One of my favorite things about the Hyde Collection is the large number of books in their original bindings. The book that an 18th century buyer took home from the bookshop was frequently not a finished product, with books often sold in loose sheets or temporary cardboard bindings. Its pages were still unopened and retained their ruffled deckle edges. The buyer was then expected to take the book to a binder for a formal leather binding. (However, see this recent book for a contrary view of how common finished bindings were at the time of sale.)
It’s exciting, therefore, to see books in a state as close as possible to their original condition, particularly when they retain a temporary binding that was discarded on most copies two centuries earlier. The term “original condition”, however, doesn’t do justice to the pristine beauty of a collection of books known as the Mount Bellew Library. Christopher D. Bellew, a wealthy bibliophile in Western Ireland, amassed a large collection of books in the early 19th century. He read them once, if at all, and with such care that they look untouched by human hands. The collection lay undisturbed in the Mount Bellew family home until it was sold a century later, when it was revealed to an astonished book collecting community. The great collector of 19th century fiction, Michael Sadleir, memorably recorded his reaction to receiving the sale catalog. “I shall never forget the arrival by post of the first slim Bellew catalogue. After tearing through the catalogue’s eight pages, I felt so breathless that I had to sit a few moments before I was capable of going through the whole thing item by item. I made pencil-crosses; I drafted a long telegram. Then I commended my cause to Providence and went through the catalogue all over again.”
The Hyde Collection is fortunate enough to have one item from Mount Bellew, acquired from Sadleir himself. I can report that it is exactly as advertised. Other than a slight browning of the 200 year old paper spine, this four volume set could have come right off the shelf of Christopher Bellew’s favorite bookshop. The delicate blue-gray covers are unblemished by rough handling, and the small printed spine label is unchipped. Holding it in my hands, I feel just a little bit closer to the world the Hyde Collection documents so thoroughly documents.