Frances Currer

Currer Bookplate

The Currer Bookplate

Frances Currer – not, I suspect,  a household name – but (on safari for today in time rather than place) let me tell you.  A book found on my recent travels – and (having seen it once before) I was delighted to see her name on a bookplate when I opened it.

Eshton Hall

The Eshton Hall Library

To give her name in full – Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861) of Eshton Hall in the West Riding.  She was, incidentally, a niece of Clive of India, but her real fame, both then and now, was purely and simply as a book-collector.  Once so famed that the indefatigable bibliographer, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, placed her “at the head of all female collectors in Europe” and gave as his view that her domestic library was surpassed in early nineteenth-century England only by those of Earl Spencer and a brace of dukes (Devonshire and Buckingham).  

To Seymour de Ricci she was “England’s earliest female bibliophile”, the library strong in natural history, topography, antiquities, the classics and illustration – mostly, according to her cataloguer, “in the finest condition, and not a few of them in the richest and most tasteful bindings”.  And although sometimes capricious and unpredictable, sometimes shy and a little deaf, she was a thorough good egg too – “a heart as big as St. Paul’s dome and as warm as volcanic lava” (Dibdin).  She was generous to local charities, not least the local school attended by none other than the Brontë sisters.  Have you ever wondered about Charlotte Brontë’s odd pseudonym, “Currer” Bell?   Well, yes – she was undoubtedly the “wealthy lady in the West Riding” who gave £50 to help pay the debts of the widowed Patrick Brontë.

Two Admirals

The Two Admirals

She bought and evidently read new books too – the last time I saw her bookplate was on some very early Jane Austens.  Rather more surprising to find it now on the first edition of Fenimore Cooper’s “The Two Admirals” (1842). Long lauded as one of the finest ever tales of the sea, of course, but quite what this middle-aged spinster may have made of the book is difficult to know.  She neither could nor would have described it (as an Amazon reviewer now does) as “on any thinking man’s shortlist of great male bonding novels”.  And I can’t imagine she would have thought much of the general soppiness of Cooper’s womenfolk – but then again I suppose that Austen’s women are often soppy enough.

Currer Marbling

Detail of the marbling

But like it she evidently did – and here it is, surviving in a binding she must have had made for it at the time – delicately gilt with stylised lyres on those broad flat bands so popular in the 1840s, the compartments heavily worked in blind scallops; zigzag rules to sides and corners;  the sides, edges and endpapers exquisitely marbled in the French-style shell patterns  of the period.  Restrained, elegant, and a tribute to the taste of a remarkable woman.

A pleasure to catalogue it – thank you to her (and thank you too to my old friend, Colin Lee, whose meticulous ODNB entry forms the basis of much of this).

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice introduced in 1997, served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute and at Gresham College. He teaches annually at the London Rare Books School and also organises the monthly Book Collecting Seminars at Senate House, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. A major essay on the same subject also appeared in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011”. More recently, he contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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One Response to Frances Currer

  1. Lew Jaffe says:

    Thank you for a most informative posting.
    Lew Jaffe

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