Hello, readers! Perhaps I should take a moment to say that I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth. You see, my abrupt and painfully long (well, at least for me) absence was because I’ve been working on my master’s thesis. I thought that a hiatus from blogging would help me to focus more on my thesis work…but I was wrong. I’m a procrastinator no matter what. So, I figure I’ll stop fooling myself and start writing again about what I love, when time permits. I should mention that just because I took a break from blogging, I certainly haven’t stopped collecting!
Whew. Back in the saddle again. Where to start…
Well, today I smashed my foot. I can’t even explain how, as it was a strange accident. I’m clumsy. These things happen often. And what better way to heal than with retail therapy? (Yeah, I know. Typical girl.) Even so, I realized it would have been silly to buy a pair of shoes with a foot injury. That’s why I decided to pick up two leather-bound volumes from 1782.
These volumes of Biographia Dramatica: or, A Companion to the Playhouse were written by David Erskine Baker, Esq. and printed in London for Messrs. Rivingtons as a continuation of the 1764-82 set. The books claim to contain “Historical and Critical Memoirs, and Original Anecdotes, of British and Irish Dramatic Writers, from the Commencement of our Theatrical Exhibitions; amongst whom are some of the most celebrated Actors,” also “An Alphabetical Account of their Works, the Dates when printed, and occasional Observations on their Merits.” As if that wasn’t enough, these books also present “An Introductory View of the Rise and Progress of the British Stage.”
If you know me, you know that I love to buy books for more than their readable content. Let’s talk about the fabulous spines on these volumes! I absolutely love the classical references: the draped urns festooned with foliate garlands (olive, perhaps?) and the triglyphs and metopes. So good.
I was also intrigued by the signature inside the front cover of each volume. “J.W. Willett, Merly House.” A perfect lead for further investigation.
Merly House, or as it is spelled today, Merley House, is located in Merley, Wimbourne, Dorset, England. The property originally belonged to the Lords of Canford. Ralph Willett, a West India proprietor, bought the estate in 1751 and built the Georgian mansion that currently sits on the property. Willett had a massive collection of books and art. By 1772, his collection had outgrown the house and prompted the construction of two additions. To read more about the history of Merley House, check out the estate’s website.
So who was J.W. Willett?
John Willett Willett (1745-1815) was not the son of Ralph Willett. Rather, Ralph was the first cousin of John’s mother. According to The History of Parliament, Ralph adopted John as an infant. While John had the potential to become a lawyer, he opted instead to pursue antiquarianism. It seems that John gained control of Merley House in 1795. He then auctioned Ralph’s books and paintings and tore down the home’s additions in the early 1800s. Based on this story, one can assume that my books were some of those auctioned.
Then, how did my books end up in the United States?
Beneath the Willett signature inside the front cover is an early twentieth-century label that reads “The Arthur H. Clark Company. Publishers and Booksellers, Importers of Old & Rare Books. Caxton Building, Cleveland, Ohio.”
The Arthur H. Clark Company was founded by Arthur H. Clark, an Englishman who came to the United States to apprentice publishers. After a stint in Chicago, Clark moved to Cleveland in 1892 and managed rare books for the Burrows Brothers. He then established his own company in 1902, which relocated to Glendale, California in 1930 and still exists today.
Thanks for reading, everyone. It feels good to be back!