Celebrating Vesalius the anatomist – 500 years on

Posted September 17, 2014 9:59 am by Rare Books Blog | Permalink

My name is Catherine Booth and I’m the International Collections Science Curator, doing a guest blog here because it partly relates to a book in the Rare Book Collections.

2014 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius, recognised as the founder of modern anatomy.  His reputation was earned because of his astonishing work  De humanis corporis fabrica, published in 1543.  The Library has just purchased a modern edition of this work, usually referred to as the Fabrica – a magnificent 2-volume annotated translation (HB9.213.7).  It is a unique scholarly work, where the English translation from the original Latin text, alongside various finding aids and explanatory notes, make it easily accessible to modern readers.  The 16th-century woodcut illustrations were rescanned using digital technology, enhancing the finished results.

You can find more information on this publication from the Fabrica website.

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Even more exciting than our acquisition of this modern publication is that the Library also holds a copy of the original 1543 edition (Am.1.23)!  I have just been privileged to look at it for the first time – and I was completely bowled over by it.   What struck me first was the quality of the thick and creamy white laid paper on which it is printed.  The 270-odd woodcut illustrations are particularly notable.  Vesalius believed in using real dissections to inform his anatomical study.  He wanted to portray the images almost as living bodies, and placed many of them in active poses with a landscape background.





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 Often he depicted parts of the body from different angles, peeling back layers to reveal underlying anatomical structures. They are now said to be roughly 97% accurate – a notable achievement for its time.  Along with the illustrations are well over 600 pages of Latin text, where initial letters of sections are illustrated with appropriate dissection-related images which some may find gruesome!





Vesalius was a well-educated classical scholar, who came from a family of physicians and apothecaries.  He first studied medicine in Montpellier and Paris, then Padua.  Medical teaching was still dominated by the work of the Greek physician, Galen (c. 130 AD-c. 210 AD).  On the whole, Vesalius adopted Galen’s ideas – but he also pointed out errors in Galen’s work.  The authors of the modern work, best placed to assess the Latin text, say that it is in rather a flamboyant style.  We can imagine that the 28 year old Vesalius may have been showing off his knowledge of Latin as well as anatomy!  He certainly embraced the relatively new technology of printing, choosing a reputable publisher in Basel, who would be well-placed to send copies of the finished work to physicians and libraries overseas.  One interesting coincidence is that the Fabrica was published in the same year as Copernicus’s great work on the orbits of the planets: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, though the latter was published in Nuremberg when the author was 70 years old. 

In 1934, the original woodblocks for the Fabrica, still in existence, were transported to New York, and used in a new edition, Icones anatomicae published by the New York Academy of Medicine.  Unfortunately we do not hold a copy of this work in the Library.  It is heartbreaking to learn that these woodblocks, having been safely returned to their home in Munich, were then destroyed by bombing in 1943.

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Other notable illustrations in the original work include the title-page, where Vesalius is shown carrying out his own  dissection in a very public arena.  Symbols in this image include the coat of arms of the Vesalius family depicting three weasels, since the family originated from the town of Wesel, now in Germany.





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A portrait of Vesalius is on another page, said to be by the artist Jan Stephan van Calcar (1499-c.1546), who studied under Titian and his school.  Vesalius must have approved of this illustration, as he used it again in later works.


The Fabrica was both instructive and influential, was exported abroad, and became the most important anatomical work over the next 300 years.  The Library’s copy of the modern edition can be requested and consulted in the General Reading Room.

Ex libris David Hume

Posted September 16, 2014 11:44 am by Anette Hagan | Permalink

Recently we had an opportunity to acquire a volume with five works by the French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778). They were printed between 1766 and 1769.

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But the really exciting thing about the volume (RB.s.2875(1-5)) is not its contents, but its provenance: it was formerly in the library of the eminent Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776)! We know this because it contains Hume’s armorial bookplate on the front pastedown, and a handwritten listing of the contents on the front free endpaper in Hume’s own hand.

