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Collection detective – bookplate leads to rare discovery

22 January 2013

Image of the 'Myographia Nova' volume previously owned by Newton.

A cataloguer in Cardiff University's Library Service turned detective and traced a long-lost book back to the library of Sir Isaac Newton. The book was found within the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, consisting of 14,000 rare and antiquarian books acquired from Cardiff Public Library in 2010.

Since then, extensive work has been ongoing to catalogue and provide a detailed description of all the volumes in the collection, which dates back to the fifteenth century, making the collection accessible to students, researchers and members of the public.

The cataloguing work has unearthed a number of exceptional and rare volumes, but one of the most unexpected results came thanks to the detective work of cataloguer Ken Gibb, in examining the provenance of one of the volumes in the collection.

The book, John Browne's Myographia nova, or A graphical description of all the muscles in the humane body, was published in London in 1698. Whilst the volume itself is not particularly rare, Ken's detective work unearthed the history of the volume, tracing it back to the library of Sir Isaac Newton.

Ken explained: "Investigating a rare book's provenance often requires some detective work, as the book may have travelled far and seen many owners during its long lifetime. Often former owners do not leave any traces behind, but sometimes there is direct evidence in the form of inscriptions, autographs, marginalia or bookplates. Occasionally, as with this volume, we are able to use this evidence to reconstruct a book's entire journey through time, learning much about the history of the book and the people who owned it."

Image of the bookplate in the 'Myographia Nova' volume previously owned by Newton.

The 'Philosophemur' bookplate with the Barnsley Park shelfmark.

On examining the volume, Ken's attention was drawn to an unusual bookplate bearing only a Latin motto 'Philosophemur' with no indication of the previous owner's name. This bookplate had been pasted over an earlier, smaller bookplate, obscuring it completely.

Armed with two handwritten shelf marks on the first page of the book, and intrigued to discover the provenance of the book, Ken was able to determine that the bookplate originally belonged to Dr James Musgrave, Rector of Chinnor, near Thame in Oxfordshire. On his death, he left his library to his son, the eighth baronet Musgrave and owner of Barnsley Park, Gloucestershire, and the books were removed to the library there in 1778.

James Musgrave originally purchased the volumes in his library from his predecessor at Chinnor, Charles Huggins. Huggins received his books from his father, John, who in turn purchased the library from the estate of his neighbour, Sir Isaac Newton.

When Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727 without having made a will, his house and all his possessions were put up for auction. John Huggins purchased the books for £300 and a list was drawn up which refers to 969 books by name, with others grouped together under miscellaneous headings.

The later history of Newton's library makes for extraordinary reading. As late as 1775, it was known that Musgrave owned Newton's books – visitors even wrote about travelling to view the library – however, when the library was transferred to Barnsley Park, the connection with Newton appears to have been lost. It was thought that Newton's library had vanished, until 1920 when the Musgrave family sold their house at Thame, and the 'Philosophemur' volumes were sent from Barnsley Park to be included in the sale. Newton's books were sold in bundles with no indication of their importance and for a fraction of their true worth.

Fortunately, not all of Newton's books were scattered and lost in 1920 – after the auction, a further 858 volumes from the great scientist's library were discovered at Barnsley Park; their provenance was firmly established and in 1943 the remaining books were purchased for the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Newton did so much of his remarkable work.

Janet Peters, Director of University Libraries at Cardiff University, said: "As cataloguing of the Cardiff Rare Books Collection continues, we are gaining an increasingly clearer insight into the volumes it contains. The collection as a whole is unique, I believe, and we have only just started to scratch the surface in examining in detail the rich history and provenance of its volumes. Who knows what remains to be found?"

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