Saint Paul shipwrecked in the Noel Shaw Gallery

One of the more creative themes in the current exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster, relates to St Paul on Malta. When the exhibition was under development, I was interested to include objects which represented both the classical and biblical inspirations for the voyages of exploration which launched through the 15th to 18th centuries.

The Prophet Paul’s story features a shipwreck that occurred in the Mediterranean. Shipwrecks are one of the dramatic subjects in the exhibition, and St Paul is well-represented in the Print Collection, thus the availability of visual documents was one of the several reasons to include it. A snippet of information I read in passing, suggested that the earliest recorded shipwreck is found in the Old Testament. The validity of this idea and its correlating obscure wreck was superseded in the exhibition by the intriguing narrative in the New Testament account by Luke in the Book of Acts.

Approximately 2000 years ago, Paul was being transported as a prisoner to Rome aboard a grain freighter, when the ship was engulfed in a spectacular and violent storm which caused it to run aground and wreck on Malta.

The group of 276 sodden and wretched shipwreck survivors are poignantly depicted with almost individual detail in Jan Luyken’s etching, where they are being helped by islanders to build a fire. This image proved to be the main, and a very powerful visual experience of shipwreck for the exhibition, particularly in lieu of an image for the extraordinary Dutch shipwreck Batavia which is instead expressed through a contemporary handwritten music score from the Rare Music Collection. [1] The etching is seen through a Dutch lens as it was published in a Dutch Bible in 1729 (Historie des Nieuwen Testaments).

After emerging from the sea, Paul gathers firewood, which contains a poisonous viper that, when driven out by the heat, latches onto his hand.  Paul’s unaffectedness to the deadly bite was one of the miracles that led to his apostleship. The scene is dramatically depicted in St Paul (1790). This print is after the original painting by Benjamin West, commissioned by the directors of Greenwich Hospital and is now part of the National Maritime Museum in London.

The biblical describes four anchors that were cast into the sea during the storm. It is hard to imagine how objects designed to be thrown overboard could have survived through time, yet ancient anchors have been found by archaeologists. I am frequently inspired by the objects which may be unearthed from the University’s collections, and am somewhat awed to be able to include an anchor, similar in origin, age and usage to that described in the Bible, in Plotting the island.

Although it has been described as a ‘Maltese anchor’ the anchor is instead Roman in origin and was excavated from a Roman wreck at Xlendi, a bay found on the island Gozo, off Malta. [2.] The anchor provides insight into Roman-occupied Malta and its maritime activity. The anchor is made of lead and very heavy – as the exhibition team was to discover. It is too heavy for one person to lift and required extra help to transport it from the Ian Potter Museum of Art where it resides. [3.] All up, six people were involved to place it on its specially made support and into the showcase during the exhibition installation.

The island Gozo is also the legendary home of the sorceress Calypso (Circe) in Homer’s Odyssey, which is also touched upon in the exhibition. These landmasses may be located in Jacob Sandrart’s map, Nova totius Graeciae, Italiae, Natoliae, Hungariae nec non Danubii fluminis … (New map of the whole of Greece, Italy, Anatolia, Hungary and the Danube River …) (c.1660).

The trials of shipwreck are a fascinating aspect of the exhibition, but just as beguiling is being drawn into mysterious bays and inlets, like those found on Malta, to discover cultural treasures.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1.] Batavia [music] by Richard Mills; libretto, Peter Goldsworthy
[2.] Claudia Sagona, The archaeology of Malta: from the Neolithic through the Roman period, New York, NY Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 283
[3.] The Huber Collection of Maltese Antiquities

Assembly, dismemberment, digital reassembly: the fascinating 600 year life story of a medieval book of hours

Fresh contributions to the understanding of objects in the Rare Books Collection are always welcome, especially ones which offer tantalizing new insights and interpretations.  Karen Winslow, a recent Masters graduate from Trinity College, Dublin, shares with us the fascinating story of four important bi-folios from a disassembled book of hours, which were acquired for the Baillieu Library’s Collection in 1974.  Originally manufactured in Paris in 1407-08 during the coldest winter of the 15th century (which saw the Seine freeze and the city’s three main bridges swept away), the manuscript was broken up for sale in the 20th century and its individual pages dispersed to public and private collections around the world.  In the 21st century technology is enabling the digital reassembly of the book, stimulating new discoveries and affording an enriched understanding of its ‘biography’ over time…

The Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne holds four bi-folios that were part of a book of hours dated with confidence to 1408 and owned by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), an American mining magnate. Prior to Beatty’s ownership, the book was in the collection of John Boykett Jarman (died 1864), a London goldsmith and jeweller. The book suffered considerable water damage while it was in the care of Jarman. Libby Melzer, Senior Paper Conservator at the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, provided an excellent account of the damage and how it happened in her article ‘Flood, Fire and Water: Fragmentary Manuscripts in the Medieval Imagination Exhibition‘ published in 2008 to coincide with an exhibition at the State Library of Victoria. While the book of hours was in Beatty’s care, he elected to remove some of the miniatures that were in better condition. After Beatty’s death, Alan Thomas purchased the remains of the book and sold the leaves piecemeal. The Melbourne folios were purchased from Thomas in 1974.

Recently, efforts have been made to digitally reassemble the book. As of March 2017, images of fifty of the original 187 leaves, including twenty-five of the original twenty-eight miniatures, have been identified. Twenty-six leaves are housed in various institutions around the world, with the Baillieu Library holding the largest known collection. Reassembly has revealed interesting insights into three of the folios housed in the Baillieu Library:


Figures.  Folio 1 recto, the Annunciation miniature compared to folio 48 verso, the Presentation in the Temple miniature 

Folio 1 recto – the Annunciation miniature. The stylistic treatment of the border, the u-shaped staff and major initial in this folio are different from the other folios in the book, raising questions about whether a different artist contributed to folio 1 and perhaps this leaf was originally intended for another book of hours.  All of the leaves have a border of cusped red, blue and gold ivy leaves sprouting in all directions. In addition, most of the borders are also interspersed with spiked berries and shapes resembling little flying comets with squiggly lines. However, folio 1 also contains small blue and mauve petalled flowers and the vines of the ivy leaves seem drawn in a more controlled or flattened manner versus life-like. Leaves with miniatures are surrounded by thick u-shaped foliate staffs (also known as baguettes) framing both the miniature and the text. However, in the case of folio 1, the major decorated initial is anchored at the top and the bottom of the left staff and a gap in the staff exists where the initial resides. This gap in the staff does not occur in the other leaves.