The five works of Voltaire are: “La guerre civile de Geneve”, “Le philosophe ignorant”, “Le diner du Comte de Boulainvilliers”, “Lettres a son altesse monseigneur le prince de ****” and “La defense de mon oncle”.


The presence of works by the Frenchman in Hume’s library is hardly surprising. Both men were key figures of the Enlightenment in Europe, and their works were hugely influential. Although Voltaire entertained the likes of James Boswell, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon in his home in Ferney near the Swiss Border, he never met Hume.

No precise listing of the volumes originally in Hume’s book collection exists. However, some idea of its contents can be ascertained from a catalogue produced by the Edinburgh bookseller Thomas Stevenson in 1840. There are over 200 French-language works in the Stevenson catalogue, including other works by Voltaire. If you are interested in his book collection, check out “David Hume’s Library” (GNE.1998.1.1).

Find out more about David Hume in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’: Voices from the archives

Posted September 12, 2014 12:50 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

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We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley, with a free treasures display: Open now!

Waverley is the only novel in the world which has a train station and a paddle steamer named after it,  and the Scott Monument in Princes Street is the tallest monument in the world erected in memory of an author.

The display has as its centrepiece and highlight the original manuscript of the novel. It was last shown in public in 1999, so use this opportunity to come and see it now!  That’s what it looks like:

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Waverley is named after its hero Edward Waverley, a young Englishman who arrives in Scotland just before the 1745 Jacobite Rising.



We hold one of the best collections of Scott material in the world: many of Scott’s own manuscripts and letters, his publishers’ archives, and all kinds of editions and translations of his books. This display draws on that collection to tell the story of how this ground-breaking novel came into being. Scott himself, his friends, publishers, critics and readers, speak to us from the archives to tell us what lay behind the novel, how it was published, what people thought of it, why Scott wanted to keep his authorship secret, and whether in fact his secret was kept.

The first editon was a rather drab looking affair for modern eyes, without any illustrations and in plain publisher’s boards. But it became an instant bestseller, with 1000 copies sold within two days. This was two centuries ago! Waverley became a phenomenal success and established Scott as an international literary giant. It was soon published in the States (often in pirate editions) and translated into numerous languages. Later editions came with  illustrations.

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When Walter Scott published Waverley in 1814, he had already written some of the best-selling poetry in English of the nineteenth century. Waverley was to be the first of a series of historical novels from his pen which swept the world and revolutionized fiction.

Of course, novels set in the past had been written before. Scott’s achievement was to bring the past to life by depicting historical figures along with fictional characters in realistic period settings. He did a lot of research about the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the history and customs of the Highland clans before he wrote Waverley. Scott also praised some female novelists as sources of inspiration.

Come and see the display for yourself! It’s up until 16 November 2014 and, of course, free.

You can find out more about what’s on display from our Waverley web feature.

For more information on the female novelists Scott mentions as his sources of inspiration, go to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections) and look for Elizabeth Hamilton, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Grant of Laggan, Jane Porter and Sydney Owenson.

Skye-inspired verse

Posted August 13, 2014 10:55 am by Anette Hagan | Permalink

We recently bought a privately printed book with lithographed illustrations of some wildlife and albumen prints of landscapes and sheep on the Isle of Skye set in beautifully ornamented borders.  The author, illustrator and printer all in one was the rural improver and gardener Sir Charles Isham (1819-1903). He probably produced the book at his family estate of Lamport, Northanptonshire.

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Inspired by a trip to the Isle of Skye, Isham wrote a poem about an eagle terrorising the sheep population of Skye. The poem is of a decidely poor quality, similar to the entertaining doggerel verse he wrote to accompany his display of garden gnomes.

The poem, dating from the 1860s, exists in various pamphlet versions with different ornamental borders and illustrations. Our new acquisition is a ‘deluxe’ edition, bound in morocco, with the text on thick card with gilt edges. Unlike the pamphlet version this copy consists only of the text of the poem. 

