Flying squirrels and medieval knights: the John Heath Collection

Matthew Wigzell explores the recently catalogues John Heath Collection



Tales of a medieval knight, the writings of a Swiss pseudo-scientist, and an illustration of the hooded flying squirrel. There may seem to be no apparent link, but all of these can be found in a wonderful new collection of books recently added to the Library's Special Collections.

The collection was amassed by former British diplomat Sir John Heath (1922-2009), who acquired examples of books illustrated by his ancestors, including the well-known engraver James Heath (1757–1834). The books were left to the University in Sir John's will and have now been fully catalogued and made available for study.

The collection, which is a wonderful glimpse into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has books on a range of different subjects, with a particular focus on literature, early travel writing, and scientific subjects such as zoology (with some amazing illustrations of exotic animals).

As an added bonus, many of the items have been ornately bound, making this a research resource with great potential for those interested in the art of fine binding, antique book illustration, engravings and portraits.

We have also been recording unique information about items in the collection, including the presence of bookplates, signatures and other provenance information. We have a full set of Bell's Poets of Great Britain passed down through three generations of the Kirby family for example, and many of the books in the collection have personal reminders of former owners.

I have picked out three striking books from the collection which came cross my desk during the cataloguing process.

First up is The history of the valiant knight Arthur of Little Britain: a romance of chivalry. A medieval epic originally written in French, the book follows the hero Arthur doing battle with knights, dragons and other beasts, storming castles, and foiling dastardly plots at the royal court (think Game of Thrones written in Middle English). More striking though are the image plates; beautiful hand coloured book illustrations which show scenes from the text. They have some great details, and some of the battle scenes are surprisingly graphic - seriously, take a look.

My second selection is an odd book on physiognomy - the 'science' of assessing a person's character from physical characteristics, particularly the face. Essays on Physiognomy was written by Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss writer and philosopher, and gained something of a cult following thereafter. Containing a series of engraved portraits, the accompanying text describes the character of each portrait, and analysis of different parts of the face.

One unfortunate chap (pictured left) is characterised as having a face showing "Corrupt rudeness, and malignity, contemning morals. Natural power degenerates into obstinacy, in the forehead. Affection is far distant from this countenance. Insensibility usurps the place of courage, and meanness the seat of heroism…. The thing most pitiable in this countenance is an expression of the conscious want of power to acquire the degree of malignity it may wish, or affect to possess".

Even animals don't escape scorn. The hammer-head shark being "a monster, 2. How infinitely distant from all that can be called graceful, lovely, or agreeable! The arched mouth, with the pointed teeth, how senseless, intractable, and void of passion or feeling; devouring without pleasure or satisfaction! How inexpressibly stupid is the mouth of 3, especially in its relative proportion to the eye!".



The final example comes from a multi-volume set, General zoology or systematic natural history, by George Shaw. The set has some brilliant early 19th Century illustrations and descriptions of exotic animals, manly only recently discovered by explorers in Australia. The books describe a wide-range of mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and reflect the growing interest in zoology and recording of the natural world. My favourite is the truly terrifying Hooded Flying Squirrel.

There is also a wonderful anecdote about the platypus, and Shaw's (who was keeper of the natural history department at the British Museum) initial reluctance to include it in the book. The specimen at the museum was "the only one which had been seen, [and] it was impossible not to entertain some distant doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal … and there might still have been practiced some arts of deception in its structure … Two more specimens, however, having been very lately sent over from New Holland, the suspicions before mentioned are now completely dissipated".

All of the books in the Heath collection can be accessed through the Borthwick Institute for Archives, and can be found in the Library catalogue. From the Advanced Search option, you can perform a provenance search for John Heath.

Hopefully researchers and students find them as interesting to study as we did to catalogue.



All photos taken by Paul Shields.

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