquisition, funded by generous contributions from the Beckett International Foundation, the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries, was made at an auction at Sotheby’s, London, last week.

Billie Whitelaw was Irish writer and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s favourite actress. He directed her in several theatrical productions and revivals of his plays. The collection includes correspondence, annotated playscripts, rehearsal notes for some of Beckett’s most famous works, including Play, Not I, Happy Days, Rockaby, Eh Joe, Embers and Footfalls, as well costumes worn by Billie during those performances.

The items will join the rest of our Beckett Collection, which is the world’s largest collection of manuscript materials relating to Beckett. This will offer anyone with an interest in Beckett’s plays or the theatre a unique insight into how one of the world’s greatest writers worked with his actors.

Billie Whitelaw has had close links with the University of Reading since 1992 when she became the first Annenberg Fellow. During her week-long residency, she gave a series of workshops and performances for staff, students and members of the public. Over the years she has been an important supporter of the Beckett Collection and is still a Patron of the Beckett International Foundation. In 2001 she received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Reading.

Billie famously performed ‘Not I’ in 14 minutes at the Royal Court in 1973. The University hosted two rare performances of this iconic Samuel Beckett work which were performed by Lisa Dwan in 2013.

The Billie Whitelaw archive will feature in public events (such as exhibitions) and in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programmes.

World War One: Special Collections library resources

Written by Claire Wooldridge, UMASCS Graduate Trainee

4 August 2014 marked the centenary of the day that Britain entered World War One.  Fighting continued until 11 November 1918 and is marked today by Armistice Day.

To celebrate Explore Archives week and to commemorate this year’s centenary, we’ve prepared some resources on finding WW1 material in our collections. As ever the best place to start searching out collections is our online catalogue.  We have also produced web pages with lists of WWI related references within our Special Collections and MERL archive and library collections.  Our holdings relating to WWI are explored in greater depth below.

In order to assist our readers with WWI-related enquiries, our archive colleagues have identified a series of references within our collections which may be useful (including the papers of Nancy Astor and the records of Huntley and Palmers for example).  Although we do not hold a specific WWI collection, these pages are an excellent place to start searching our collections for potential information.

Additionally, we have identified some Special Collections library materials relating to WWI, on topics such as Berkshire in WWI, women in WWI, WWI in the news and literature related to WWI.  A few images from these references are included below.

The War Illustrated, Hammerton, 1914-1919, RESERVE FOLIO 940.49

The War Illustrated, Hammerton, 1914-1919, RESERVE FOLIO 940.49

Nelson's portfolio of war pictures, 1914-1915, RESERVE FOLIO 940.49 NEL

Nelson’s portfolio of war pictures, 1914-1915, RESERVE FOLIO 940.49 NEL

Berkshire and the war, The Reading Standard pictorial record, 1917-19, RESERVE FOLIO 942.29 BER

Berkshire and the war, The Reading Standard pictorial record, 1917-19, RESERVE FOLIO 942.29 BER

Winterburn, Recipes the Allies bazaar, 1916, MERL LIBRARY RESERVE 7060 REC

Winterburn, Recipes from the Allies Bazaar, 1916, MERL LIBRARY RESERVE 7060 REC

A list has also been compiled of WWI material in the MERL archives and library, which can be seen here.  These relate to collections such as Suttons Seeds, as well as photographic material in the MERL photographic archive.  The WWI MERL library holdings are particularity strong in relation to topics such as food and food supply, alongside statistical information.

Please contact us at or if you have any questions.



From Love to Real Farmhouse Cheese (via the Crystal Palace): wonderful new collections based art on display

The remarkably diverse collections held by the University of Reading’s Special Collections service and MERL are currently being celebrated with displays of new collections based art work in our reading room, highlighting the visual appeal of many of our rare books and archives (which are usually kept safely in our store).

Come in and visit to see the colourful images, chosen by our staff, of these treasures on display thanks to our conservator, Fred.  Here are a few pictures to capture your interest!

New collections art work in the Reading Room

Love, Walter de la Mare, new reading room art work

Love, Walter de la Mare, new reading room art work

The Reading Room display features five images of book covers (including highlights from our Great Exhibition and Finzi collections) alongside original art work from the Chatto & Windus archive (including the cover for Mr Beluncle by V.S. Pritchett in 1951 and the intriguingly entitled 1955 The Enormous Shadow by Robert Harling).  The images are truly beautiful and capture the items in 3D, drawing attention to the importance of the history of the items as objects as well as for their illustration.  MERL is also represented in an image of a title from our Printing collection, of the rare Barnett Freedman’s 1939 Real Farmhouse Cheese.  

Traveling through the reading room into the MERL library corridor, you will be greeted with more newly displayed images taken from the MERL photographic archive.  Represented here are the Fowler, Ransomes, Burrell and Clayton & Shuttleworth collections, in a display funded by the Road Locomotive Society in memory of their friend and secretary Sandra Marder.