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Find out more about Sir Charles Isham in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

A picturesque marriage proposal

Posted August 5, 2014 3:27 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

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A picturesque scene from Lady Anne Barnard’s 1772 ballad “Auld Robin Gray” is depicted in this hand-coloured mezzotint print (AP.5.213.13). Robin, an older Scotsman, is asking for a young girl’s hand. The girl, Jenny, is sitting at a spinning-wheel and Robin, wearing a kilt and tartan hose, and her mother are standing close-by outside a cottage. While Robin and Jenny’s mother are looking at her expectantly, Jenny is absorbed in a world of her own. As the ballad tells us, she was in love with a young man, Jamie, who has gone away to sea to earn money. But because of the destitute state of her parents, Jenny is forced to abandon Jamie and their love. When Jamie returns, he finds his sweetheart married to Auld Robin. Both Jenny and Jamie are heartbroken, but Robin turns out to be good husband to Jenny.

A verse from the ballad is engraved at the foot of the mezzotint:

   Auld Robin argued fair, tho my Mither didna speak
   She looked in my face till my heart was like to break
   So they gied him my HAND tho my HEART was at Sea
   But Auld Robin Grey proves a gude man to me.

The mezzotint was published 1 October 1786. The setting is rather melo-dramatic mix of Highland and Lowland imagery, with Robin in a uni-coloured kilt and shirt, Jenny in a rather sumptuous frock at her spinning wheel, blue grapes growing on the cottage wall, and the verse in below written in Lowland Scots.

Find out more about Lady Anne Barnard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

An early French chronicle with Scottish connections

Posted 2:02 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

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We  have recently received a fabulous donation from the collection of the late John Buchanan-Brown, an author and translator of French books. The book is the 1560 edition of Les annales et croniques de France by Nicole Gilles, (RB.l.282).  A vernacular history of France, this edition was printed in Paris for the female bookseller and publisher, Barbe Regnault. The title page vignette has an elephant in the centre.

blog 1013 011 signatureThe donation also includes a typescript article by John Buchan-Brown. It explains the history of the ownership of the book, also called its provenance.  The first owner of the book was John Somer (1527?-1585), an English diplomat who probably purchased the book when he was in Paris in 1559 to 1562. Somer was then serving Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador to the French court. Somer put his signature on the title page. 

 He also wrote down his motto “Iuste. Sobrie.pie”. This Latin phrase means “Soberly, righteously and godly”:

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Somer became a highly-regarded diplomat, being involved in negotiations with the French court during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He was renowned for his skills in deciphering letters written in code. Ill-health prevented Somer from taking up the post of ambassador to the Scottish court in 1583, and his final post was acting as one the minders of the captive Mary Queen of Scots. No doubt his skills as a code-breaker acted as a deterrent to Mary’s supporters trying to send messages to her!

The book also has a rather illustrious Scottish provenance: the contemporary calf binding has a gilt stamp with the name “Franciscus Stevartvs”. We assume this is Francis Stewart, 1st Earl of Bothwell (1562-1612). Francis was a son of John Stewart, Lord Darnley, Prior of Coldingham, who was an illegitimate child of James V of Scotland by his mistress Elizabeth Carmichael.

Find out more about John Somer and Francis Stewart in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

A hand-coloured book

Posted May 1, 2014 7:32 pm by Rare Books Blog | Permalink

I am Marina Franceschi and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, currently doing an internship within the Rare Book Collections. While doing some research, I got very interested in one book entitled Notitia utraque cum orientis tum occidentis ultra Arcadii honoriique Caesarum Tempora Illustre Vetustatis Monumentum (K.63.b). Do not be afraid of the very long and dull book name! Far from being boring, as the title in Latin could have suggested, this military operations book contained several hand painted illustrations. According to the Ursus Book and Prints website the book was “a collection of works on the late Roman Empire, comprising a profusely illustrated guide to the workings of the Imperial Rome during the beginning of the 5th century, derived from a 9th or 10th century Greek manuscript”. This edition was published in 1552. Yet, the colours are still vivid and shining. This book exists in different copies but the very specific particularity of the National Library of Scotland one is the quality of its illustrations. For instance, there was a copy sold by Christies in March 2012 but the illustrations are not coloured as you can notice on Christies’ edition.