Figures.  Folio 1 recto, major initial detail compared to folio 48 verso, major initial detail.

The mise-en-page of this leaf is more consistent with MS 265 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Perhaps both books were in production at the same time in the same workshop and folio 1 was bound into the wrong book. Interestingly, Walters MS 265 does not contain a miniature of the Annunciation.


Figures.  Folio 179 recto, the John on Patmos miniature compared to Walters MS 265,  fol. 105 recto, the John on Patmos miniature

Folio 179  recto – the John on Patmos miniature. John is shown on the Isle of Patmos where he was exiled by the Roman emperor Domitian. The eagle, John’s symbol, is trying to get his attention as he writes on a scroll resting on his knee. John is seated between two umbrella-shaped trees. The compositional convention of this miniature with the figure close to the edge of the frame and an attempt to portray a true landscape is very similar to the John on Patmos miniature included in Walters MS 265. Both miniatures employ a horizon that darkens to a deep blue in an upward direction and a pale green terrain that darkens as it approaches the horizon. In addition, the treatment of John’s bright pink drapery is the same in both miniatures with wave-like folds at the bottom hem. The similarities between the miniatures suggest the same workshop created both leaves. If the same workshop was working on Walters MS 265 and Beatty’s book of hours, this further supports the notion that the wrong Annunciation leaf was tipped into the Beatty book of hours.

Figure.  Folio 186 verso. 

Folio 186 Verso.  Beatty’s book of hours is dated in the colophon on folio 158 verso that is now housed in the Chester Beatty Library (Factum est anno mº ccccº viiiº quo ceciderunt pontes parisiis).  Recently, it was discovered the same date is hand-written on folio 186 versus (anno mº ccccº viiiº) of the Baillieu Library fragment. The leaf is covered in glue residue and may have served as a pastedown for the back cover.  This is an important discovery since no other leaves show signs of use such as thumbprints, added texts, glosses or notes.

Scholarship on this book of hours has waned since it was unstitched and the leaves were dispersed across the globe. However, digital reassembly allows scholarly research to continue and new discoveries involving the individual leaves housed in various institutions to be made.

Karen Winslow,  MPhil graduate 2016, Trinity College Dublin

References and further reading:

Primary sources

Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, Walters MS 265

Dublin, Chester Beatty Library, WMS 103

Melbourne, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne, UniM Bail SpC/RB61AA/3

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 144

Secondary sources

Backhouse, Janet. ‘A Victorian Connoisseur and His Manuscripts: The Tale of Mr. Jarman and Mr. Wing’, The British Museum Quarterly, 32 (3/4), (1968): 76-92.

Byrne, Donal. ‘Manuscript Ruling and Pictorial Design in the Work of the Limbourgs, the Bedford Master, and the Boucicaut Master’, The Art Bulletin, 66 (1), (1984): 118-36.

Farber, Allen S. ‘Considering a Marginal Master: The Work of an Early fifteenth-Century, Parisian Manuscript Decorator’, Gesta, 32 (1), (1993): 21-39.

Manion, Margaret M. and Vines, Vera F. Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in Australian Collections, Foreword by K.V. Sinclair. (Melbourne ; London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984) 240.

Melzer, Libby. ‘Flood, Fire and War: Fragmentary Manuscripts in The Medieval Imagination Exhibition’, The LaTrobe Journal, No 81 Autumn, (2008): 70-81.

Middleton, John Henry. Illuminated Manuscripts in Classical and Mediaeval Times; Their Art and Their Technique (Cambridge,: University Press, 1892) 270.

Thomas, Alan G. Catalogue Twenty-Three, Alan G. Thomas, Bookseller, (London: Alan G. Thomas, Bookseller).

Winslow, Karen D.  The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Book of Hours once owned by Chester Beatty.  MPhil in Art History, Art + Ireland thesis, 2 volumes. Trinity College, Dublin (2016).

A young Chester Beatty

Staten Landt: where the Americas meet the Antipodes

Even the most adventurous of traveller would struggle at dead reckoning Staten Landt, despite it being clearly marked on some maps, such as Polus Antarctius (South Pole), one of the featured maps in the Noel Shaw’s current exhibition Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster.  Staten Landt is a rather complicated place: changing in size and location on the globe. It appears sometimes as a continent near the Americas, and at others as an island attached to Australia or New Zealand. It is a newly depicted land which seems to have both emerged and became extinct in the course of the 17th century.

Polus Antarcticus was first issued in 1637 by Dutch cartographer and engraver Henricus Hondius. At a time when Europeans had not seen the underside of the globe, this circular projection proved to be so innovative and appealing that it was revised and reprinted over a period of more than 60 years. On display is the original version of the Hondius, published by Jan Jansson. Jansson would later update the coastlines on this map in 1650, after the voyages of Abel Tasman in 1642 and 1644. Tasman’s voyages revealed additions to the coast of New Holland as well as parts of the coasts of both Tasmania and New Zealand, which had to be added to Dutch maps; and the title cartouche on Polus Antarcticus had to be replaced by New Zealand, for example, as the picture of the Antipodes took shape.

Yet there is another coastline on this map: an indistinct line which begins at South America and is hand-coloured green in the University’s map, petering out in the South Seas. This vague and, by the length of it, massive geographical area is Staten Landt.

In the 15th and 16th centuries it was believed that the Great South Land or Terra Australis was joined to the Americas at Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). Francis Drake disproved this theory during his circumnavigation between 1577 and 1580. In his wake, the Dutch mariners Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten formed the Australische Compagnie (Australian Company), an expedition which sailed in the vessels Eendracht and Hoorn between 1615 and 1617 in search of another route to the lucrative Spice Islands and also the mythical South Land. Both of the expedition’s missions were achieved: a new trade route was indeed found around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Eendracht, captained by Dirk Hartog, landed on Western Australia in 1616, as marked on this and other maps in the exhibition (t’Landt van d’Eendracht). However, en route the expedition paused on the Patagonian coast of South America. This was where the Hoorn was lost to a fire and where Le Maire and Schouten saw a land to their east which they conjectured was part of the South Land; this they named Staten Landt (Country of the Lords of the State).

