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John Ker


KER, JOHN, third duke of Roxburgh, distinguished by his eminent bibliographical knowledge, and his extensive and valuable collection of books, was born in Hanover Square, London, on the 23d April, 1740. He was the eldest son of Robert, the second duke, by Essex Mostyn, daughter of Sir Roger Mostyn, of Mostyn, in Kentshire, baronet. In 1755, he succeeded his father in the dukedom, to which was attached the British peerage of earl and baron Ker of Wakefield; and he appears to have soon after proceeded upon his travels on the continent. It is stated that, while in Germany, he formed an attachment to Christiana Sophia Albertina, eldest daughter of the duke of Mecklenburg Strelitz, and that their nuptials would have taken place, had not her sister Charlotte, just at that time, been espoused by the king of Great Britain. Etiquette then interfered, to prevent what would otherwise have been an equal and proper match, it being deemed improper that the elder should become the subject of the younger sister. Both parties, however, evinced the strength of their attachment, by devoting their afterlives to celibacy. It seems to have been to this event that Sir Walter Scott alludes, when he says of the duke: "Youthful misfortunes, of a kind against which neither wealth nor rank possess a talisman, cast an early shade of gloom over his prospects, and gave to one splendidly endowed with the means of enjoying society, that degree of reserved melancholy, which prefers retirement to the splendid scenes of gayety." To whatever extent George III, might be the innocent cause of his grace’s misfortune, it does not appear to have, in the least, marred a strong friendship which existed between them—"a tie of rare occurrence," Sir Walter Scott justly observes, " between prince and subject." In 1767, his grace was appointed a lord of the bed-chamber, and next year was invested with the order of the thistle. The former honour gave him a title to be much about the court; but he never farther engaged himself in a public career.

The taste which his grace imbibed to so extraordinary an extent for book-collecting, is stated by Sir Walter to have originated in an accidental circumstance. "Lord Oxford and lord Sunderland, both famous collectors of the time, dined one day at the house of the second duke of Roxburgb, when their conversation happened to turn upon the editio princeps of Boccaccio, printed at Venice in 1471, and so rare that its very existence was doubted of. The duke was himself no collector, but it happened that a copy of this very book had passed under his eye, and been offered to him for sale at a hundred guineas, then thought an immense price. It was, therefore, with complete assurance that he undertook to produce to the connoisseurs a copy of the treasure in question, and did so at the time appointed, with no small triumph. His son, then marquis of Beaumont, never forgot the little scene upon this occasion, and used to ascribe to it the strong passion which he ever afterwards felt for rare books and editions, and which rendered him one of the most assiduous and judicious collectors that ever formed a sumptuous library."

There can be no doubt, at the same time, that the duke chanced to possess that perseverance of character and genuine literary taste, without which such an impulse as this must have been of no avail. "Sylvan amusements," says Sir Walter, "occupied the more active part of his time when in Scotland; and in book-collecting, while residing in London, he displayed a degree of patience which has rarely been equalled, and never excelled. It could scarcely be said, whether the duke of Roxburgh’s assiduity and eagerness were most remarkable, when he lay for hours together, though the snow was falling at the time, beside some lovely spring in the Cheviot hills, where he expected the precarious chance of shooting a wild goose, when the dawning should break; or when he toiled for hours, nay, for days, collecting and verifying his edition of the Black Acts, or Caxton’s Boke of Troy."

