52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings: Week 20

Friday 28 October 2011

Books donated to St Andrews by Thomas Hollis

The Hollis Collection, on the shelf in the vault.

In the 1760’s, St Andrews received a series of small but important donations from one of the great English benefactors to 18th century libraries: Thomas Hollis (1720-1774). Hollis came from a wealthy background to begin with, and by the age of eighteen, having inherited large sums of money from his uncle, grandfather and father, he had come into a large fortune. In 1740 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and was also a member of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He was also a close friend and gave numerous commissions to Giovanni Cipriani and Giovanni Canal (‘Canaletto’).

A standard anonymous gift inscription by Thomas Hollis, St Andrews copy at Hol PE1102.W2 pictured.

Hollis was an active citizen, a patriotic Englishman and styled himself as “a lover of liberty and citizen of the world”.  By the 1750’s he began to focus his attention on a series of benefactions, described here in the ODNB:

“Convinced of the decadence of his own times but hopeful for the future, Hollis’s principal contribution to public service was the protection and advancement of English liberty by circulating appropriate books on government, for he argued that ‘if government goes right, all goes right’ (Robbins, ‘Library’, 8). From 1754 onwards he reprinted and distributed literature from the seventeenth-century republican canon, thus keeping the cause of parliamentary reform alive during a difficult period. Among the works were Toland’s Life of Milton, tracts by Marchmont Nedham, Henry Neville, and Philip Sidney, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government; they were elegantly bound to give them greater effect and tooled with libertarian ornaments such as the liberty cap and owl. He also designed and distributed medals based on Greek and Roman models and prints as part of his plan. Initially the tracts were directed towards libraries throughout Britain and continental Europe; later he turned his generosity to America.”

Hollis’s largest donations were to Harvard (several thousand volumes) and the City Library at Bern (421 volumes); among the other institutions he made donations to are the British Museum, Dr Williams’s library, the Bodleian Library and Milton’s college, Christ’s College, Cambridge and other libraries across Europe. Many of his books are found in other libraries in smaller quantities across the British Isles, but nearly all of the books are identifiable by their distinctive binding styles and Hollis’s inscriptions.

An example of the style of binding done by Richard Montagu for Thomas Hollis, St Andrews copy at Hol DC133.6F7 pictured.

Hollis first used Richard Montagu, a notable binder and bookseller of his time, as a binder to his works, of which St Andrews has one example (see image above). However, by 1758 he had changed to John Matthewman and equipped him with a set of 19 republican tools designed by Cipriani. These bindings are instantly recognizable by these tools and the bright red goatskin used (see image below).

Examples of the binding style and stamps used by John Matthewman for Thomas Hollis’s donated books.

The nine books that St Andrews has from Hollis’s series of donations now form the Hollis Collection, along with a few other reference works. They are a beautiful and tangible link to this era of benefaction and promotion of an English libertarian’s cause.


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