Guide to the Research Collections



The Spencer Collection was created in 1913 by the bequest of William Augustus Spencer, a collector of finely illustrated books who had lost his life in the Titanic disaster of April 1912. The bequest included Spencer's own collection of books and an endowment fund. The will instructs that the income from the endowment be used to purchase "the finest illustrated books that can be procured, of any country and in any language, and that these books be bound in handsome bindings representing the work of the most noted book-binders of all countries, thus constituting a

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collection representative of the arts of illustration and bookbinding." Spencer also directed that books containing the original designs, drawings, or paintings made by the illustrators be acquired as opportunity offered. The collection now numbers some 8,000 volumes and more than 750 manuscripts, with a number of drawings. (It is available to the public upon presentation of an admission card obtained from the Research Libraries Administrative Office.)

In carrying out the terms of the Spencer bequest, the library has attempted to strengthen its overall resources in many special fields by adding materials which meet the standards set for the Spencer Collection but which could not normally be acquired from general funds or other special funds. This supplementary function is an important part of the Spencer Collection's program. Duplication of material in other divisions is avoided. Quality is the principal factor determining purchase; the collection makes a particular point of obtaining not simply a copy of a finely illustrated book, but the best available copy, as for example the best state of the edition, or a special association copy.

Spencer's personal collection, which formed the nucleus of the Spencer Collection, contained 232 illustrated French books for the most part of the period 1880 to 1910. Many of these were bound by the great French binders of the time, and some of the bindings were made from Spencer's own designs; a manuscript catalog of the original gift is held in the collection. The income from the bequest became available in 1917; by 1921 the collection had grown to 364 titles. The earliest additions were Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts and illustrated incunabula. Examples of Western book illustration from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century were also acquired. By 1930 the collection had reached 600 volumes. During the war period from 1942 to 1945 it was removed from the library for safe-keeping; nevertheless it continued to grow, reaching 1,800 volumes by 1947. After World War II fine examples of Oriental book illustration were acquired, with an emphasis on China, Japan, India, Persia, and other Asian civilizations. With the books came many splendid illustrated manuscript scrolls enriching the collection in yet another area.

Fifty-one exhibitions of treasures from the collection were held in the period from 1934 to 1966. Notable recent exhibitions include those on the book of India and the book of Japan in 1960, Venice in 1961, and Picasso and his contemporaries as book illustrators in 1962. The collection maintains no special indexes or files beyond its regular card catalog and separate shelf lists for manuscripts and books. The Dictionary Catalog and Shelf List of the Spencer Collection of Illustrated Books and Manuscripts and Fine Bindings was issued in book form in two volumes by G.K. Hall & Company (Boston, 1970); other published lists and descriptions appear in the final section of this chapter.


The subject matter of books in the Spencer Collection includes fields as diverse as literature, science, art, religion, history, and the performing arts. Among important individual groups of materials are the portrait collections, festival books, emblem books, books on architecture, views, heraldry, and certain in-depth collections such as Aesop and the Dance of Death. Acquisitions have been selected to present an international sampling of the book arts in all their forms--illustration, typography, binding, etc.

Western Manuscripts

Although in the early stages of the development of the collection a number of outstanding manuscripts on vellum were purchased, for the most part religious in nature, subsequent development has emphasized the secular illustrated manuscript on paper; there are now some 180 Western manuscripts in the collection. Illuminated manuscripts on vellum include an "Apocalypse" (Ms. 57), a "Bible historiée" from thirteenth-century northern France (Ms. 22), and the fourteenth-century "Les heures de Blanche de France" (Ms. 56). The famous Tickhill Psalter is a beautifully illuminated English manuscript of about 1310 (Ms. 26). The "Bologna Missal" was commissioned by Galeacci Marescotti about 1490 (Ms. 64); the finest of the group of Aesops in the collection is a manuscript of the same period in Greek (Ms. 50). Of principal importance among Western manuscripts is a book of Minor Prophets with saints' lives, written and illuminated in the Abbey of Weingarten between 1215 and 1232 (Ms. 1).

Illustrated manuscripts on paper include such fine fifteenth-century examples as Rudolf von Ems "Weltchronik" (Ms. 38), Noë Bianchi's "Journey to the Holy Land" (Ms. 62), and the "Tacuinum Sanitatis" (Ms. 65) with drawings of plants, simples, occupations, etc. The Spencer Collection copy of Ulrich von Richenthal's "Chronicle of the Council of Constance" (Ms. 32) is the second-oldest version of the chronicle known, and was copied from a manuscript now lost.

