In the second of our series on great collectors of rare books, we investigate William Beckford’s library a little more closely and present a set of his books that we have in stock. Labelled an aesthete, Beckford was well known for his extensive library which was put together with the help of the London book dealer William Clarke. His library included Spanish and Portuguese chronicles, Elzevier classics (but no Greek and Latin classics) and some of the most exquisite bindings. The books are notable today for Beckford’s scholia – pencilled inscriptions.

Despite having authored a gothic classic, Vathek, detailing the adventures of Caliph Vathek and his journey to hell, along with other decadent writings and travel narratives, Beckford is most famed for his amazing library. Through the course of his life he built up an extensive book collection to which he paid close attention.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography notes that “throughout his later years Beckford was in almost daily communication with his booksellers, dealing in London with William Clarke and then with his son George, from whom he ordered numerous books for examination and kept only those few that pleased him. In his description of Beckford's library the elder Clarke noted a long series of Spanish and Portuguese chronicles, Elzevier classics, Gibbon's library, voyages, and travels, and remarked on the fine bindings, both from private libraries and commissioned by Beckford. The library also held cabinets of folio prints of old masters, all choice impressions. It was notable for the absence of Greek and Latin classics. Beckford presented Gibbon's library of some 6000–7000 books to his physician, Frederic Schöll, and was still able to bequeath 10,000 books and 80 manuscripts to his daughter Susan”.

Beckford was fastidious about the bindings of his books and commissioned work from the finest binders. He also made notes in pencil at the beginning of many of the volumes detailing points of personal interest, which can still be viewed. It is this combination of aesthetic beauty and informed annotations that make books from his library so appealing to collectors today.

We are fortunate to have four examples of Beckford’s collection in stock: three of these on West Africa, the basis for the family fortune, including one, The Narrative of Robert Adams in the classic Beckford binding style with the spine decorated with alternate cross patte and cinquefoil; and a magnificent copy of Valentia’s Travels. This work, a large paper example bound in sumptuous red morocco, with the illustrations in three states, was obviously very much to Beckford’s taste, detailing a grand artistic tour to exotic lands – Arabia and India. These books will appear alongside others in our forthcoming travel catalogue released in October; here they are as a taster.

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