An overview of British provenance of works in the Ottoman collection of the Arcadian Library


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An overview of British provenance of works in the Ottoman collection of the Arcadian Library

An overview of British provenance of works in the Ottoman collection of the Arcadian Library
by Giles Mandelbrote
Giles Mandelbrote
Giles Mandelbrote
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_013

  • Keywords:
    Middle East, Levant, Early Western Manuscripts, Early Printed Books, Orientalism
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Much of the Arcadian Library has been assembled through the acquisition of the libraries of earlier collectors. Without the earlier curation work of individuals such as Şefik E. Atabey, Richard Heber and Peter Hopkirk, the Arcadian Library would not have the detailed collection that it does today. While many of the twentieth century collectors of works in the Arcadian Library displayed a keen interest in the Ottoman Empire, the Levant and Middle East more generally, many of the earlier owners of works in the library were themselves directly involved in the Islamic world as travellers, scholars, merchants or diplomats. The Arcadian collection offers a rich anthology of material evidence relating to the history of book ownership and provides a cross-sectional view of the history of book collecting and the operation of the book trade.

The Arcadian Library has been collected with a view to documenting the contacts and connections between Europe and the Levant, a purpose quite different from the study of provenance. Nevertheless some common ground exists: the Library includes a core of books put together from earlier collections which themselves reflect, on the part of their owners, a serious curiosity about the Arab world. The Arcadian Library also holds some individual items which are of considerable interest and importance for their annotations and associations. More serendipitously, however, the Arcadian collection offers a rich anthology of material evidence relating to the history of book ownership and provides a cross-sectional view of the history of book collecting and the operation of the book trade, based mainly on what has appeared on the market over the past three decades.

The great collections of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The writer, journalist and traveller Peter Hopkirk (b. 1930) became fascinated with the Ottoman Empire while working in Istanbul in the 1960s. He went on to write six books (1980–96) on the struggle between the imperial powers for spheres of influence in central Asia, Afghanistan and Persia – ‘the Great Game’. In the autobiographical preface to the sale catalogue of his library, Hopkirk describes his excitement in making discoveries while combing through secondhand bookshops from Afghanistan to Albania. Essential to his work as an author was the substantial collection which he formed, mostly of nineteenth- and twentieth-century books, relating to politics, history and travel in central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East. These were sold at Sotheby’s on 13–14 October 1998 (Sotheby’s, 1998).

How were these immediate ancestors of the Arcadian Library assembled? Peter Hopkirk gives an engaging account of his own collecting:

‘Collecting rare books, I learned very early on, can be as ferociously competitive as the Great Game, and almost as exciting. For if you are to stand any chance at all of carrying the real prizes, you have to strike like lightning, and always be one move ahead of your rivals. So whenever a dealer’s catalogue landed on my doormat, I would rip open the envelope with one hand and reach for the phone with the other. At the same time I would begin to race through the contents, desperately searching for hidden treasures … If it was only eight-thirty (my post came much earlier in those days) and the dealer had not yet arrived at his shop, I would let the phone ring continuously, for half-an-hour if necessary, until he answered it, lest one of my rivals got to him first’ (Sotheby’s, 1998: pp. 13–14).

Scanning catalogues and scouring bookshops enabled knowledgeable collectors in this period to pick out rare and unappreciated books from the large quantities which were then on sale. But many other books now in the Arcadian Library, including some with strikingly impressive provenances or distinguished sequences of provenance, came to their previous owners through the auction salerooms, as part of the dispersal of much older libraries, or were offered in private correspondence by dealers who matched books to the specialist interests of their customers.

Similar patterns of acquisition can be observed in the library of another twentieth-century collector whose books recur frequently in the Arcadian Library: Şefik E. Atabey, whose important collection relating to the Ottoman Empire was formed mainly while he was living in Paris and London. Atabey’s recollections of buying books ranged from the secondhand bookshops of Istanbul in the 1950s—he mentions the Cohen sisters—to browsing during his lunch break in the Parisian antiquarian bookshops on the Left Bank during the 1960s. When he came to work in London in 1970, on the other hand, he ‘concentrated on buying from catalogues and book sales and relied on the good services of certain dealers who knew my collection almost as well as I did and offered me books which they thought I would like to buy’ (Navari, 1998: pp. 1 – 2).