In 1643 Hendrik Brouwer identified the landmass seen by Le Maire and Schouten as an uninhabited island. Abel Tasman further complicated the matter by declaring the south island of New Zealand as Staten Landt, which he believed to be part of the unknown South Land or Antarctica. So it is not so surprising then, to find Staten Landt tentatively placed on the map between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. Polus Antarcticus has the curious effect of showing simultaneously both the landmasses in the Antipodes that the Dutch had mapped in the 17th century, and also a mythical one that they had invented.

When thinking about new lands, thoughts soon turn to the people who might inhabit them. The people depicted on the attractive hand-coloured border are not Antipodean as might be expected of the South Pole. Rather, they are people of the Americas.

In an earlier Flemish engraving titled America (c.1588), also in the exhibition, a European view of Native American people is seen. An allegorical representation of America is depicted as a woman holding bow, arrow and axe, and riding an armadillo. In the background, at right, the Spanish are at war with the inhabitants, while at left, cannibals prepare a leg on a spit. This disturbing scene of cannibals roasting human limbs lurks frequently enough in the background of New World images to become something of a pictorial trope. The motif is repeated at the top left of Polus Antarcticus, although just what is being cooked over the fire is not apparent. In this document, European printers seem to have let the Americans put aside their gnawed arms and legs to instead hunt penguins, which are depicted in the right margin.

A figure at left is made rather dramatic by the colourist who has chosen to interpret the atmosphere behind him as fire, perhaps a reference to perceived fiery lands like Tierra del Fuego, where these lines could just as likely be wind or sky. As each map was individually coloured, no two are the same, and Polus Antarcticus has been coloured by many different points of view since its publication in 1637.

Polus Antarcticus is an important early record of the mapping of the southern lands. Equally, through Staten Landt and its depiction of people, it is a document representing the meeting of the Americas and the Antipodes.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)

Further reading

For explanations of Staten Landt see Robert Clancy, The mapping of Terra Australis, Macquarie Park, N.S.W.: Universal Press, 1995, especially pages 108, 111, 112 and 115.

A lost eighteenth-century harp method rediscovered, Michel Corrette’s Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe (1774): A new acquisition for Rare Music

Published in Paris in 1774, Michel Corrette’s Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe [New method for learning to play the harp] is an exciting new addition to the Rare Music collection. Until recently it was considered to be a ‘lost’ eighteenth-century harp method since scholars were unable to locate any reference to this rare edition in the major European bibliographies or at auction.Michel Corrette (b Rouen, 1707; d Paris, 1795) is well known among musicians and scholars of eighteenth-century French music for his work as an organist, teacher, prolific composer-arranger with works spanning 75 years, and as an author of pedagogical methods for various instruments and voice. These methods are clearly written and well-structured, offering valuable insight into aspects of eighteenth-century French performance practice. For example, the pieces included in his violin method L’école d’Orphée (1738), which illustrate the French and Italian styles, help us to further understand the complex discourse of national styles in this period and its musical application.

The subtitle of Corrette’s harp method, Avec des leçons faciles pour les commençans, des menuets allemands et italiens et autres jolis airs; et la partition pour l’accorder avec les pédales et sans les pédales [with easy lessons for beginners, German and Italian minuets and other pretty airs; and a section for tuning pedal and non-pedal harps] indicates a similar clarity of structure to his other pedagogical works. The work begins with a brief history of the harp. This is followed by fourteen chapters on chords, fingering on the harp, arpeggios, and the use of the pedals. Other eighteenth-century French harp methods from 1763 onwards address similar aspects of history, technique and musical execution for the instrument and most are aimed at beginners, demonstrating that Corrette’s method could be considered representative of the approach to pedagogy for the harp in this period.

The harp which is the focus of this method, is known today as the ‘single-action harp’ and in late-eighteenth century Paris as ‘harpe organisée’ or ‘harpe à pédales’. This instrument was revolutionary at the time in being the first harp with a mechanism that allowed the player to alter the pitch of the strings by pressing pedals with their feet. The seven pedals attached to rods in the harp’s column, which in turn engaged a mechanism in the instrument’s neck, could raise the pitch of each string by one semitone (hence the term ‘single-action), thus leaving both hands free for playing continuous scales and arpeggio figures whilst modulating to various keys. For harps of earlier periods, chromaticism was achieved by various means such as shortening the pitch of the string with a finger whilst playing with the opposing hand, adjusting the pitch of individual strings with a tuning key, increasing the single row of strings to two or three ranks which included a chromatic row, and hooks attached to the neck of the harp which could be turned with one hand to shorten the string. The first harp with pedals is attributed to a German luthier Jacob Hochbrucker as early as 1697 but it was not until 1749 that there is the first documented performance on this instrument in France at the ‘Concert Spirituel’ season in Paris. By the time the first pedal harps by Parisian maker Salomon were available for sale in 1760 the single-action harp had become a wildly popular commodity as described in an oft-quoted letter from Charles-Simon Favart to the Count Durazzo on May 1, 1761.

“La harpe est aujourd’hui l’instrument à la mode; toutes nos dames on la fureur d’en jouer.”1

[Today the harp is the instrument à la mode; all our ladies are mad to play it.]

Attuned to the musical and social zeitgeist, Corrette’s method reflects this trend for learning the harp as a popular accomplishment among young aristocratic women, one which would undoubtedly render them more marriageable as it was both beautiful to play and to look at and could only serve to highlight the beauty and charm of the player! The frontispiece of the method features an engraving of a young woman playing a harp accompanied by the following suitably amourous quatrain:

“La Harpe entre vos mains Silvie,
Ne laisse rien à désirer.
De vos beaux yeux l’ame est ravie,
Peut-on vous voir sans vous aimer!”2

[The harp in your hands Silvie,
Leaves nothing to be desired.
A glance at your eyes thrills me
How could you not be admired!]

Corrette neatly sets the text of this poem to music at the end of his harp method in a section containing settings of various popular airs with harp accompaniment. The single-action harp along with the harpsichord and later the fortepiano became one of the most popular instruments to accompany the voice in France in the second half of the eighteenth-century.

The acquisition of this fascinating harp method is directly linked to an Australian Research Council Discovery Project initiated by University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer in Music Dr Erin Helyard, musicologist, historical keyboard specialist and acclaimed performer and conductor. Titled ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, this research project is a cross-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration between ANU (Glenn Roe and Robert Wellington), The University of Melbourne (Erin Helyard), The University of Sydney (Mark Ledbury), and Oxford University (Nicholas Cronk).