With the exception of singularly fortunate adventures in the procuring books, the duke’s life passed on in an almost unvaried tenor, in the pursuits just alluded to. At his seat of Fleurs in Scotland, where he spent but a small portion of his time, he had a proportionately small library; but at his house in St James’s Square, London, where he chiefly resided, he, in time, amassed the most valuable private library in the country. In 1796, he was appointed groom of the stable, and initiated a privy councillor, and in 1801 was honoured with the garter, which he was permitted to bear along with the thistle, a mark of honour conferred on no other subject since 1712, when the duke of Hamilton had the same distinction from queen Anne. [No man could have borne these honours with more grace than the duke of Roxburgh whose "lofty presence and felicitous address," according to Sir Walter Scott, "recalled the ideas of a court in which lord Chesterfield might have acted as master of the ceremonies."]For upwards of forty years, he continued his book-collecting habits without intermission, being much aided during a great part of the time by Mr G. Nichol, bookseller to the king, whose services towards the excellent library collected by George III., and afterwards given by George IV. to the nation, were also very eminent. At length, on the 19th of March, 1804, the duke died of inflammation in the liver, at his house in London, in the 64th year of his age. He was buried at Bowden, near Melrose.

His library, at his death, consisted of upwards of ten thousand distinct articles, many of them of the greatest rarity and of high value, though it was understood that in many cases he had purchased them at comparatively low prices. It would be vain to pretend that his grace had made or could make a good use of such a vast mass of literature, much of it of an obsolete kind; yet, neither can there be any doubt that he read much of what he purchased, and seemed, upon the whole, to aim rather at gratifying an innate taste for letters, and a devout and worshipful regard for their brightest ornaments, than either for the pride of possessing so many curiosities, or the usual antiquarian appreciation of minute peculiarities in the externe of books.

Early English literature and the Table Ronde had been the chief objects of his research. Of the former he possessed not only the rarest, but, in point of condition, the most beautiful specimens in existence. He idolized the talents of Shakspeare and Cervantes, and collected every thing that could illustrate their works. Fifteen different editions of Shakspeare’s complete works, with seventy-five separate plays in different editions, and fourteen distinct works respecting this great dramatic author, are to be found in the catalogue. In the poetical department of early English literature, he had a great collection; in which the most curious article was a very large assortment of ancient ballads and fugitive pieces of poetry in three volumes folio, which had been first formed for the Library of the earl of Oxford, afterwards enlarged by major Pearson and Mr Isaac Reid, then increased to a great extent by the duke himself, and which brought, at the sale, no less than four hundred and seventy-seven pounds, fifteen shillings.

The duke had also collected many ancient manuscripts, some of them splendidly illuminated; and it is mentioned, that he read these with great facility, as was testified by various remarks which he wrote upon them with his own hand. He had the largest and finest collection of the books printed by Caxton, in England. At his death he was in full pursuit of the English dramatic authors; and when the large collection he possessed is taken into account, along with the comparative briefness of the time during which he had directed his attention this way, his industry seems prodigious. He had an uncommon quantity of books and tracts relative to criminals, detections of witches, and other impostors. Mr Nichol, in the preface to the catalogue, says, "he had a particular pleasure in exercising those discriminating powers which he so eminently possessed, in tracing out the images by which the perverted ingenuity of the human mind often attempts to impose upon the credulity of its fellow creatures."

This splendid library was, after a long and distressing delay from litigation, brought to sale, in May, 1812; an event which may be said to have created more sensation than any other connected with literature during the present century—the disclosure of the Waverley secret alone excepted. Mr Dibdin, in his Bibliographical Decameron, has given an account of the proceedings, under the metaphorical semblance of a battle among the bibliomaniacs. He calls it THE ROXBURGR FIGHT; and to this record we must be indebted for the account of a transaction which it would be improper to overlook in this memoir.