Many of the most celebrated book collectors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are represented in the collections of the Arcadian Library. A copy of the Turkish chronicles (Frankfurt, 1578) compiled by the German historian Philip Lonicer bears the stamp ‘Bibliotheca Heberiana’, in its characteristic position in the top right-hand corner of the front free endpaper (or sometimes of the flyleaf). This volume also has a distinguished earlier provenance, bearing on its cover the arms of Claude de Bullion (1569–1640), minister of finance under Louis XIII of France.

The book collector Richard Heber (1774–1833) is commemorated in his friend Thomas Frognal Dibdin’s The Bibliomania, or, Book-madness; containing some account of the history, symptoms and cure of this fatal disease. In an epistle addressed to Richard Heber (London 1809). Heber’s enormous library, particularly strong in Greek and Latin classics and in early English and continental literature and history, filled eight houses, variously in London, Oxford, Paris, Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp. The total number of volumes which passed through his hands has been estimated at some 150,000 and at his death the disposal of his books in England alone required a series of thirteen auctions, held over four years between 1834 and 1837 (Fletcher, 1902: pp. 336–341). One of the most enthusiastic buyers of manuscripts at Heber’s sales [and the provenance of some notable items in the Arcadian Library’s collection] was Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792–1872), of Middle Hill, Worcestershire. Phillipps’s overriding compulsion was to amass illuminated manuscripts and historical documents in vast quantities—he described himself as a ‘Vellomaniac’. As for printed books, he wrote in 1869 to his friend Robert Curzon, only partly as a joke: ‘I am buying Printed Books because I wish to have one copy of every Book in the World!!!!!’ His extraordinarily dense collection of more than 60,000 manuscripts and some 50,000 printed books took a century to disperse (Munby, 1951–1960).

Collectors with an interest in the Levant and beyond

In comparison with their foreign counterparts, many more of the Anglophone owners of Arcadian books were involved with the East or had a special interest in it—some through family connections, others through direct experience of the Islamic world as travellers, scholars, merchants or diplomats.

One interesting small group of books, which passed mainly from the Atabey collection to the Arcadian Library, comes from the library of Sir William Trumbull (1639–1716), English ambassador in Istanbul from 1687 until 1691 and a governor of the Levant Company (1696–1710). In retirement, Trumbull collected books, cultivated his literary and historical interests, and befriended the young Alexander Pope, who celebrated him in verse. Trumbull’s substantial library reflected the influence of French taste in books and bindings—he had been ambassador in Paris for a year and a half, where his arrival had unluckily coincided with Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes and persecution of Protestants, before he moved on to a much happier posting in Istanbul. The Arcadian Library possesses seven books formerly owned by Trumbull and containing the bookplate of his son, ‘William Trumbull Esqr.’ (1708–60) (Gambier Howe, 1904).

It is possible that some of these acquisitions date back as far as the years 1664 to 1666, when Trumbull travelled extensively in France and Italy in the company of Christopher Wren and Edward Browne, son of Sir Thomas Browne. Trumbull’s keen interest in Turkish life and customs was reflected in his unpublished ‘Memorials of my Embassy in Constantinople’, which was used—and followed closely—by Sir Paul Rycaut in his updating and continuation of Richard Knolles’s Turkish History (Anderson, 1989).

The Arcadian Library also contains a number of books owned by notable travellers in the Islamic world. A copy of Paolo Paruta, ‘The History of Venice … made English by Henry Earl of Monmouth’ (London 1658), owned in the seventeenth century by ‘Cecill Bisshopp’, who has signed his name in the back of the volume, contains the eighteenth-century shelfmark and nineteenth-century book label of Parham, the Bisshopp family estate in Sussex. This volume would have been in the library at Parham for some two centuries by the time it passed into the possession of Robert Curzon (1810–73), who was descended through his mother from the Bisshopp family. Curzon is best remembered for his Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (London 1849), a description of his tours of monasteries and monastic libraries in Syria, Egypt, and especially on Mount Athos, in the 1830s, from which he returned home with a collection of important manuscripts, many of them destined for the British Museum (Fraser, 1986; Munby, 1954: pp. 122 – 136). Curzon’s discoveries and acquisitions helped to set a trend for other scholar-collectors in the Middle East in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, Curzon’s palaeographical interests also led him to Italy in quest of manuscripts; his Account of the Most Celebrated Libraries in Italy was published in 1854.