This team will undertake a groundbreaking study of the eighteenth-century songbook by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, Choix de Chansons (1773). Using a research methodology drawn from art history, French literature, musicology and the digital humanities, this study will engage with and enact the complex transdisciplinary and transmedial nature of this text and of eighteenth-century print culture in general whilst also mirroring the multimedia experience of the eighteenth-century consumer with the creation of a digital edition, which weaves together image, text and music. The music in Laborde’s Choix de Chansons features harp and harpsichord accompaniment and Corrette’s harp method, also published in Paris only one year later, will provide important musicological insight into performance practice for the harp at this time and a deeper understanding of how Laborde’s chansons can be meaningfully interpreted.

Hannah Lane, Research Assistant to Dr Erin Helyard

1 Charles-Simon Favart, Mémoires et correspondance littéraires: dramatiques et anecdotiques, de C. S. Favart, ed. Henri Françoi Dumolard, vol. 1 (L. Collin, Paris, 1808), 147.
2 Michel Corrette, Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe, (s.n., Paris, 1774).

Wyverns, gryphons and acorns amidst the foliage: two rare early 16th century bindings by Nicholas Spierinck uncovered in the Rare Books Collection

What makes working with rare books so intriguing is the opportunity it delivers to follow a trail of clues – Sherlock Holmes-like – to trace an object’s origin and story through time.  Two excised bindings recently located in the Rare Book Room, have inspired one such stimulating pursuit…

An intact Spierinck binding

In 2008 the Baillieu Library was excited to purchase a rare original intact binding by the early Cambridge stationer Nicholas Spierinck, generously funded by the Ivy May Pendlebury Bequest.  The beautifully tanned calfskin cover encases a 1512 Paris edition of the works of 3rd-century Christian theologian, Origen Adamantius (b.184/185 – d.253/254), entitled Origenis Adamantii Operum tomi duo priores… .  At the time of the book’s acquisition, it was (and remains) the only known example of a complete Spierinck binding held in an Australian institution, bearing his personal binder’s mark, and incorporating his signature decorative schema of wyverns, gryphons and acorns.  A former Baillieu Library Rare Books Curator, Pam Pryde, described this unique acquisition and binding in her December 2008 Collections magazine article.  An animated 3D view of the binding, providing close inspection of Spierinck’s monogram and decorative devices is available here.


Two dis-bound Spierinck cover panels

In a recent intriguing twist to the tale, an uncatalogued box of bindings in the Rare Books Collection has been found to contain a pair of rare dis-bound Spierinck covers, together with 13 binding fragments from other provenances and time periods.  It appears that the samples were amassed by an unidentified donor, as a study collection for research and teaching.  The envelopes containing the two Spierinck bindings are clearly marked with his name in a 20th century hand; this attribution is conclusively confirmed by the presence of Spierinck’s distinctive stamp on both panels, which match exactly with those on the intact Origenis binding.

At first inspection, it is unclear whether the two dis-bound panels came from the same or different books, as one has been cut down in size and is 15mm smaller on each side than the other.  A shared provenance, however, seems very likely as both specimens bear pin holes at the same points, where the clasp and straps used to latch the panels would have once been attached to the covers, front and back.

16th century Cambridge book trade

In the early 16th century, the inland port of Cambridge was well placed to service its university’s growing appetite for books, being situated on an established river trading route, 40 miles from the Channel.  At this time, the majority of foreign language books (including the bulk of scholarly works which were written in Latin) were printed on the continent, and imported into England in loose form for binding and sale.  The burgeoning print market attracted foreign traders who set up mixed commercial enterprises as stationers, variously dealing in the importation, sale and binding of books.[i]  Many of these European artisans had migrated from the major book production centres of Paris, Basel and the lower Rhine, bringing their craft skills and ornamental influences with them.[ii] The first University of Cambridge printer, John Siberch (c1476–1554), was an established member of the German book trade before settling in the English town, where he operated from 1520-1522.[iii]

Nicholas Spierinck, fl. 1505-d.1545-6

With the passing of the centuries the names of most early English binders have passed into obscurity.  These anonymous ghosts are known today by their evocative decorative devices, such as ‘the fruit and flower binder’, ‘the fishtail binder’, ‘the half stamp binder’, ‘the huntsman binder’, ‘the octagonal rose binder’,  ‘the blank book binder’, and – my favourite – ‘the bat binder’.[iv] The historical record is much clearer for Nicholas Spierinck, as his appointment on 20th July 1534, as one of three official stationers (with Garrett Godfrey and Segar Nicholson) to the University of Cambridge, ensured that his name was inscribed in the official registers for posterity.[v]

Nicholas Spierinck, a member of a Netherlandish family of stationers, arrived in Cambridge sometime between 1503 and 1506, a binder of the same name having worked for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy between 1469 and 1475.  By 1516 Spierinck held the office of warden at St Mary’s Church in the centre of Cambridge, and his will (dated 20th August 1545) confirms that he became a successful merchant and a citizen of some standing.  He bequeathed a brewery at Cross Keys to his grandson Nycholas (which was still in operation in 1915), silver and coral beads to his wife Agnes and  ‘Kateryn’ (probably his daughter) and the residue of his estate to his son, ‘William Spyrynke’, who had by that time taken charge of the family book binding operations.[vi]

Blind stamped binding

An expanding English book trade, injected with an influx of skilled foreign labour, could not help but be influenced by continental fashions in binding and manufacture.  The outmoded medieval technique of decorating covers with hand-tooled patterns, gave way to the more efficient ‘blind stamping’ method (blind referring to the absence of gold).  This system used heated metal block plates, commonly bearing pictorial designs, to impress decorations on the moistened leather panels.[vii]

The commercial potential of binding books in a ‘house style’ was exploited by binders and booksellers as an early form of corporate branding and advertising.  Hence the practice adopted by different stationers to apply their trade mark panel to books sold from their premises.  Blind stamped panel bindings were typically employed as pairs, with the same coupling used by binders on many books in their ‘stable’.[viii]  There were an estimated 200 such panels in use in various combinations between 1485 and 1555.[ix]

The two newly-located Spierinck covers are examples of the two most commonly used panels associated with his workshop, which is known to have produced as many as 35 pressings of the upper panel (depicting The Annunciation).[x]   As evidenced by all extant examples, it was always used by Spierinck in combination with the lower panel (depicting the legend of St Nicholas), illustrating the three boys who were cut up and pickled by an innkeeper and then restored to life by the passing saint.   A black and white image of an intact Spierinck binding using this pairing of panels is reproduced in Gray’s The earlier Cambridge stationers & bookbinders and the first Cambridge printer.[xi]

In tandem with blind stamping, cylindrical hand rolls were used as labour-saving devices, to imprint decorative bands across the leather, often incorporating a binder’s or bookseller’s distinctive ornamental motif or signature.[xii]  We are very fortunate to have a splendid example of Spierinck’s principal hand roll (he had six) in the decoration of the Origenis binding, which can be compared with the border patterns used on the blind cover panels.

