Booksellers’ labels – or book-trade labels in general, if we include bookbinders’ tickets and the various other varieties we come across – especially the older ones, always add a little bit of extra interest to a book and an extra little challenge to the diligent (or perhaps merely desperate) cataloguer. There are now a number of websites catering for this particular byway of bookish study, but what is almost always completely lacking is any sense of context. Pretty pictures, but nothing in the way of background. No details of what books the labels have come from (and all too often they have been extracted, destroying the narrative thread). And again all too often, there is nothing in the way of information about the bookseller (or bookbinder) in question.
Here’s one, or in fact two – the same man, two slightly different designs – I came across the other day. A book bought in Edinburgh on my travels. Simply lettered, Harper, Stationer & Bookseller, Repository of Arts, Cheltenham. Found in a copy of the three-volume first edition of Bulwer Lytton’s Rienzi : Last of the Tribunes (1835) – the fancy-cut coloured engraved label in the first volume, the plainer and slightly less informative design in the second and third. This may suggest that Harper was using up an older or perhaps cheaper stock of labels in the volumes less likely to be opened on his shelves –
and this raises another question, because although Harper was a bookseller, his Repository also functioned as a reading-room on the High Street of then so-fashionable Cheltenham. I rather suspect that these three volumes in their elaborately tooled and delicately marbled contemporary calf bindings weren’t sold by Harper, but formed part of the Repository’s stock of fashionably bound reading matter for the spa-going classes.
No-one then more fashionable than Bulwer Lytton of course. After the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832, he was the pre-eminent historical novelist of the day. Rienzi was a great hit and went on to have a curious afterlife. Picked up on by Richard Wagner, it inspired his 1842 opera of the same name – his first great success. And it was at a performance of the opera, with its odd tale of the charismatic demagogue and man of the people, at the Linz Landestheater early in 1905, that a fifteen-year old Hitler appears to have had his moment of epiphany. “In that hour”, he is reported to have said later on several occasions, “it all began”. The overture to Rienzi became the theme tune to the Nuremberg rallies and Hitler later obtained Wagner’s manuscript – a manuscript now lost, perhaps among his most precious possessions with him in the bunker.
A little chilling – and somewhat difficult to suppose that Samuel Charles Harper (1789-1859), proprietor of the Cheltenham Repository of Arts, could have foreseen any of this, but he was known in his time as a liberal and radical activist, and it may well have pleased him to insert Bulwer Lytton’s slightly inflammatory political tale into his genteel reading-room.
Harper – to fill in his background – was born at Stepney to the east of London, the son of a cleric and schoolmaster, the Reverend Thomas Harper (1763-1832) and his wife Ann Bacon, who had married the previous year. He was apprenticed to the London printer and stationer John Pitts in 1803 and became a freeman of the Girdlers’ Company in 1811, at that time living in Brewer Street, Golden Square. He married Mary Ann Harris (1795-1875) of Cheltenham at some point in the ensuing years, became an auctioneer and appraiser, probably in addition to his other activities, and had certainly moved to Cheltenham before 1821, when an early partnership with David Banbury was formally dissolved. He began a modest publishing career in the 1820s, producing mainly local material – Thomas Dudley Fosbroke’s A Picturesque and Topographical Account of Cheltenham, and its Vicinity (1826), for example, or Harper’s Cheltenham Directory & Guide (1844).
Harper’s Repository of Arts and Reading Room was established at 350 High Street by 1826 and, after a few years at 93 Winchcombe Street, Harper returned to the High Street at no. 318. In these busy years he was variously described as printer, publisher, bookseller, stationer, auctioneer, appraiser, insurance agent, etc., and in 1834 he founded The Cheltenham Free Press and Gloucestershire Herald. The 1841 Census simply recorded him as a newspaper proprietor, resident at 318 High Street with his wife and eight children. His financial success is vouched for by his subscribing for £2,500 worth of shares in the Cheltenham, Oxford, and London and Birmingham Union Railway in 1837. By 1840 he had added another string to his bow by becoming Deputy Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages for the district of Cheltenham.
The newspaper and book side of his multifarious activities were handed over, probably in the late 1840s, to his son, Alfred Harper (1823-1901), who later became a London journalist, while Samuel Charles Harper continued to act as an auctioneer from his house in Bath Street, remaining the Registrar until his death in 1859. There was a minor local scandal a few years ago when his abandoned gravestone was found on the disused Honeybourne railway at Pittville – apparently just dumped there when the old parish cemetery on the Lower High Street was cleared by the borough council in 1965. A poor way to honour a man who must have been an important and well-known figure in nineteenth-century Cheltenham.
We have the book, we have the labels, and now we have a little context. No doubt you can read Rienzi on a Kindle – in fact I know you can. But it won’t be Samuel Charles Harper’s copy – and it won’t recreate a life, a time and a place in nineteenth-century Cheltenham for you. This is history you can hold in your hands.