The book is about military operations and most of the images are personifications of the colonies and cities of the Empire. Rome is therefore depicted like a woman warrior sitting on a throne.


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“Urbs quae aliquando desolata, nunc gloriosior, piissimo imperio restaurata” [the city that sometimes has been ruined now has established the most glorious, devoted imperium]



There are also illustrations of countries such as Italy.

This book was printed in Basel in 1552 by the very famous editing and publishing house Froben On the title page is the device of Johann Froben, as usual with books from his press, but this one has been hand-coloured.

the design of the device was attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, who also painted Froben’s portrait.

The editor was Sigismund Gelenius who also wrote the“introduction”. According to the Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle by Pierre Larousse, Gelenius, or Ghelen, was “one of the most important scholars of his times”. He was introduced to Johannes Froben by Erasmus who was impressed by his knowledge.

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Rare Books Signed by Notable Authors

Posted March 18, 2014 4:06 pm by Rare Books Blog | Permalink

My name is Annemarie Maimone and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh interning in the National Library of Scotland’s Rare Book Collections Department. While doing provenance research, I came across a few books in the collection of particular interest because they contain the signatures and inscriptions of notable authors.

The items I will be discussing for this blog post include books signed by H.G. Wells, Robert Bridges and Compton Mackenzie, as well as one owned by both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Signature of H.G. Wells

Signature of H.G. Wells

My earliest discovery was the signature of H.G. Wells in a first edition folio of his eccentric work of fiction, The Door in the Wall and Other Stories, published in 1915 (Hall.3.a). Wells’ signature appears on the verso of the flyleaf underneath the publisher’s handwritten note stating that “This edition is limited to sixty copies for the United Kingdom. January 1915. No.1”. This edition of The Door in the Wall includes photographic illustrations by Alvin Langdon Coburn, who also signed his name just below Wells’ signature.

Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn from "The Door in the Wall"

Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn from "The Door in the Wall"

Illustrating another type of authorial signature, I came across a lovely, 1926 edition of New Verse by the poet Robert Bridges which contains the handwritten inscription “Robert Underwood Johnson with best Xmas wishes from Robert Bridges 1926” on the half-title page ( H1.77.462). Johnson was a distinguished American diplomat, conservationist and published poet (Read More). Bridges was a major literary figure of the early 20th century and was given the honorary post of Poet Laureate in 1913. He counted Gerard Manley Hopkins, Roger Fry, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Henry Newbolt, Mary Coleridge, Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster among his friends and acquaintances (Read more). Bridges apparently gave this “presentation copy” of his poems to Johnson as a Christmas gift, greatly contributing to the book’s material and sentimental importance.

Signature and inscription of Robert Bridges

Signature and inscription of Robert Bridges

Another book in the collection signed by its author is a first edition of Compton Mackenzie’s novel, Carnival (H2.81.1325). Mackenzie, a popular 20th-century Scottish author, wrote the dedicatory note “To Ralph Straus this rare book from Compton Mackenzie” on the book’s front free endpaper. It might seem bold to describe your own work as a “rare book”, but Mackenzie’s publisher is careful to note on the same page that “This first edition was entirely sold out by the day of publication” (Watch an interview with Mackenzie here).

Signature and inscription of Compton Mackenzie

Signature and inscription of Compton Mackenzie

For enthusiasts of the Romantic era, I found the signatures of both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in a 1569 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Hall.293.f.4). Their names appear side by side on the title page, the recognizable “S.T. Coleridge” and “W. Wordsworth” inscribed in each poet’s own handwriting. Unlike the other books mentioned, this is an example of a work that was personally owned, not simply written and signed, by popular authors.