"It would seem," says this facetious writer, "as if the year of our Lord 1811, was destined, in the annals of the book auctions, to be calm and quiescent, as a prelude and contrast to the tremendous explosion or contest which, in the succeeding year, was to rend asunder the bibliomaniacal elements. It is well known that Mr George Nichol had long prepared the catalogue of that extraordinary collection; and a sort of avant-courier or picquet guard preceded the march of the whole army, in the shape of a preface, privately circulated among the friends of the author. The publication of a certain work, ycleped the Bibliomania, had also probably stirred up the metal and hardened the sinews of the contending book-knights. At length the hour of battle arrived. * * * For two-and-forty successive days—with the exception only of Sundays—was the voice and hammer of Mr Evans heard, with equal efficacy, in the dining-room of the late duke, which had been appropriated to the vendition of the books; and within that same space (some thirty-five feet by twenty,) were such deeds of valour performed, and such feats of book-heroism achieved, as had never been previously beheld: and of which the like will probably never be seen again. The shouts of the victors and the groans of the vanquished, stunned and appalled you as you entered. The throng and press, both of idle spectators and determined bidders, was unprecedented. A sprinkling of Caxtons and De Wordes marked the first day; and these were obtained at high, but comparatively with the subsequent sums given, moderate prices. Theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, and philology, chiefly marked the earlier days of this tremendous contest: and occasionally, during these days, there was much stirring up of courage, and many hard and heavy blows were interchanged; and the combatants may be said to have completely wallowed themselves in the conflict. At length came poetry, Latin, Italian, and French; a steady fight yet continued to be fought: victory seemed to hang in doubtful scales—sometimes on the one, sometimes on the other side of Mr Evans—who preserved throughout, (as it was his bounden duty to preserve,) a uniform, impartial, and steady course; and who may be said, on that occasion, if not to have ‘rode the whirlwind,’ at least to have ‘directed the storm.’ At length came ENGLISH POETRY!! and with that came the tug and trial of war: Greek met Greek: in other words, grandee was opposed to grandee; and the indomitable Atticus was compelled to retire, stunned by the repeated blows upon his helmet. The lance dropped from his hand, and a swimming darkness occasionally skimmed his view—for on that day, the Waterloo among book-battles, many a knight came far and wide from his retirement, and many an unfledged combatant left his father’s castle to partake of the glory of such a contest. Among these knights from a ‘far countree’ no one shot his arrows with a more deadly effect than Astiachus! But it was reserved for Romulus to reap the greatest victories in that poetic contest! He fought with a choice body-guard; and the combatants seemed amazed at the perseverance and energy with which that body-guard dealt their death-blows around them!

"Dramatic Poetry followed; what might be styled rare and early pieces connected with our ancient poetry; but the combat now took a more tranquil turn: as after ‘a smart brush’ for an early Shakspeare or two, Atticus and Coriolanus, with a few well known dramatic aspirants, obtained almost unmolested possession of the field.

"At this period, to keep up our important metaphor, the great Roxburgh day of battle had been somewhere half gone through, or decided. There was no disposition, however, on either side to relax from former efforts; when (prepare for something terrific!) the Romance: made their appearance; and just at this crisis it was that more blood was spilt, and more ferocity exhibited, than had ever been previously witnessed."

We interrupt Mr Dibdin to mention, that the great blow of the day was struck for that volume which has been already alluded to, as purchased by the duke’s father for a hundred guineas,--a volume of singular value, which Mr Nichol very properly intitles the most notorious in existence—the Decameron of Boccaccio, printed (folio) by Christopher Valdarfer at Venice in 1471, and supposed to be quite unique. "Mr Nichol, in his avant-courier of a preface," thus writes Mr Dibdin in a note, "had not a little provoked the bibliomaniacal appetites of his readers: telling them that ‘in the class of Italian poets and novelists was the first edition of Il Decamerone di Boccaccio, 1471. This was certainly one of the scarcest, if not the very scarcest book, that existed. It has now for upwards of 300 years preserved its uniquity, if that term be allowable.’ It was also previously known that this very book had been a sort of bone of contention among the collectors in the reign of the two first Georges. Lord Sunderland had seen it, and lord Oxford had cast a longing eye thereupon; but it was reserved for an ancestor of the duke of Roxburgh to secure it—for the gallant price of 100 guineas! This purchase took place before the year 1740. * * I have a perfect recollection of this notorious volume, while in the library of the late duke. It had a faded yellow morocco binding, and was a sound rather than a fine copy. The expectations formed of the probable price for which it would be sold were excessive; yet not so excessive as the price itself turned out to be. The marked champions were pretty well known beforehand to be the earl Spencer, the marquis of Blandford (now duke of Marlborough), and the duke of Devonshire. Such a rencontre, such a ‘shock of fight,’ naturally begot uncommon curiosity. My friends, Sir Egerton Bridges, Mr Lang, and Mr G. H. Freeling, did me the kindness to breakfast with me on the morning of the sale—and upon the conclusion of the repast, Sir Egerton’s carriage conveyed us from Kensington to St James’s Square.