The Arcadian copy of De Bosset’s Parga, and the Ionian Islands (1822) has the bookplate of William Martin Leake (1777–1860) on the front pastedown. A prolific writer on Greece and the Turkish Empire, Leake described his travels in the preface to his Researches in Greece (Leake, 1814). The crest on Leake’s bookplate, a naval service cannon, represents his service in the Artillery, notably training the Turkish army in Istanbul in 1799 for service against Napoleon. He surveyed the Greek coasts, collected antiquities, coins and medals, and recorded all manner of local knowledge, his work earning him membership of the Royal Society in 1815.

The category of owners of books represented in the Arcadian Library with a sustained interest in the traditions of thought and belief, and the literature and life, of the Middle East also includes the writer and collector William Beckford (1760–1844), for whom the Middle East evoked an imagined world of exoticism. The heir to a Jamaican sugar fortune, Beckford had grown up with stories of the orient, under the tutorship of Alexander Cozens, who taught him Arabic and Persian, and of Sir William Chambers, who had spent many years in India and China. Both his early fascination with the Arab world and his detailed knowledge of it were acquired through books.

Beckford was a celebrated novelist, and underpinning his oriental fiction was his extensive library—or, rather, a succession of libraries. Beckford was an assiduous buyer of books for more than forty years (Hobson, 1976). While in Lausanne in 1796, ‘to have something to read’, he bought the entire library of the historian Edward Gibbon: ‘I shut myself up for six weeks from early in the morning until night … The people thought me mad. I read myself nearly blind’ (Redding, 1859). In 1822, financial difficulties brought on partly by his own extravagance obliged Beckford to sell Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, together with its contents, including much of his library of some 6,000 books. He retained, or later bought back, many of the most valuable books, however, and by the time of his death in 1844 he had amassed an even larger and more splendid library of nearly 10,000 volumes at Lansdown Tower in Bath. This was inherited by his son-in-law, Alexander Douglas-Hamilton (1767–1852), 10th Duke of Hamilton, and eventually sold by Sotheby’s in the four Hamilton Palace sales of 1882–4. Books that followed this route are usually recognizable by a number pencilled in the upper right-hand corner of the first flyleaf, probably reflecting an inventory drawn up after Beckford’s death; there is often another number in pencil, preceded by the initials ‘HB’ for ‘Hamilton & Beckford’, perhaps added after the death of Beckford’s daughter, Susan Euphemia, Duchess of Hamilton, in 1859. Many of Beckford’s books were bought by Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, who was appointed prime minister in 1894, including Thornton’s Present State of Turkey (London 1809).


As well as being concerned with changing taste and fashion and with the formation of collections, the study of provenance is also about making connections between books which were once kept together and have since become widely dispersed, and about understanding the associations and significance of individual copies and particular texts to owners and readers at different times. The focus of this essay has tended to be on known collectors of books, but some of the more obscure former owners of books in the Arcadian Library may also come to be recognised, and their role in the history of the relationship between Europe and the Middle East come to be better understood, as their names and marks of ownership are noticed in other contexts and in other collections.

Abridged from Mandelbrote, G., 2014. Some Earlier British Owners of Books in the Arcadian Library and their Marks of Ownership and Use. In: G. Mandelbrote & W. de Bruijn, eds. The Arcadian Library: Binding and Provenance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 17-80.


Anderson, S. P., 1989. An English Consul in Turkey: Paul Rycaut at Smyrna, 1667–1678 . Oxford: Oxford University Press

De Bossett, C. P., 1822. Parga, and the Ionian Islands. London: Printed for Rodwell and Martin

Fletcher, W. Y., 1902. English Book Collectors. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd.

Fraser, I., 1986. The Heir of Parham: Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche. Aldeburgh, Norfolk: Paradigm Press

Gambier Howe, E. R. J., 1904. Franks Bequest, in Catalogue of British and American Book Plates. London: British Museum by Order of the Trustees

Hobson, A. R. A., 1976. William Beckford’s Library. In: Connoisseur, 191, pp.298-305

Leake, W., 1814. Researches in Greece . LondonJ. Booth

Munby, A. N. L., 1951–1960. Phillipps Studies, Nos I-V . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Munby, A. N. L., 1954. The Formation of the Phillipps Library up to the Year 1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Navari, L., 1998. The Ottoman World: The Şefik E. Atabey Collection. London: Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books

Redding, C., 1859. Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill, in Two Volumes . London: Charles J. Skeet, Publisher

Sotheby's, 1998. The Library of Peter Hopkirk: Books on Central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East. . London: Sotheby's