Saturday, August 6, 2011

Recovering obscured ownership inscriptions

As a book changes physical form over the course of its life (through factors such as environmental damage, the wear-and-tear of regular use, repairs, and rebinding), the evidential traces of its provenance often undergo a parallel transformation. When rebinding or repairing their books, many later owners set out to obliterate (or at least obscure) all signs of former ownership. Owners might simply cross out an earlier inscription with ink, or in more extreme cases "wash away" manuscript notes and marks chemically (as many French book collectors did in the nineteenth century). By routinely cropping pages and throwing away endpapers during rebinding/repair, book owners and binders may have improved the aesthetic qualities of their books (according to a historical sense of taste), but not without simultaneously eradicating the history of books' social lives. 

Sometimes these efforts to erase the past are reversible. Modern technology has demonstrated its ability to recover texts rendered unreadable by factors such as volcanic eruption (the Pompeii scrolls) and overlaid text (the Archimedes palimpsest). But most cases do not require academic grants, research teams, and expensive equipment to recover the writing that others have attempted to obscure. In today's post I demonstrate how a bit of ingenuity (and a good light source) can help reveal some of these hidden inscriptions and their concomitant histories of ownership. 

Michael Drayton, Poems. London: Printed by Willi[am] Stansby for John Smethwick [1630]
[12], 496 p., [1] leaf of plates ;  16 cm. (8vo). STC 7224. Later polished calf binding. 

It is evident that our copy of Michael Drayton's 1630 Poems was not only rebound and repaired at one point in its life, but that one of its former owners attempted to obscure its series of earlier, eighteenth-century ownership inscriptions. 



The most noticeable of these inscriptions comes at the very end of the volume: "Elizabeth Savage her book" (see images above). Elizabeth Savage inscribed her name many times throughout the book, but evidently a later owner was not fond of her markings.

This leaf from late in the volume bears three different eighteenth-century ownership inscriptions, all of which show signs of being partially erased. Fortunately the eraser did a poor job and we can easily read the names:

John Bywater 1733 [?]

Elizabeth Savage Her
Book Anne Downy [?] mdccxxx [1730]
Elizabeth Savage 1733

But at other points in the book Savage's inscription is faint and barely legible. 

The two inscriptions read "Elizabeth Savage," although the ink in both has significantly faded. While it is certainly true that ink inscriptions deteriorate over time (especially if exposed to too much light), considering the evidence we have of a former owner attempting to erase or obscure Elizabeth Savage's inscriptions, I think it is likely he or she also meddled with these two marks.

The most elaborate of Elizabeth Savage's inscriptions, however, are obscured to a degree that renders them illegible to the unaided eye. Two of the book's preliminary leaves (engraved title page and the table of contents) have been fortified by what appear to be new sheets of paper cut to size and glued onto the verso of each leaf.

In this image of the second repaired leaf one can make out traces of handwriting in the middle of the page as well as a complete ownership inscription at the top ("John Bywater"). While one might expect to turn the leaf over to get a better look at this faintly visible handwriting, the verso is actually blank (although handwriting is faintly legible). 

verso of contents leaf, rotated

The leaf's thickness (in addition to its handwriting traces) suggest that at some point in time (perhaps during rebinding) a later piece of paper was placed over the original as a strengthening measure. By placing a strong light source behind the leaf, we can actually read the ownership inscriptions now obscured by paper.

The now familiar inscription of "Elizabeth Savage" appears in the middle of the page, underneath "ELIZAB" written in large decorated capitals. 

An additional ownership inscription (John Lawson [?]; surname difficult to make out) is visible below Elizabeth Savage's signature (in this image, to the left of her signature).

The verso of the engraved title page leaf (also repaired with a sheet of blank paper) similarly obscures another set of eighteenth-century ownership inscriptions. 

While this leaf contains much more handwriting than the table of contents leaf, it is much more difficult to read against the background of an engraved title page. It is fairly easy to make out "Elizabeth Savage her book" in the middle of the leaf, as well as the ink "pinwheel" someone added to the reversed coat-of-arms. Unfortunately, modest camera and computer equipment makes it impossible for me to read the ms notes at the bottom of the leaf (although I am sure playing around with computer software could help reveal what these notes say). 

At first glance Elizabeth Savage seems to be just one of two or three owners who penned her name in this copy of Drayton's Poems. But upon closer inspection we know she was the most prolific inscriber of the book's documented owners, a fact that may have lead a later (male?) owner to begin systematically removing her manuscript marks. Since this removal was hardly systematic and only minimally effective, it is possible to recover this particular book's handwritten evidence of provenance, and thereby restore Elizabeth Savage's rightful place in the book's social history.

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