--The morning lowered
And heavily with clouds came on the day—
Big with the fate of . . and of . . .

In fact the rain fell in torrents, as we lighted from the carriage and rushed with a sort of impetuosity to gain seats to view the contest. The room was crowded to excess; and a sudden darkness which came across gave rather an additional interest to the scene. At length the moment of sale arrived. Evans prefaced the putting up of the article by an appropriate oration, in which he expatiated upon its excessive rarity, and concluded by informing the company of the regret and even ‘anguish of heart’ expressed by Mr Van Praet [librarian to the emperor Napoleon] that such a treasure was not to be found in the imperial collection at Paris. Silence followed the address of Mr Evans. On his right hand, leaning against the wall, stood earl Spencer: a little lower down, and standing at right angles with his lordship, appeared the marquis of Blandford. Lord Althorp stood a little backward to the right of his father, earl Spencer. Such was ‘the ground taken up’ by the adverse hosts. The honour of firing the first shot was due to a gentleman of Shropshire, unused to this species of warfare, and who seemed to recoil from the reverberation of the report himself had made!—‘One hundred guineas,’ he exclaimed. Again a pause ensued; but anon the biddings rose rapidly to 500 guineas. Hitherto, however, it was evident that the firing was but masked and desultory. At length all random shots ceased; and the champions before named stood gallantly up to each other, resolving not to flinch from a trial of their respective strengths.

‘A thousand guineas’ were bid by earl Spencer--to which the marquis added ‘ten.’ You might have heard a pin drop. All eyes were turned—all breathing well nigh stopped--every sword was put home within its scabbard—and not a piece of steel was seen to move or to glitter, except that which each of these champions brandished in his valorous hand. See, see!--they parry, they lunge, they bet: yet their strength is undiminished, and no thought of yielding is entertained by either. Two thousand pounds are offered by the marquis. Then it was that earl Spencer, as a prudent general, began to think of a useless effusion of blood and expenditure of ammunition—seeing that his adversary was as resolute and ‘fresh’ as at the onset. For a quarter of a minute he paused: when my lord Althorp advanced one step forward, as if to supply his father with another spear for the purpose of renewing the contest. His countenance was marked by a fixed determination to gain the prize--if prudence, in its most commanding form, and with a frown of unusual intensity of expression, had not bade him desist. The father and son for a few seconds converse apart; and the biddings are resumed. ‘Two thousand two hundred and fifty pounds’ said lord Spencer! The spectators were now absolutely electrified. The marquis quietly adds his usual ‘ten,’ * * and there is an end of the contest. Mr Evans, ere his hammer fell made a due pause—and indeed, as if by something preternatural, the ebony instrument itself seemed to be charmed or suspended ‘in the mid air.’ However, at length, down dropped the hammer. * * The spectators," continues Mr Dibdin in his text, "stood aghast! and the sound of Mr Evans’ prostrate sceptre of dominion reached, and resounded from, the utmost shores of Italy. The echo of that fallen hammer was heard in the libraries of Rome, of Milan, and St Mark. Boccaccio himself started from his slumber of some five hundred years; and Mr Van Praet rushed, but rushed in vain, amidst the royal book-treasures at Paris to see if a copy of the said Valdarfer Boccaccio could there be found! The price electrified the bystanders, and astounded the public! [The marquis’s triumph was marked by a plaudit of hands, and presently after he offered his hand to lord Spencer, saying, "We are good friends still!" His lordship replied, "Perfectly, indeed I am obliged to you." "So am I to you," said the marquis; "so the obligation is mutual." He declared that it was his intention have gone as far as 5000 pounds. The noble marquis had previously possessed a copy of the same edition, wanting five leaves; "for which five leaves," lord S. remarked, "he might be said to have given 2000 pounds."]

