Introduction to the University of Sussex Rare Book collections

This is a repost from the University of Sussex Library’s Staff Blog, originally posted on 10 October 2017

By Rose Lock

We are lucky at the University of Sussex Special Collections to have a number of fabulous and varied rare book collections, which are now part of the wonderful collections held at The Keep. As well as individual researchers ordering in our reading room, academics from Sussex and other universities use the books to teach their courses, running seminars in our education rooms where the students can get first-hand experience of handling rare volumes.

Our largest collection is the University of Sussex Rare Books, formed in 2003 from our library’s stock and including donations from Harold Foster Hallett, Sir Henry D’Avigdor-Goldsmid and Bishop George Bell. The range of dates and subjects in the collection is wide, and with nearly 2000 volumes it is our largest collection of published material. A highlight of this collection is The works of that famous chirurgeon Ambrose Parey (SxUniversityRareBooks/784 ) from 1678 was at its time a revolutionary book of surgery, not just for the skills and techniques developed by the man considered the father of modern surgery, but also because he did not publish in Latin.

A double page spread from 'The works of that famous chirurgeon Ambrose Parey', showing illustrations of the human body
SxUniversityRareBooks/784 – The works of that famous chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, 1678

The Travers Collection was donated to the University by Joy Travers and represents a selection of the collection of Michael Travers, a book collector with wide ranging tastes. It showcases a range of different printing and binding techniques from the 15th to 19th centuries. The themes of the development of modern culture and of the impact of the printing press run through this collection. It includes the first book printed in England in the English language, The Polychronicon (SxTravers/7) printed in 1482 by Caxton, and first editions of The workes of Benjamin Jonson, (SxTravers/226) 1616 and Hobbes Leviathan, (SxTravers/250) 1651. Demonstrating its variety, the collection also includes the largest book in our collections, a reprint of the second volume of Audubon’s Birds of America, (SxTravers/335) printed in Double Elephant and has pages 23×28 inches. Known as ‘the most expensive book in the world’, our 1970’s reprint allows researchers to see the rich, full size illustrations close up.

A person opening pages of 'The birds of America'. Each page appears to be about the size of their arm.
SxTravers/335 – The birds of America: from original drawings . A selection of landscape plates facsimile volume two. Published by the Author, 1827-38 – this volume is a reprint from 1973.

The books in the Baker Collection may at first seem rather disparate, but they are linked by the collector, art gallery proprietor Samuel Henry Baker’s eye for beauty. Full of fine bindings, colour illustrations and unusual details, these volumes are a rich source for studying the development of dress and decorative arts. It is this collection that includes our Second Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies (SxBaker/146) and Culpeper’s English physician; and complete herbal, (SxBaker/161) which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1652.

A page from 'Culpeper’s English physician; and complete herbal' showing illustrations of plants, with names below them
SxBaker/161 – Culpeper’s English physician; and complete herbal. To which are now first added upwards of one hundred additional herbs… Beautified and enriched with engravings of upwards of four hundred and fifty different plants, and a set of anatomical figures. London: printed for the author, and sold at the British Directory Office; and by Champante and Whitrow, [1789?]

University of Sussex does not own the Gilbert Foyle Charles Dickens Collection (SxGilbertFoyle), but looks after it for Eastbourne Borough Council. The original monthly serialisations are regularly used for those studying not just Dickens, but also the history of the book and material culture itself. With several richly bound first editions and a volume of Household Words, this gem of a collection may be small but it’s importance for research and teaching has been proven time and time again.

A double spread from 'A curious hieroglyphick Bible'
SxUniversityRareBooks/72 – A curious hieroglyphick Bible, or, Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures for the amusement of youth, 1791

I present to you here a selection of my own personal favourite volumes and hope you will come to The Keep to explore and find your own.

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