New Road Locomotive Society images, MERL Library corridor

New Road Locomotive Society images, MERL Library corridor

We think these displays are a great way to celebrate the visual nature of our manifold collections, whilst really brightening up both the reading room and MERL library corridor – please come along and take a look!

Claire (Graduate Trainee)

Steamy Sentences from Mills and Boon

Mills and Boon covers

Tired of hearts and roses for Valentine’s Day? Delve into the Mills and Boon world of innuendo instead! Boon Mots: Anthology of Artless Extracts compiles Mills and Boon editors’ favourite one-liners from over the years. A few of the best:

He paused and then added more softly, ‘Come on Elaine, it won’t be the first time we have doubled up on a bicycle.’ (Flora Kidd, Dangerous Pretence)

‘My darling, help me grope back to your white ways,’ he said, his voice hoarse with emotion.
‘You won’t have to grope. You got there last night…’

(Louise Gerard, The Sultan’s Slave)

Mrs White… heaved at something under the blankets and produced a pineapple.
(Betty Neals, Pineapple Girl)

Anything you desire- I’m ready, willing and able, as the hosepipe said to the fire.

Judith Watts, a PhD researcher in the University of Reading’s Mills & Boon archive and a published author of erotic fiction, said: ‘As a collection the letters testify to the importance of the relationship between authors, their readers and the publisher – from the importance of women writers earning their living, to the desire of the reader to get their next romantic fix, and the publisher’s need to stay in business.

‘Through decades of charming correspondence M&B authors and the publisher discuss the changing nature of the romantic novel, and the desire to satisfy readers’ needs. Though the language of love evolved to reflect each era, the genre’s role in providing pleasure and escape was constant.’

Read more: 

Naughty notebook reveals Mills & Boon editors’ favourite phrases (University of Reading press release)
Mills & Boon’s world of innuendo (BBC)
Notebook reveals Mills & Boon editor’s favourite steamy lines (Independent)
Boons Mots: the best lines from Mills and Boon (Telegraph)
University’s Mills & Boon Archive offers a fascinating snapshot of the changing nature of romance (getreading)


Enemies of the State: New acquisitions by Irish patriots

Special Collections has recently acquired three books that provide a Reading connection to Ireland’s early 20th-century troubles. The Enemies of the State project, a collaboration between the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading and Berkshire Record Office, ran in 2012 to engage audiences with archives on the internment of Irish patriots in Reading Prison following the 1916 Easter Uprising. These Irish prisoners were listed in the prison’s register under ‘Aliens and Irish’ and joined other foreign nationals held in the prison.

Part of the project included a small display of material related to the prison and prisoners, including three books – two by Terence MacSwiney (Principles of Freedom and The Revolutionist) and one by Darrell Figgis (A Chronicle of Jails). These have now made their way to us here so that they can be available to researchers.

The Revolutionist playbill

A playbill for the Abbey Theatre’s production of The Revolutionist

Terence MacSwiney was born on 28 March 1879 in Cork. He cultivated an interest in literature and Irish language and nationalism, founding the Celtic Literary Society, attending Gaelic League classes, setting up the Cork Dramatic Society and contributing to the republican paper Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’) before its suppression. MacSwiney was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, and he was arrested in 1916 and sent to Reading Prison. After eventual release he was elected to the Dáil Éireann for Sinn Féin and became Lord Mayor of Cork, but MacSwiney was arrested again in 1920 and died of hunger strike. He was widely mourned, and revolutionaries worldwide have claimed him among their influences.

MacSwiney’s Principles of Freedom (1921), his posthumously published book of essays, sees him explore the difference between ‘propagandist’ literature and ‘art for art’s sake’. MacSwiney’s ideal Irish writer ‘will not be careless of form, but the passion that is in him will make simple words burn and live’. This copy belonged to one of Eithne MacSwiney, Terence’s sister, and includes a pasted insert that translates to, ‘Nothing becomes a person as much as giving his life up for his friends. Pray for all our soldiers – May God free the Republic’.

His The Revolutionist: A Play in Five Acts is a first edition copy that appears to have belonged to and been used by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It came with a playbill for the original 1921 production directed by Yeats and Lady Gregory and includes annotations with stage directions and script notes.

Darrell Figgis Darrell Figgis was born in Dublin but lived in India until moving to London to continue the family business as a young adult. He worked for the publisher Dent for some time, but moved to Achill Island in 1913, where he became a part of the Irish Revival. Figgis joined the Irish Volunteers and became involved in arms supply to the Volunteers, resulting in his arrest and eventual internment in Reading.

Figgis’s A Chronicle of Jails details his time spent in the prison in Reading. He talks about the prison (‘the gaol is a handsome building, erected in red brick after the manner of an old castle’) and his conditions; Figgis learned what he could about law in order to lobby for better prison conditions.

Figgis went on to play a prominent part of Irish politics up to the 1920s, but committed suicide in 1925.