Further investigation and analysis

As with many historical conundrums, some questions about the panels remain unanswered, and the fragments recently uncovered in the Rare Books Collection will benefit from further conservation and investigation.  Both pieces of leather binding were removed from their original boards and pasted onto parchment mountings, sometime in the early 20th century.  This has obscured the reverse of each panel and evidence of how the leather was cut and placed over the boards.  Middleton notes in his history of English bookbinding techniques that Spierinck was one of the last binders to use corner-mitring to achieve a precise meeting of the turned leather edges at the inside corners.  This technique involved the cutting of a ‘tongue’ which was incised after the leather had been turned over from the front of the board.  The outstanding finish achieved using the method is evident in the Origenis binding, and it would be interesting to find evidence about how the corners of the dis-bound panel fragments were treated. [xiii]

Until this research can be undertaken, how curious it is to ponder that these three Spierinck examples, which emanated from the same workshop in 16th century Cambridge, should be reunited after travelling separate paths, and be housed several shelves away from each other at the University of Melbourne, some 500 years later.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator


[i] Weale, p. xxix

[ii] McKitterick, p. x

[iii] Venn, p. 73.  Incidentally, Siberch was a great friend of Erasmus, to whom he introduced Spierinck.

[iv] Oldham, 1952, p. x

[v] Weale, p. xxvii

[vi] Gray & Palmer, pp. 31-32

[vii] Middleton, pp. 168-9

[viii] Pearson, p. 50

[ix] Hobson, pp. [89]-90

[x] Oldham, pp. 19, 42

[xi] Gray, Plate XVI – Evangelia, 1508.

[xii] Harthan, p. 11

[xiii] Middleton, p. 151

Bibliography & further reading

British Library. Database of bookbindings. Accessed 10 March 2017

Gray, George & William Palmer.  Abstracts from the wills and testamentary documents of printers, binders and stationers of Cambridge, from 1504-1699. London: Bibliographical Society, 1915.

Gray, George. The earlier Cambridge stationers & bookbinders and the first Cambridge printer.  Oxford: Bibliographical Society, 1904.

Hobson, G.D. Blind-stamped panels in the English book-trade, c. 1485-1555. London; Bibliographical Society, 1944

McKitterick, David. A history of the Cambridge University Press. Volume 1. Printing and the book trade in Cambridge, 1534-1698. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1992.

Oldham, J. Basil. Blind panels of English binders.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Oldham, J. Basil. English blind-stamped bindings.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

Pearson, David. English bookbinding styles 1450-1800: a handbook. London: The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 2005.

Pryde, Pam.  ‘A recent purchase for Special Collections in the Baillieu Library’, University of Melbourne Collections, Issue 3, December 2008. Accessed 10 March 2017

Sims, Liam. ‘An early Cambridge binding by Nicholas Spierinck’.  Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog post, 3 April 2015. Accessed 10 March 2017

Venn, John & J.A. Venn.  Alumni Cantabridgienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of officeat the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Weale, W.H. James.  Bookbindings and rubbings of bindings in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: The Holland Press, 1962.


New Holland’s position upon the globe

One of the thought-provoking themes included in the latest exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery, Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster, is the Dutch encounter with Australia in the 17th century. The Dutch are viewed as having added the coastline of Australia to the world’s map through their landings on the continent from 1606 until 1644 and their subsequent issuing of printed maps. For example, the world map reissued by Daniel Stopendael shows New Holland’s position on the globe, yet its outline is incomplete and inaccurate and there was and is still much to learn about its bounds and character.

It was the lucrative spice trade that brought the Dutch to establish their (VOC) trading port in Batavia (now Jakarta) and on to Australia, sometimes purposefully, other times by fateful accident. Early landings encountered inhospitable shores and then in 1629 the ship Batavia lost course and was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia. The astounding mutiny and massacre that transpired amongst the survivors is a grisly chapter of Australian history. [1.] Melchisédech Thévenot’s book, Relations de divers voyages curieux … (Account of diverse and curious voyages) (1663-1672), compiles many travel stories, including the harrowing shipwreck of Batavia. It also features an important map of New Holland showing its outline as it was understood in 1644. Sections of this coastline, which incorporates Tasmania and New Zealand, were charted by Abel Tasman (1603-1659) during two separate voyages in 1642 and 1644. This map was published in three states (versions) and the Baillieu’s copy has the addition of a wind rose at right. [2.] As Martin Woods notes in the exhibition catalogue, this map has dual Dutch and French labels, with the unexplored section headed Terra Australis suggesting the way forward for French navigational ambitions. [3.] Yet to the French of the 17th century the South Land was also ‘Gonneville Land’, a utopia of gold.

Tasman was commissioned by Anthony Van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, to explore the Great South Land. The combination of Van Diemen’s death in 1645, savage coasts and unpromising trade prospects saw the Dutch abandon New Holland, and it was not until the 18th century that exploration to the South Land was again continued by the English and the French. Thévenot’s book was a model which inspired Enlightenment writers who followed in the 18th century.

The set of Dutch books De mensch, zoo als hij voorkomt op den bekenden aardbol (Man as he appears on the familiar globe) (1802) is an example produced from Enlightenment ideals. It brings together information from many published sources, with order and classification. It is a book of anthropological geography based on voyages of exploration, locating its subjects in the paradigm of the Noble Savage. Its illustrator Jacques Kuyper (1761–1808) was a director of Amsterdam’s drawing academy and his artistic style was Neoclassical, a hallmark of the Enlightenment. The images are regarded by scholars as derivative to the voyages as they were made in response to them rather than from direct experience, nevertheless they offer rich waters for researchers, particularly so as the Baillieu Library holds the majority of the preparatory drawings for the book, in which can be seen additional information such as inscriptions and differences between the planned images and the printed versions.

