Dr Cynthia Johnston discusses the benefits of the ‘academic partnership’ between the Institute of English Studies and the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, which she says has resulted in the rediscovery of a major research resource in the UK.

In 2014, the Institute of English Studies (IES) and the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery embarked on an ‘academic partnership’. This association followed a successful collaboration on an exhibition and conference which focused on the museum’s R E Hart collection of manuscripts and rare books.

The nature of the partnership was collaborative from the start, with the initial project funded by a public engagement grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A major exhibition at 2 Temple Place in London followed in 2015. Entitled, Cotton to Gold, it highlighted 11 collections from three museums in the north-west – Blackburn, the Haworth in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley.

The diverse nature of the R E Hart collections was evident in this show that attracted about 35,000 visitors and rave media reviews in print, online and on radio. Items included the industrialist’s books and coins and well as Japanese prints and religious icons from Blackburn, Tiffany glass from Accrington, and Turner watercolours and a 12th-century Peruvian mummy and his grave goods from Burnley.

In July of 2016, the partnership between the IES and Blackburn secured a £58,000 ‘resilience grant’ from Arts Council England. This enabled them to hire a part-time professional cataloguer - Dr Ed Potten - to work on the project and to create a study area for consulting the museum’s Hart Collection.

Tracing back to publication

Marginal annotations in the textHe is an independent cataloguer lately of Cambridge University Library whose core academic interest as an incunabulist has been mightily rewarded by his finds in the Hart Collection. Perhaps his most exciting so far has been R E Hart’s copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, [London]: Richard Pynson, [between June 1491 and 13 November 1492].

Dr Potten, who has traced the complete line of ownership for this book from its original buyer, Roger Rathbon, all the way to Robert Edward Hart and hence to Blackburn Museum, writes that ‘An English incunabulum with an unbroken chain of provenance all the way back to publication – a rare thing’. He achieved this by researching marginal annotations (right) and bookplates in the text. A 16th-century inscription reads: ‘Iste lyber p[er]tene[t] p[er] me rudyerde de ru[…] wrytu[n] by me Ra[…] of Rudyerde […].’

By consulting John Sleigh’s History of the Parish of Leek (London, 1883), Dr Potten has suggested that this owner was one Ralph Rodehyerd (fl.1524). The surname Rodehyerd transformed into Rudyard, and it is his contention that the book spent most of its life in the possession of the Rudyard family. It was then sold by Wynn William Rudyard Williams (1823–1904) to one of the Christie-Millers for the Britwell Library. Robert Edward Hart bought the Pynson Chaucer in 1924 as the Britwell Library began to be dispersed. But preceding Ralph Rodehyerd’s ownership is a mark left by one Roger Rathbon, who may be the original buyer of the Pynson Chaucer.

Roger Rathbon's signature in the Pynson Chaucer

A rediscovery of a major resource

There have been many other significant finds, but another outstanding book is the 1485 printed herbal, Gart der Gesundheit, owned and annotated by the nuns of a Franciscan convent in Passau, Bavaria.

There are at least three different 15th and 16th-century hands which add not only annotations but also sketches in the margins. Some of the sketches are connected to the text and others are more fanciful. There is a phallus (see below left) added in the margin to the description of a plant that is said to aid erectile dysfunction.

The academic partnership between IES and the Blackburn Museum has resulted in the rediscovery of a major research resource in the UK, and this will be outlined at a two-day conference on the Hart Collection and the latest discoveries. The event, which takes place on 9–10 November, includes a keynote from Professor David McKitterick. It will also mark the opening of the museum’s R E Hart Reading room made possible by the resilience grant from Arts Council England.

Marginal annotations     Marginal annotations     Marginal annotations

About Cynthia

Dr Cynthia Johnston is course tutor and associate research fellow at the Institute of English Studies. In 2015 she co-curated the popular ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition at Two Temple Place, which attracted about 35,000 visitors and received rave reviews in national newspapers and on radio.