Signatures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

Signatures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

Identifying famous signatures is not always so straightforward,  however. A good example of this is a book I found containing what first appeared to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s signature on the title-page. The name looked right; an italicized “S. T. Coleridge” with the address of “Torrington Place”, a neighbourhood in Bloomsbury frequented by Coleridge. A past librarian had even left a note identifying the signature as that of the famous poet. While looking at web images of Coleridge’s known signature, however, I came across the name of his nephew, a certain John Taylor Coleridge who also lived at Torrington Place. Looking back at the signature in the book, I could definitely identify that the “S” was in fact a “J” and the rest of the name fell into place (See a description of John Taylor Coleridge’s signature).

Further reading:

Carter, John. “Presentation Copy.” ABC for Book Collectors. 7th edition. With Corrections, Additions and an Introduction by Nicolas Barker. Oak Knoll Press 1995. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. http://www.ilab.org/eng/glossary/601-presentation_copy.html.

Jane Austen’s Scottish Sisters

Posted December 10, 2013 2:38 pm by Helen Vincent | Permalink

This year I’ve been involved in celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with a display at NLS – but I’ve also been casting some light on her Scottish contemporaries – women novelists who in some cases were more famous than Austen during her lifetime, but who are now much less well known.

Engraving of Elizabeth Hamilton

Engraving of Elizabeth Hamilton

There are quite a few Scottish women authors from that period who have been overshadowed by Austen and by their great contemporary Sir Walter Scott, but I’ve concentrated on a few in particular:

  • Susan Ferrier, whose novel Marriage is often seen as the closest contemporary relation to Austen’s own
  • Elizabeth Hamilton, whose The Cottagers of Glenburnie was praised by Scott himself in Waverley – and was seen at the time as bringing about revolutionary social change
  • Mary Brunton, author of novels which Austen herself enjoyed reading, though they did not escape her acerbic pen
  • Catherine Sinclair, author of Holiday House, a pioneering children’s book, who also wrote best-selling adult fiction
Modern Accomplishments by Catherine Sinclair

Modern Accomplishments by Catherine Sinclair

Besides giving some talks about these authors around the country and writing about them for the latest issue (number 24) of our in-house magazine Discover NLS, I’ve also been working with our education team to produce a feature on them for our Learning Zone, which we hope will open these authors’ lives and works up to those who want to explore them further inside and outside the classroom. It contains lots of information about who they were and what they wrote, links to copies of their novels that can be found online, and suggestions for discussion points and creative writing and other activities inspired by their books.

These are some of my favourite authors – they all have laugh-out-loud funny moments, and there are some fascinating portrayals of the Scotland they lived in alongside the strong heroines, dashing heroes, and gallery of eccentrics who populate their novels. I hope that people enjoy discovering them.

‘Forgotten Women Writers: Jane Austen’s Scottish Sisters’ is freely available on our website.

A Scott binding

Posted October 21, 2013 3:04 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

In the 18th century, decorative arts underwent significant developments. Two outstanding Scottish bookbinders, James Scott and his son William, were at the forefront of such design changes. James Scott of Edinburgh is generally acknowledged as the finest bookbinder in Scotland in the 18th-century and indeed one of the finest in Britain at this time.

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In the 1770s and 1780s Scott broke away from the traditional Scottish wheel and herringbone designs, and replaced them with first rococo and then neo-classical styles. We recently bought an outstanding example of his distinctive work: 


1013 binding 2 smallThis binding of a York printing of the 17th-century English scholar John Evelyn’s “Silva” is a magnificent example of Scott’s craftsmanship. The binding is brown tree calf with gilt column style tools and musical trophy on the boards and Minerva ornament on the spines.

The book also has a distinguished provenance: an inscription “Lauderdale” on the title page of vol. 1 indicates it once belonged to James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale (1718-1789). It was presumably bound for him.

Bindings by James Scott and his son William are much sought after by collectors, and the Library has the most extensive collection in existence.

Find out more about Scottish book binding on our website.