When buying a second-hand book, you might consider a previous owner’s name scribbled on the title page to be a disfigurement, something that reduces the value, or makes you seek out a different copy. However, when we are dealing with rare books, marks of ownership can make a book more interesting, giving us information about reading and collecting habits in previous generations, or the market for particular titles. The evidence that can be used in determining the ownership history (or “provenance”) of a book can range from an elaborate bespoke binding incorporating the coat of arms of a noble owner to an inscription recording the gift of a book to an unidentified child. Older books may have a series of inscriptions by means of which the volume’s ownership can be traced through the years.
Little of this information was recorded on our older catalogues, although there are some exceptions. For example, the original catalogue of the Dyce Collection recorded some provenance information and the Clements Collection of armorial bindings includes its own indexes of owners. All this information is now on the online catalogue, but other provenances can still come as a surprise.
I noticed from our catalogue that there appeared to be a copy of a Renaissance treatise on architecture shelved in our children’s book collections at Blythe House. It seemed unlikely that this work was ever intended for children, although the details on the catalogue were sketchy. I asked a colleague at Blythe House to check the volume. She confirmed that it was exactly what the catalogue said: an early 17th–century edition of Vignola’s “Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura”.Having the item in hand, I was able to upgrade the catalogue record. Straight away I noticed the contemporary limp vellum binding (so often important provenance information is lost when books are rebound) and, inside, these inscriptions and bookplate: This goes some way to explaining why the volume was shelved with the children’s books. The bookplate shows this to be part of the Little Bequest, a collection of around 2,400 books bequeathed to the V&A by Guy Little. The vast majority of these were children’s books, although the collection did include a few other books of interest to an art library.
Beneath the bookplate are two other names. One is that of Guy’s father: John Little, of Torquay. Of greater interest to me is the other inscription: “Stephanus Riou Roma 1753”. This presumably refers to Stephen Riou (1720-1780): soldier, traveller and architectural writer. Although a number of architectural designs by Riou survive, it does not appear that any of the designs were actually built, and he is chiefly remembered for his writings. Of the three books that he published, two are held in the National Art Library. Our copy of one of these (the first substantial work in English on the architecture of bridges) has itself been inscribed by a previous owner, but in this case I cannot identify him:
Perhaps it was this Charles Clarke who added his own sketch of an arch to one of the plates:
Riou’s most significant publication was “The Grecian orders of architecture”:
In this work, Riou was able to draw on his own observations, made during extensive travels in Italy, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean (we know he was in Rome in 1753), as well as the books he had read. These include writings by the 1st-century BC Roman architect Vitruvius (he includes a bibliography of his works), but also, as we can see from the full title, the Renaissance authors Palladio, Scamozzi and … Vignola
So we have come full circle, and we can imagine Riou in his study consulting the very volume with which we began as he wrote this book.