The other day I received an e-mail offering me a copy of Brand’s History of Newcastle (1789). Or at least some of it, it was an odd volume lacking most plates and binding, quite stained, but as the seller put it: ‘in good condition considering its age’. I suppose it was an understandable statement because really there is no substitute for being able to visit a rare book shop or fair, and being able to see and handle the beautiful, sensual objects that books can be, in order to understand the age-condition conundrum.
The books I’ve chosen for my weekly selection need no apology where condition is concerned. The Holy Land, the cradle of three great religions, steeped in antiquity of an age that is difficult to fathom for those of us from more recent civilizations, has always attracted travellers and writers.
Cloth became the dominant binding for books sometime in the early nineteenth century, and it was not long before very attractive examples in a wide variety of styles were being produced.
George Robinson’s Travels in Palestine and Syria, an elegant work from 1837, in pale blue fine ribbed cloth, with restrained blind-stamped decoration, is quite hard to find in any condition. Little is known of the author save that he was obviously a man of some means, able to travel for years on end without having to work. The present book gives an account of a visit to a friend in the Ionian Islands in 1829 and was tempted by the proximity of the Levant into making his present journey. He travelled via Egypt having spent a winter in Smyrna. From there he travelled to Jaffa visiting the whole of Syria and Palestine arriving at Constantinople at the end of 1831. It is a very perceptive account with interesting chapters on his time in Palestine.
Nowadays when thinking of the Church of England (C of E), we don’t normally think of fervour. In the not so distant past, however, the C of E was far more self-confident, and nothing quite displayed this like a tour of the Holy Land. For this reason, I’m always a bit wary of reverends in Holy Places. James Laird Patterson’s Journal of a Tour (1852), could easily have fallen into that category. I think, though, that he has managed to steer a middle course between enthusing about his beliefs and what he observed around him. The book itself is more elaborately bound than Robinson’s and shows the rapid sophistication of cloth bindings.
A little more to my personal taste is the account of the Frenchman, Louis de Saulcy. His Narrative of a Journey round the Dead Sea, 1854, was occasioned by his looking for something interesting ‘in a place fraught with danger’. De Saulcy made several important discoveries including the site of the city of Jericho. This second edition shows the continuing elaboration of cloth with pictorial blind-stamped camels to the covers.