Saturday, 2 October 2021

Manuscripts Written at Rome in 1465, Now at the V&A and Houghton [II]

Before moving on the the 20th-century provenance of the manuscript(s) discussed in the previous post, I need to add an important piece of the 19th-century provenance that I failed to include last week.

Howel Wills (1854-1901) was a collector in whom I've had an interest since the 1990s, when I catalogued some of his manuscripts now at the Bodleian. On my old provenance webpages, made in the early 2000s, I posted some basic biographical information and some images to show how his books can be recognised. More recently, I have occasionally had the chance to mention him in blogposts, such as here. [1]

It turns out that he was the owner of the 1465 manuscript (when it was still bound as a single volume) and it was included in his sale at Sotheby's, 11 July 1894, lot 1194:

[Click to enlarge]
As can be seen from the annotation in this image, the manuscript was bought by Quaritch for £20, and I suspect it was offered for sale in their Rough List no. 144: A rough list of choice and valuable books...[f]rom the library of Howel Wills, Esq., of Florence (August 1894), but I have not yet had a chance to verify this.

We saw last week that the manuscript was sold (eight years after the Howel Wills sale) as part of the library of Henry White in 1902, but in last week's post I showed an unannotated copy of the catalogue description. If we look at an annotated copy, we discover that the buyer was Leighton, for £8 8s (i.e. 8 guineas):

Leighton must have been responsible for separating the volume into its two constituent parts, now at the Houghton and V&A libraries.

The V&A Manuscript
In the catalogue description of the Macrobius portion of the manuscript, now at the V&A, it is recorded that the binding has the stamp of "Leighton, Brewer Street, W". Messrs. J. & J. Leighton were both a successful firm of antiquarian booksellers and a bindery: the bindery rebound books for the bookselling part of the business as well as for external clients, including, famously, the Kelmscott Press. [2] 

Leighton moved from 40 Brewer Street to 25 Heddon Street in June 1922, which gives us a terminus ante quem for the separation of volume into its two constituent manuscripts. In fact, they had apparently separated the two manuscripts by 1905, as shown by Laura Cleaver's entries in the Schoenberg Database, based on the Leighton stock books.

It was later owned by Harvey Frost, who sold it to the V&A in 1952.

The Houghton Manuscript
The 20th-century provenance of the Houghton portion of the manuscript, the Fenestella text, is reasonably well documented. According to the 2016 Beyond Words exhibition catalogue:
"Leighton (London bookseller), no. 789 in an undated catalogue; Sotheby's, London, December 19, 1955, lot 57 and December 11, 1961, lot 170; bought by Curt H. Reisinger from Davis & Orioli, London (cat. 166, 1962, no. 43) and presented [to the Houghton Library] in 1962"
The unidentified and undated Leighton catalogue can now be identified as their Catalogue Nine: Rare Books XV to XVIII Centuries, which has the Heddon St address, and therefore dates from between their 1922 move from Brewer St, and their next move, in 1928, to 100 Great Russell St.:
I do not have the text of the catalogue description of our manuscript, but I have its two reproductions, proving that was no. 789:

We can also add some detail to the later provenance as listed in Beyond Words. At the 1955 Sotheby's sale, the manuscript was offered as "The Property of a Lady"; she presumably had a taste for high quality Italian humanistic manuscripts, as she also owned the previous lot, lot 56 "A Manuscript from the Library of Federigo da Montefeltre [sic], Duke of Urbino", a fine humanistic manuscript of an unidentifed astrological treatise:
It was later in the collection of Paul Mellon (Bond & Faye, Supplement to de Ricci's Census, p. 529, no. 35), but is currently untraced. I have Alan Thomas's copy of the auction catalogue, from which we can see that he could not decide how much to bid, and kept increasing his limit (written next to the lot in pencil, using his price-code, PUSHONWARD), from NOX/-/ (£650), to ?AOX/-/ (?£850), to RXX (£900), and finally to RUO/-/ (£925):
He was outbid by Eisemann, who got it for £940:
The Houghton manuscript that is our main concern, lot 57, sold to Fraser for £320. When it reappeared for sale in 1961, it was again "The Property of a Lady" (presumably a different one) and sold to Davis & Orioli for £500 (approximately $1,400, using the exchange-rate of £1 = $2.80):
They offered it in their Catalogue 166: Rare Books and Early Mss. the following year for £750:

We can also fill part of the gap between the 1902 White sale and the appearance in a Leighton catalogue in the 1920's; a recent addition to the Schoenberg Database shows that it was being offered in 1911 by Tamaro de Marinis.

