Alan Bell

The Roxburghe Club, by Nicolas Barker

Text settings

The Roxburghe Club: A Bicentenary History

Nicolas Barker

Sotheran, pp. 347, £

Book-collecting fraternities are far from uncommon, but none of them is the equal of their British progenitor, the Roxburghe Club, either in age or exclusivity.  This June the members celebrated its bicentenary, apparently in due style. At the inaugural dinner in 1812, 18 book-collectors, chaired by the Lord Spencer of the day, gathered to celebrate the sale at auction of the 3rd Duke of Roxburghe’s copy of a 1471 edition of Boccaccio, for which Lord Blandford had just paid £2,260, then a record price for a printed book. It was exceeded only in 1884, and meanwhile the antiquarian book market went through periods of despondency. The Roxburghe’s members — soon to number the still current limit of 40 — agreed to meet annually, and to present to each of their brethren a strictly limited printing of some text of their own choice.

The organiser of the bibliophilic club was Lord Spencer’s library cataloguer, a London clergyman, a lightweight but undoubted enthusiast for books, and author some years earlier of The Bibliomania …containing some account of the history, symptoms and cures of this fatal disease. This was the Revd Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who managed to get things started fairly well.

One of the prospective members he hoped for was Sir Walter Scott, whose substantial library survives at Abbotsford, in the Scottish borders. Scott attended only one Roxburghe dinner, where he found the grandees deaf and boring, though ‘there were many little chirruping men who might have talked but went into committee’. Scott was happier with his own society, the Bannatyne Club, which then produced larger volumes of historical value.

It took the Roxburghers a while longer to realise that more substantial volumes were expected of them. From the start, their early volumes were bound with attractive lightweight boards and neatly lettered spines (these were originally intended, one learns, only for the owners’ more lavish binding, but few if any changed them).

The style proved to be generally serviceable, and ‘Roxburghe’ long continued as a characteristic format, not only for the Club’s publications. The choice of volumes to be presented has over the years been influenced by scholarly members, among them Sir Sydney Cockerell and Montague Rhodes James (who had 11 whole volumes to his credit). They and their successors have guided some members in the choice of medieval manuscripts in facsimile, a series that continues very interestingly as colour reproduction techniques get better. Others have chosen rarities of later dates, and the current list is flourishing.  

Nicolas Barker’s book analyses membership and publications over two centuries and provides a commentary on the printing processes used over the years. It would have been good, perhaps, to have something more on the individual members’ bookish interests. The latest recruit is an assiduous collector of English books of the 1890s, Mr John Barry Humphries.  One wonders if the Club approached him as they did when asking ‘the Author of Waverley’ to join; Dame Edna would have been delighted, and indeed the Club has had lady members for 25 years and more.   

Many recent Roxburghe volumes are on the Club’s website; they are ordinary additional copies, however, not those with the recipient’s name grandly printed in red.