The image Niew-Hollanders [3.] is featured in volume three; this text and image draws heavily from the published accounts of Cook and Sydney Parkinson. The position of the image in the third volume is rather unusual as the preceding volume contains South Sea Islanders and includes New Zealanders and Van Diemen Landers (Tasmanians). A result is that Tasmania and mainland Australia have been separated; additionally New Hollanders have been grouped with first-nation peoples of North America including such distant locales as Alaska. It calls to mind those early Dutch experiences with the South Land and the three distinct landmasses and peoples they briefly encountered; at that moment in history Europeans could not have had a well-developed understanding of the relationships and individual complexities of these lands and peoples.

Australia straddles two oceans: the Indian and the Pacific. Each of these regions has quite distinctive environments and customs. So, does it belong with the islands of the East Indies, or the Pacific, or, as it has sometimes been perceived, as an extension of the Americas? While Australia’s coastlines became more defined, its identity is not so readily classified and its position on the globe more than merely its longitude and latitude. For its Indigenous people, and for different citizens of the world, Australia each has different meaning.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)

References and further reading

[1.] See the full account in Mike Dash, Batavia’s graveyard, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002
[2.] Robert Clancy, The mapping of Terra Australis, Macquarie Park, N.S.W.: Universal Press, 1995 p. 82
[3.] Martin Woods, ‘New Holland dreams and misgivings’ in Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster, University of Melbourne, 2017, p. 28
[4.] The much needed conservation of this drawing was funded by Miegunyah.

Delius Buys a Gauguin

Delius, Jelka (1868-1935), Nevermore, Object 1, painting,(n.d),Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne.

Here at the Grainger Museum we have a copy of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore currently on show painted by Jelka Delius (nee Rosen), the wife of composer Frederick Delius. Following my curiosity at the provenance of this painting, I conducted a quick Google search and discovered an article that opened the horizon for just how peculiar this painting is. In his article, “Delius Buys A Gauguin” Stephen J. Bury, Chief Librarian at the Frick Collection in New York, succinctly outlines the narrative of a succession of paintings that reproduce Gauguin’s Nevermore and their place in the social life of Frederick and Jelka Delius. In doing so, Bury asks two questions that I was happy to realise that the Grainger Museum’s collection can help to resolve. After emailing Bury and providing him with some more details—although still partially incomplete—I decided to write some additional comments here.

In the portion of the article below, Bury gives the account of his inquiry into a painting closely related to Nevermore; a late-impressionist portrait of Frederick Delius believed to be painted by Jelka Delius. The portrait that Bury recalled from memory pictures Nevermore (or a copy) as a part of its domestic mise-en-scene—it frames Delius’ right shoulder, creating an oblique harmony of perspectives that gives the slight impression that Nevermore could be a window to a distant room; it aligns Pahura—Gauguin’s vahiné (Tahitian wife) as languidly resting within the nape of Delius’ neck (in an ease possibly in contest with the moody tension of Gauguin’s original). As discovered by Bury, the painting that he recalled was not in-fact the original presumed to be painted by Jelka, but a reproduction now held in the public collection of the United Kingdom. In his words:

“So it’s 1948 copy after Jelka Rosen, by Alexander Akerbladh (1886–1958). Jelka Rosen studied art from 1892 at the Académie Colarossi. I looked her up in the Library’s Paris Salons catalogues, where she appears in the 1894 and 1895 volume:  in 1894 she is described as a pupil of Gustave Courtois, with a contact address at Rue Campagne-Premiere, 9 and exhibiting (at?what?) Au bord de l’eau; in 1895 she has the address, Avenue du Maine, 23 and she exhibited De grand matin and En plein été. Both addresses were in Montparnasse, a fertile meeting ground of artists and musicians. Delius and Rosen met at a dinner party on January 16, 1896, and a few years later they moved to Grez-sur-Loing, and married in September 1903.”[1]

My next question was whether in the background of the Delius portrait it was an actual Gauguin or a copy — perhaps, by Jelka. The painting is easily identifiable as Nevermore (1897), which is in the Courtauld Collection in London. The online catalogue reveals that, indeed, Delius was the first owner. I could also have found this out using the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive provenance information that sits alongside the photographs of the painting, or the 1954 printed Courtauld Collection catalogue by Douglas Cooper. The printed catalogue gives more details than the online one on how Delius might have become interested in Gauguin’s work. Delius knew the composer William Molard, who had lived in the same house as Gauguin, Rue Vercingéterix, 4, 1893–94 and Gauguin had painted a portrait of Molard (it’s on the back of a self-portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, dated 1893–94). And Gauguin was involved with Molard’s adolescent stepdaughter, Judith Gérard/Molard, the daughter of Ida Ericson, the Swedish sculptress. So Delius would have definitely have met Gauguin.

Nevermore was bought by Delius for 500 Francs (another 50 was spent on a frame) from Gauguin’s friend, correspondent and dealer, the painter Daniel de Monfreid (1856–1929) in 1898. In a letter dated 12 January 1899 from Papeete, Gauguin wrote to de Monfreid that he had done well to sell the painting to Delius: “Do you recall that you reproached me for giving this painting a title: don’t you believe that this title Nevermore was the reason for the purchase…Maybe!…I’m delighted Delius is the owner, meaning that it’s a purchase not for speculation and resale, but for pleasure…” [my translation from Lettres de Gauguin a Daniel Monfreid (Paris, 1950)]

It hung in Delius’ music room in Grez-sur-Loing, where we see it in the Rosen/Akerbladh portrait. The subsequent history is uncertain: the catalogue to the 1906 Gauguin section of the Salon d’Automne has Delius as the lender. This was the show that both Picasso and Matisse saw. It was probably sold during financial problems that plagued Delius in the 1910s. It went through the hands of three dealers – Alfred Wolff (Munich), Alex Reid (Glasgow) and Agnew (London and Manchester) before entering Herbert Coleman’s collection in Manchester. It was in Samuel Courtauld’s Collection by 1926, becoming part of the Courtauld Gift in 1932.

What effect Nevermore, with its overtones of Edgar Allan Poe, had on the work of Delius during the period he owned it is a tantalizing subject to explore. Meanwhile I need to track down where the original Jelka Rosen portrait is.