"What boots it to recount minutely the various achievements which marked the conclusion of the Roxburgh contest, or to describe in the manner of Sterne, the melancholy devastations which followed that deathless day? The battle languished towards its termination (rather we suspect, from a failure of ammunition than of valour or spirit on the part of the combatants); but notwithstanding, there was oftentimes a disposition manifested to resume the glories of the earlier part of the day—and to show that the spirit of bibliomania was not made of poor and perishable stuff. Illustrious be the names of the book-heroes, who both conquered and fell during the tremendous conflict just described! And let it be said, that John duke of Roxburgh both deserved well of his country and the book cause."

Mr Dibdin gives many other instructive particulars respecting this sale. He mentions that the duke’s library occupied a range of apartments in the second floor of his house; and in a room adjoining, and into which the library opened, "slept and died" the illustrious collector himself. "All his migrations," says Mr Dibdin "were confined to these two rooms. When Mr Nichol showed me the very bed upon which this bibliomaniacal duke had expired, I felt--as I trust I ought to have felt, upon the occasion!" He also informs us that a gentleman who bought many articles was generally understood to be an agent of the emperor Napoleon, but at last turned out to have been a secret emissary of the duke of Devonshire. A letter which he received from Sir Walter Scott on the occasion of this sale, is too characteristic to be omitted. "The Roxburgh sale," says the author of Marmion, "sets my teeth on edge. But if I can trust mine eyes, there are now twelve masons at work on a cottage and offices at this little farm, which I purchased last year. Item, I have planted thirty acres, and am in the act of walling a garden. Item, I have a wife and four bairns crying, as our old song has it, ‘porridge ever mair.’ So, on the whole, my teeth must get off the edge, as those of the fox with the grapes in the fable. Abbotsford, by Melrose, 3rd May, 1812."

It would be improper, in a memoir of the duke of Roxburgh, to omit a circumstance so honourable to his name as the formation of the society called the "Roxburgh." "The number of noblemen and gentlemen," says Sir Walter Scott, [Quarterly Review, xiiv. 447.] "distinguished by their taste for this species of literature, who assembled there (at the sale) from day to day, and lamented or boasted the event of the competition, was unexampled; and in short the concourse of attendants terminated in the formation of a society of about thirty amateurs, having the learned and amiable earl Spencer at their head, who agreed to constitute a club, which should have for its object of union the common love of rare and curious volumes, and should be distinguished by the name of that nobleman, at the dispersion of whose library the proposal had taken its rise, and who had been personally known to most of the members. We are not sure whether the publication of rare tracts was an original object of their friendly re-union, or, if it was not, how and when it came to be engrafted thereupon. Early, however, after the formation of the Roxburgh Club, it became one of its rules, that each member should present the society, at such time as he might find most convenient, with an edition of a curious manuscript, or the reprint of some ancient tract, the selection being left at the pleasure of the individual himself. These books were to be printed in a handsome manner, and uniformly, and were to be distributed among the gentlemen of the club. * * * Under this system, the Roxburgh Club has proceeded and flourished for many years, and produced upwards of forty reprints of scarce and curious tracts, among which many are highly interesting, not only from their value, but also their intrinsic merit."

It remains only to be added, that this association has been the model of several others in different parts of the world. We are aware, at least, of La Societé des Biblioglyphes in Paris, and the Bannatyne, Maitland, and Abbotsford Clubs in our own country. Such institutions show that a taste for literary antiquities is extending amongst us; yet it must also be stated, that the desire of forming libraries such as that of the duke of Roxburgh is much on the decline, and that if his grace’s stock had been brought to the hammer in our own day, it would have neither created the sensation which it did create, nor brought such "astounding" prices.


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