Tuesday, February 28th, 2017...10:00 am

“A Harbinger of Those Peaceful Times to Come”: A Gift from the People of Great Britain

Jump to Comments

houghton75The brief ceremony that marked the opening of Houghton Library on 28 February 1942 took place only months after the United States had entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Professor Charles K. Webster of the University of London was one of three speakers along with Harvard University President James Conant and donor Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.  Webster had been Professor of History at Harvard from 1928 until 1932 when he became Stevenson Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, but was there to represent the British Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency The Rt. Hon. Viscount Halifax.  At this occasion an incunable copy of John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus, a treatise on political and ethical philosophy including a major exploration of the responsibilities of rulers and their people, was presented to Harvard University on behalf of the people of Great Britain.  This edition was printed in Brussels between 1479 and 1481.  Webster alluded in his remarks to the scholarship of the great Harvard professor Charles Homer Haskins and his work on the twelfth-century renaissance during which John of Salisbury wrote his treatise and the statement by Halifax read by Webster concluded on the appropriateness of this gift at this time.  John of Salisbury’s ideal ruler:

is or should be subject of a higher law than any made on earth.  This central doctrine is one which has not lost its appeal for American and Englishmen today, for they and their allies are fighting side by side for just one principle – the principle that might cannot go unhampered either by Christian morality or even by man-made law.  There is then a fitness in the choice of this celebrated book as a gift to Harvard University from the people of Great Britain.

inc_9337The book presented (Walsh 3931; ISTC ij00425000), now Inc 9337, contains the book plates of two distinguished English book collectors, who owned the volume before it entered Houghton Library.  Charles Butler (1821-1910), lived in London, but kept his library at Warren Wood in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.  It was included in the sale of his library at Sotheby’s, London, on 5 April 1911 as lot no. 600 and sold for £11 to the Liverpool booksellers, Henry Young and Sons.  John Charrington (1856-1939), of The Grange, Shenley, Hertfordshire was a coal merchant, but was also Honorary Keeper of Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge University and a very great benefactor of that Museum.  It was included in the sale of his library at Sotheby’s, London, on 18 December 1939, as lot no. 254 and sold for £35 to the London booksellers, E. Ph. Goldschmidt. Three years later the book was presented to Houghton. Presumably a representative for the British government bought the incunable from Goldschmidt, however the chain of ownership between 1939 and 1942 is at present unclear.

In accepting the book on behalf of Harvard, President Conant concluded:

I like to think that this gift of yours is, therefore, a harbinger of those peaceful times to come when in increasing numbers British and American scholars will literally fly back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean to share their labors and their treasures.

inc_9337_1

inc_9337_3

inc_9337_4

Bookplates from Inc 9337

For a description of Houghton Library’s opening ceremony, see Harvard University Library Notes (March 1942): 61-67, and Harvard Alumni Bulletin (February 1942): 340-342.

William P. Stoneman, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts

Leave a Reply