To respond to Bury’s Questions: firstly, here at the Grainger museum we have the original portrait Frederick Delius (1925) that was subsequently reproduced by Akerbladh, and as mentioned, we also have the copy of Gauguin’s Nevermore (Nevermore, no date) painted by Jelka Delius. Knowing that Jelka did indeed paint her reproduction of Nevermore, we can propose that the Nevermore pictured in the background of the Delius portrait may well be the copy that Bury guessed to be painted by Jelka, making it dubious to whether the portrait can be considered stable evidence the Delius’ ownership of Nevermore at the time of the portrait. To speculate on the effect of Nevermore on Delius—and therefore its continued presence in these paintings—we might look to Grainger’s account:

“Delius had sold the original painting [Nevermore] in 1898… We should remember how many of Delius’s greatest creations were inspired by thoughts of primitive nature:… It was this urge to express in art the mood of virgin nature, the spirit of wild races, that drew Delius and me so closely together.”

Such remarks are indicative of Grainger’s tone and style—an autodidact abundant with candour. They denote his ideal for an art comparative with nature (a Romantic Modernism, sketchily reminiscent of Rousseau), coexistent with a flimsy theory of racial identity not uncommon in certain intellectual circles at the time. One presumes that the appearance of Pahura in all of these paintings serve an iconographic purpose, expressing the quasi-Romantic ideals shared by these two composers. Whether or not we argue that Gauguin’s relationship to Tahitian culture was authentic, the reception of the painting by Grainger and Delius is indicative of the type of fetishism du jour for Western modernists (and very much in accord with Grainger’s broader interests). Without going into the deeper analysis needed for this theme, I might add that engaging with these subjects is very much a part of the complexities faced when engaging Grainger’s collection today. Some may have the reservation that this is in contest with Grainger’s aims for the museum, yet one duty of the collection is to be interpreted and to help bring history into dialogue with the present. This is the challenge that anachronism presents to the relevance of any museum.

By looking to Percy Grainger’s aims for his museum[2, it is certain that there is a desire to build an educational institution for students of music and composition expressly on his own terms. In the service of this cause, he collected items in aid of rewriting and revaluing the history of the Western tradition in an idiosyncratic and frankly personal manner; paintings such as Nevermore and the portrait of Delius, clothing, correspondence, instruments, photographs, and all nature of ephemera illustrate and support Grainger’s ideas about history. More interestingly, in an example rare for any museum, Grainger originally wrote, composed, and built all of the information panels by hand. The institutional acknowledgement of mentors and friends provide much of the contour for Grainger’s narration of history, and it is within these crafted accounts that Grainger wished to canonise Frederick Delius. Adjacent to this, we might observe that part of the cadence of autobiography is bias such as this, and although the ethics of Grainger’s history is by no means sound by most standards, the earnestness of his example provides a clear image of how museums institute value on historical narratives, social relations, and certain effects of private property. As a most basic fact, these paintings give shape to the outward appearance of an amicable relationship between the Delius and Grainger families, now public, historical, institutionalised and in the broadest sense of the term, preserved. But they have more to say than biography, and this is where we must depart on our own interpretations.

[1] Bury S. Delius Buys A Gauguin. Chief Librarian’s Blog, The Frick Collection. Retrieved from

[2] For instance, in these aims Grainger explicitly references the privileging of his social circle:

“I have tried in this Museum to trace as best I can the aesthetic indebtedness of composers to each other (the borrowing of musical themes or novel compositional techniques) and to the culturizing influence of parents, relatives, wives, husbands and friends (for instance, Cyril Scott’s inspiring encouragement of several British composers of his generation; Jelka Delius’s contributions to her husband’s artistic life; Balfour Gardiner’s championship of 20th century British music).”

Grainger Museum display legend: The aims of the Grainger Museum


Nicholas Tammens,

Client Services Officer

Grainger Museum

Unexpected romance in the Baillieu Library: Dulcie Hollyock, librarian by day, writer of love stories by night

Next time you attend one of the talks or displays regularly hosted in the Dulcie Hollyock Room in the University of Melbourne Library, you may be intrigued to muse upon an unexpected link to the world of romance.

This conference room, located on the ground floor of the Baillieu Library, is named in honour of admired librarian, educator and writer, Dulcie Iona Hollyock (an English surname with unusual spelling, historically associated with Leicestershire).

Dulcie Hollyock (1914-2004)

Born in Essendon in June 1914, Hollyock graduated from the University of Melbourne in the 1940s with degrees in arts and education.  After quickly advancing within the library profession, she combined a long and respected career as Chief Librarian of the Victorian Teaching Training Colleges (1950-1974) with a natural flair for writing.

Hollyock’s compact but impressive body of published work ranged over several genres – education, history and fiction – her talents receiving recognition as winner of the Society of Women Writers’ annual short story prize in 1972.  Her stories and articles – such as ‘Fish at Fergus’s’, ‘Cathy and Lizzie’, ‘Flight’ and ‘Mary Curley at Sullivan Bay’ – appeared in a variety of periodicals, including the The Australian newspaper, popular weekly women’s magazine, New Idea, and the Society of Women Writers’ occasional anthology, Ink.

A writer of Gothic romance

Perhaps the  pinnacle of Hollyock’s writing success was attained in her 70s, when two novels – both set in 19th century Ireland – were published in the Harlequin Books Gothic Romance series.

The first, An innocent madness (issued July 1984) tells the story of the inexperienced Charlotte Bolton who arrives at the ancient manor of the Chivers family to marry the heir, Richard.  She is startled to find that he protests no knowledge of the betrothal, and that their courtship is hindered by the ethereally beautiful apparition, Nell Dillon.

This tale of impeded love was followed in the next year by Double masquerade (issued September 1985).  This time Hollyock’s heroine is Hannah, foster daughter of a poor family who are evicted from their land during the Irish Famine.  The girl seems to be rescued from her deprived situation by the wealthy Richard Ralston, who installs her in his romantically named Gothic mansion, Balaleigh.  The tantalising secret to their fate is contained within a golden locket which had been given to Hannah by her birth mother long before.

It is interesting to reflect on St Valentine’s Day if it is mere coincidence that both male protagonists in Hollyock’s novels are named Richard, and whether the name had an association with Hollyock’s own family, or perhaps an admired acquaintance.  Such musings are, however, speculative, and to find out whether the Richards in her stories prove dastardly or honourable, you will need to devour the suspenseful endings in the Baillieu Library.  The books can be reserved for viewing in the Reading Room by placing an order via the Library catalogue, though you may need to be quick to be at the head of the queue!