So, to summarise, the provenance as far as we have been able to ascertain it, is:
  • Both parts written for a member of the Maffei family, in Rome, in 1475, and thence by descent though his heirs including Mario Maffei (d.1600) [3], reaching England by the 18th century, when owned -- with many other Maffei manuscripts -- by:
  • Anthony Askew (1722-74); sold at Sotheby's, 7 March 1785, lot 486, bought by:
  • Michael Wodhull (1740-1816); sold by his heirs many years after his death at Sotheby's, 11 January 1886, lot 1646, probably bought at the sale by:
  • Howel Wills (1854-1901); sold at Sotheby's, 11 July 1894, lot 1194, bought by Quaritch, and presumably sold by them to:
  • Henry White (1822-1900); sold at Sotheby's, 21 April 1902, lot 1406, bought by:
  • Leighton, who divided it into two volumes:
    • Macrobius
      • Still with Leighton in 1905, but later owned by:
      • Henry Harvey Frost (1873-1969), industrialist and bibliophile, who sold it in 1952 to:
      • The V&A Museum
    • Fenestella
      • Tamaro de Marinis, 1911
      • Leighton, offered in an undated catalogue (between 1922 and 1928), as no. 789
      • "The Property of a Lady"; sold at Sotheby's, London, December 19, 1955, lot 57, bought by:
      • Fraser
      • "The Property of a Lady"; sold at December 11, 1961, lot 170; bought by:
      • Davis & Orioli; offered in their Cat. 166 (1962), no. 43; bought by:
      • Curt H. Reisinger; presented by him the same year to:
      • The Houghton Library

[1] Much more detailed biographical information can now be found in Helen Wang, 'How did Kutsuki Masatsuna’s Coins Come to the British Museum?', in Catalogue of the Japanese Coin Collection (pre-Meiji) at the British Museum with special reference to Kutsuki Masatsuna (British Museum, 2010) [online here], pp. 13-14 (and footnotes), as follows:
"Howel Wills was born in Shanghai in 1854, a British subject, the only son of Charles Wills (1816–57, born in Devon) and Nellie Wills (born c. 1820, of Chinese descent). He came to Britain as a child and was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, then at Corpus Christi College (1873–75) and Balliol College (1875–77), Oxford, graduating in Classical Moderations (2nd class, 1875) and Literae Humaniores (3rd class, 1877). 
Wills then embarked upon a legal career. He was admitted as a Member of the Inner Temple in 1875, aged 21, and was called to the bar in 1882. He was on the Western Circuit in 1883 (equity, draughtsman, conveyancer), and his address for the years 1884–95 was 1 King’s Bench, Temple. The name of Howel Wills remained in the Law List until 1901, the year of his death, but with no address after 1896.  
Howel Wills died in Verona on 7 December 1901, unmarried and without issue. He is best known for his interest in antiquarian books, fine art and other antiquities. Indeed, in February 1894 Christie, Manson and Woods arranged three sales of collections belonging to Mr Howel Wills, of Florence: ‘collection of engravings, etchings, drawings by and after old and modern masters’ (13–14 February); ‘collection of antiquities and objects of art’ (15–16 February); ‘collection of pictures by old masters’ (17 February). In July that year, ‘the great sale of the library of Mr Howel Wills, of Florence … the principal book sale of the season’ took place at Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 11–17 July 1894, realizing a total of £8,204  11s."

[2] Information about the Leightons as bookbinders can be found here. I plan to do a blogpost on the catalogues of the bookselling side of the company, many of which are undated.

[3] The V&A volume has an erased inscription in the upper margin of fol. 1r, typical of MSS from the Maffei family; it probably read 'De figliuoli et heredi di M(esser) Mario Maffei' ie Mario Maffei junior, who died in c.1600, the son of the adopted son of Mario Maffei (1463-1537).


  1. Thanks, Peter. This gets better and better. Curt Hugo Reisinger (1891-1964) was a member of the Harvard Class of 1912 and a member of the Grolier Club in New York. He donated to Houghton Library, or more probably funded the acquisition of, a dozen fifteenth-century printed books and a number of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

    1. Thank you. I also failed to mention that he he is said to have given it to Harvard in celebration of his 50th anniversary 'Class of 1912' reunion. Presumably he bought it from D&O specifically to give it. Or maybe someone (like Philip Hofer?) advised him that it would make an ideal gift?

    2. I agree with your suggestion. This looks very much like the kind of manuscript Philip Hofer collected for himself and for his Department of Printing & Graphic Arts. And Hofer was a good customer of D & O.


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