First illustrated edition of Paradise lost by John Milton, 1688. Teagan Glenane via The Conversation AU
First illustrated edition of Paradise lost by John Milton, 1688.

Yesterday the State Library of Victoria announced a that they have received the most significant bequest of rare books in their 160 year history.

The collection was put together by the late John Emmerson, an Oxford physicist and later a Melbourne barrister. The collection of over 5000 rare books is described as one of the most significant collections of early modern printed books and pamphlets in the world. The collection is particularly strong on rare English books and printed materials surrounding the King Charles I era and the English Civil War of the 1640s, with the only comparable collections belonging to the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Not only does the collection include a number of important rare books, many of them also come with an impressive provenance. For instance, the 1485 Bible printed in Nuremburg from Emmerson’s collection  once belonged to William Juxon (1582-1663), the Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury and is signed by him. King Charles I selected Juxon to be with him on the scaffold and Juxon performed Charles I’s last rites before his execution in 1649.

The bequest is accompanied by a donation of $1.3 million to assist in the preservation, cataloguing and expansion the collection, as well as to fund scholarship and future exhibitions. Many of the books also include illustrations such as one editions (of the several in the Emmerson collection) of King Charles I’s speech from the scaffold, which is bound with daily reports of the King’s trial and later engravings of the execution.

In The Conversation Paul Salzman, Professor of English Literature at La Trobe University has described the importance of the collection and the significance of a bequest of this size (full story here)

The collection itself is remarkable, not simply because of the quality of individual items. Among many highlights one might choose King James I’s copy of his own collected works for his son Charles I, or signed first editions of the various volumes of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century precursor of the postmodern novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767).

It encompasses dozens and dozens of ephemeral items that together offer a rare insight into the politics of the mid- and late-17th century.

Few, if any, collectors of beautiful early volumes with fine bindings also collect pamphlets, sermons and royal proclamations. The Emmerson collection runs to around 5,000 items in 3,500 volumes. It covers large numbers of religious, philosophical and political works, as well as some significant concentrations of literary material.

Usually a collection like this one is auctioned off on its owner’s death, and the contents disbursed around the world – often then hidden from the sights of the scholars who might make best use of the volumes. Emmerson’s act of generosity ensures that this collection remains intact.


— Katrina Grant