The University Library’s Romantic Fiction Collection

Should your romantic appetite be whetted by Dulcie Hollyock’s imaginative legacy, there are some 3,000 further titles to choose from in the Baillieu’s Romance Fiction Collection.  Read more about these stories by Australian, New Zealand and overseas writers, published by Mills & Boon, Silhouette and other specialist publishing houses in our explanatory guide.

Who would have supposed that so much romance was waiting to be found in the Baillieu Library!

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Bibliography & further reading

‘Dulcie Hollyock’ in Austlit: the Australian literature resource

Flesch, Juliet (compiler).  Love brought to book: a bio-bibliography of 20th-century Australian romance novels.  Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 1995.

Hollyock, Dulcie.  Double masquerade.   Toronto : Harlequin Books, 1985.

Hollyock, Dulcie.  An innocent madness.  Toronto; New York: Harlequin Books, 1984.

Lindsay, Hilarie (editor).  Ink no. 2: 50th anniversary edition.  Sydney: Society of Women Writers, 1977.



Flemish baroque engravings donated to the Print Collection

A group of 14 Flemish baroque engravings by Scelte Adams Bolswert (1586–1659) was gifted to the Baillieu Library Print Collection by Dr Colin Holden in 2016. Bolswert was employed by the eminent artist, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and several of these prints are after Rubens’ paintings.

The Flemish Region, or Flanders, a Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, furnished a tumultuous political and social backdrop to its flourishing baroque art of the 17th century.  Rubens was the foremost painter in Antwerp, its capital, and he relied on pupils and studio assistants to help produce his extensive and influential body of work. He was not a printmaker, but recognised the medium’s importance to his career and actively commissioned engravings after his designs. [1]

Many of Rubens exuberant subjects are biblical, such as Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1640-60). This engraving illustrates the episode in which the discontented Israelites, who were left to trudge through the lands of Edom, spoke against God and Moses. In punishment, God sent a plague of poisonous serpents to attack them, which is vividly depicted by the roiling bodies. The Israelites sought Moses’ help, who in turn received the remedy from God. Moses, seen at left with a staff, made a snake out of brass and set it on a pole: the brazen serpent. All the people that were stricken were healed by gazing upon it.

The New Testament subject, Salome Receiving the Head of St John from the Executioner (1638-59) depicts the notorious story of Herodias’ daughter Salome, holding the head of the preacher on a charger. The expressions of the figures portrayed evoke a range of emotions.

Pan, Playing the Flute (1638-59) engraved after Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens, in contrast, is a mirthful scene from classical mythology. The gift included four impressions of this image, in three states. A ‘state’ in printmaking is created when a change is made to the engraving plate, for example further details are added to the inscriptions, or details in the image are adjusted. Students studying prints will benefit from seeing, in these prints, the execution of different states.

Also after Jordaens, The family concert (1630-59) includes another title in the cartouche at the top of the image which translates: ‘As the old sing, so the young pipe.’ This and other moralising Dutch sayings and proverbs were popular in the 17th century as this engraving illustrates. Likewise the compositional motif of a family gathered around a table appears in several works of art of this period. The engaging dog seen at left of the image is intent not on the nourishing mores offered by the picture, but instead longs to devour the feast!

The late Dr Colin Holden (1951-2016) was a great friend of the Print Collection. He was print scholar, collector and a senior fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1]. Art Gallery of South Australia, The age of Rubens & Rembrandt: Old Master prints from the Art Gallery of South Australia: Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Julie Robinson, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1993, p. 33

A not-so-familiar Father Christmas: A Merry Christmas Polka from 1847

Library catalogue permalink:

Looking at Christmas music in the Rare Music collection from Victorian-era Britain, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar Father Christmas-figure—a grinning giant—at the head of a very worn copy of the sheet music of a Merry Christmas Polka from 1847. I had expected to find a Santa in a fur-edged coat and hat, with a stout pair of boots and, perhaps, a fir tree over one shoulder; what I found (here rendered in green for festive effect!) was rather different.

Just ten years into Queen Victoria’s reign is a little soon for that particular Santa to be ubiquitous. After some general reading, I discovered that other illustrators depicting Father Christmas in the 1840s use graphic elements similar to those employed by the illustrator for this piece of festive sheet music, Alfred Ashley (1820-1897). 1) The holly wreath (instead of the hat) was common then as was the raised goblet. And Ashley’s Santa has “companions” from folklore, something not unknown in the 1840s. Here a goblin-like figure pulls himself over the top of the chair and what must surely be a leprechaun dances on his outstretched hand. The element of fantasy is something often found in Victorian-era illustration in, for example, the well-established genre of fairy painting. 2) Ashley’s Father Christmas is remarkably plainly dressed, in a non-descript smock, barelegged and with no apparent footwear, but he is toasting himself by a roaring fire: a yule log perhaps? The suspended mistletoe and profusion of food and drink (here just visible on the table) are other Christmas traditions in the illustration that have stood the test of time.

Engraved illustrations were increasingly common on sheet music in the 1840s and no doubt a significant incentive to purchase. Pianos, including compact cottage (upright) pianos for home use, were luxury goods, but were owned by the well-heeled middle and upper classes in increasing numbers. 3) It is these people—particular the fashionably dressed family in the foreground—who are depicted in the illustration, dancing at home, as was then a custom. And this polka, a couples dance distinguished by a hopping step, coincides with the early years of “polkamania” in Britain. 4) With its regular repeated 8 bar phrases, this is definitely a polka written for dancing rather than listening to. To hear the distinctive polka rhythm, and to get a sense of what these simple piano dances written for domestic use were like, please listen to short excerpts from the Merry Christmas Polka Finale below—the “big finish” is a very clear signal to the dancers that the music, and the dance, is nearing its end.


With best wishes for the Festive Season from all at Special Collections.

Jennifer Hill, Rare Music Curator

  1. This is no. 113 of the Musical Bouquet series; the composer is not named. The publisher, active from 1845 to 1917, went on to issue at least 8106 numbers, producing one, then two per week. The website  is an excellent source of information and devotes a page to Alfred Ashley, with many examples of his work.
  2. David Wootton, The illustrators: the British art of illustration, 1800-1999 (London: Chris Beetles, 1999), p. 21-28.
  3. Derek Scott, The singing bourgeois: songs of the Victorian drawing room and parlour (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989), p. 45-49, 54.
  4. See Gracian Černušák, Andrew Lamb and John Tyrrell, “Polka” in Grove Music Online.

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