Western Drawings

The collection has acquired a number of drawings which served as models for the engravings of Western book illustration from the seventeenth century onward. Among these are examples of the work of Charles Nicolas Cochin for Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (Paris, 1784-88). There are twenty-two drawings by Arthur Rackham which reflect his work on 17 different books. Examples of drawings by a number of contemporary American artists for children's books include the work of James Daugherty, Fritz Eichenberg, and Fritz Kredel. Thomas Rowlandson's drawings for The English Dance of Death (1815-16), 33 in number, are also noteworthy.

Western Illustrated Books

Fifteenth Century

There are about 130 illustrated incunabula from five countries, most of them religious. Fine examples of the Cologne, Lubeck, and Malermi (1493) Bibles are present, as well as classics of the Italian printed book, including a magnificent copy on vellum of the Hypnerotomachia poliphili (1499). There is a copy of the first book on military science published in French, L'Art de chevalerie selon Vegece (1488), the notable Lyon edition of Mer des histoires (1491), and Antoine Vérard's edition of Therence en fr[amacr ]cois (1500?). The illustrated book in the Netherlands is exemplified by the Culenborg, 1483, edition of Speculum humanae salvationis with illustrations made up from earlier block books, and the Gouda, 1480,

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book of fables, Dialogus creaturarum. From Germany come splendid copies of Bishop Sánchez de Arévalo's Spiegel des menschlichen Lebens (Augsburg, 1497), and a Ptolemy Cosmographia on vellum (Ulm, 1482), beautifully colored by hand, and formerly in the collection of Prince Eugene of Savoy and Sir George Lindsay Holford.

Sixteenth Century

The group of nearly 700 books from eight countries is strongest in the literature of France, Germany, and Italy. Many of the earliest festival books produced are included, particularly those of the triumphal entries of French kings and queens. Other books are on military architecture, such as Androuet de Cerceau's Bastiments de France (1576-1607); travel; typography, such as Geoffroy Tory's Champfleury (1529); and the cartography of France, exemplified by Bouguereau's Le Theatre francois (1594). Albrecht Dürer's three "great books" of 1511 ( Apocalipsis c[umacr ] figuris; Epitome in divae parthenices Mariae historiam; Passio Christi ), long recognized as landmarks of book illustration, are present in a contemporaneous binding as issued. The Spencer copy of the Theuerdank (1517) came from the library of Robert Hoe. One of the many Aesops in the collection is that printed in Freiburg in 1535. From Italy there is the Figino edition of Dante's Divina commedia (Venice, 1512); and from Spain Lucio Marineo's De primis Aragonie regibus (Saragossa, 1509). Fine bindings include one produced for Jean Grolier on a copy of Girolamo Cardano's De subtilitate libri XXI (Nuremberg, 1550).

Seventeenth Century

The baroque books of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany are well represented. A preponderance of the very strong collection of festival books date from this period. There are also some splendid works on cartography. Jacob Schrenck von Nozing's Augustissimorum imperatorum ... imagines (1601) illustrates the armor of the period, and a similar work from Italy, Il torneo de Bonaventura Pistofilo (1627), contains etchings of men in armor going through tournament movements. An excellent group of English bindings includes the work of Samuel Mearne, and bindings in his style, including a copy of Jeremy Taylor's Antiquitates Christianae (1675) bound by the "Queen's Binder B." A Bible of 1680 is bound by Roger Bartlett.

Eighteenth Century

The holdings for this period mirror the French literature of the age and include many volumes of illustrated poetry. Two editions of La Fontaine are among the most sumptuous works of the century: Fables choisies (1755-59) in four folio volumes, illustrated with 276 engravings after J.B. Oudry, with a second copy of volume I in a Padeloup binding made for King Augustus III of Poland; and the Contes et nouvelles (1762), the celebrated edition printed at the expense of the Fermiers Généraux. The Spencer copy of Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1789) is one of four or five copies printed on vellum and contains, bound in, the original watercolor drawings, four by Moreau le Jeune and one supposedly by Vernet, after which the plates for this edition were made. Other fine works are the Geistreiche Gesänge und Lieder (1725-26) and Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (1745).

Nineteenth Century

Illustrated books in the Spencer Collection cover the basic literature of the various nationalities of the Western world. They also reflect the change in book production during the century. A splendid copy of the 1806 edition of Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie, the last to appear during the author's lifetime, contains complete sets of the plates in three states, with sets of proofs of the engravings of the 1789 edition redone in octavo size. Bound in with the copy is a charcoal drawing by Prud'hon for the plate "Naufrage de Virginie" and another sepia drawing by Vernet. In folio size, the work is bound by Thouvenin in plum-colored morocco elaborately ornamented. Editions of Krylov's Fables (Moscow, 1834) and Manzoni's I promessi sposi (Milan, 1840) are other fine examples of the nineteenth-century book. Kugler's Geschichte Friedrichs des Grossen (1840-42) contains the 379 wood engravings made after the designs of Adolph Menzel. Also included are copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer of 1896, and Renard's Histoires naturelles (1899) with lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Twentieth Century

The renewed effort by individual artists during the first half of the century to illustrate texts with original graphics is reflected in the collection. The production of French book artists is exceptionally well represented and includes such works as Verlaine's Parallèlement (1900) with Bonnard's illustrations; and Matisse's illustrations for the Poèmes of Charles, Duke of Orléans (1950), as well as Jazz (1947), in which Matisse appears as artist and author. The substantially complete holdings of books illustrated by Picasso include Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (1931), Eaux-fortes originales pour des textes de Buffon (1942), José Delgado's La Tauromaquia (1959), and La frere mendiant by Ilya Zdanevitch (1959).

Oriental Manuscripts

There are some 600 Oriental manuscripts in the collection. Early Oriental manuscript scrolls and printed matter are mostly religious in nature. Examples in the Spencer Collection are mainly illustrated Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto writings. It was only in later centuries that illustrated secular works were produced.

The collection of nearly 300 Japanese items includes a number of Heian scrolls; manuscripts of the "Tale of Genji" and the Japanese anthology of the "Thirty-six Great Poets" range from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The holdings of Persian manuscripts are notable for their miniatures and calligraphy; illuminated Firdausi and Nizami texts include Firdausi's Shahn[amacr ]meh dated 1614, illustrated with forty-four paintings in the style of the 1430 Bayshungur Shahn[amacr ]meh in the collection of the Gulestan Palace Library in Teheran.

Among Persian manuscripts in Arabic is an important fourteenth-century cosmography (Kazw[imacr ]n[imacr ]) with colored pen-and-ink drawings of animals, trees, plants, and mythological beings. Turkish manuscripts include a Shahn[amacr ]meh of about 1550 and a late sixteenth-century Siyar-e Nabi (Life of the Prophet Mohammed). A collection

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of 86 Indian manuscripts ranges from a tenth-century palm leaf manuscript of northern India to the productions of mid-nineteenth-century Rajasthan. Other materials include several palm leaf manuscripts from Orissa, and paintings from Malwa, Merwar, Kangra, and other centers. Sixteen items relate to the Moghul Indian period. Many of the manuscripts mentioned in this paragraph are in fine bindings of lacquered wood or of leather with tooled or painted decoration. The Spencer Collection also owns four Hebrew manuscripts, among which the "Xanten Bible" (1294) is an early and very rare example of an illuminated manuscript in that language.

Oriental Printed Books

Japanese examples are by far the most numerous among the Oriental printed books in the collection. The earliest printed work in the library is a Buddhist charm made for the Empress Shotoku about 770 A.D. Later items mirror the history of Japanese literature from the lse Monogatari (1608) through the works of Sai Kaku and Bakin. Artists of the book represented include Moronobu; Masanobu; and painters of the ukiyo-ye school--Utamaro (with examples of his famous shell and insect books), Hokusai, and Hiroshige; and the contemporary artist Kichiemon Okamura. China is represented by early printings of the drawing books of the Mustard Seed Garden and the Ten Bamboo Hall, and other Ming dynasty illustrated books.


A catalog of the collection was issued in the library's Bulletin in 1914, and reprinted in the same year; a revised edition appeared in 1928. The Japanese holdings are described in Japanese, with titles translated into English, in Shigeo Sorimachi's Catalogue of Japanese Illustrated Books and Manuscripts in the Spencer Collection of The New York Public Library (Tokyo, 1968). G.K. Hall & Company of Boston published the Spencer Collection card catalog and shelf list in book form in two volumes in 1970.

Important descriptions of individual books and manuscripts in the collection published in the Bulletin are listed below; additional articles may be located through the Index to the Bulletin.