The 1721 Chaucer



I was in Auckland a while ago to take a look at the Auckland City Library’s copy of John Urry’s 1721 edition of the works of Chaucer. There are loads of copies of this book around the world, and I’ve looked at quite a few, but I think this copy is the only one in New Zealand, so I thought I’d take a look. It was a bit of a gamble, travelling all this way to see a book that, for all I knew, had nothing of particular interest in it. As I’ve said, I’ve seen plenty of copies of this elsewhere, but I thought one has to see these things, just to be sure there isn’t something interesting or unusual about this particular copy. Happily for me it was not a wasted journey, as this copy has proven to be interesting.


So the first thing I noticed was the inside cover, in which a pencil note stated: “Very fine copy with extra plates by Mortimer. Very Rare.”

Flipping through the book, I immediately saw what was so unusual. Scattered at intervals are nine handprinted engravings done by John Mortimer in 1787. According to the Chaucer Editions website, these were produced by Mortimer for a planned edition of Chaucer, but the edition never materialised.


In addition, interleaved at appropriate moments are five images cut from a book containing illustrations by Henry Ryland, which originally accompanied an article entitled “The Women of Chaucer” by Alfred Ainger, published in the English Illustrated Magazine in 1884.

One final element: at the start is inserted an illustration of Chaucer from the 1822 edition of Chaucer.IMG_1526

Is this find significant? I’m not sure. Some work on Mortimer and Rylands will help me to understand more about the significance of these images. Similarly, learning more about the provenance of this particular volume, including how it came to be in Auckland, might be useful. At this stage, I can say that the book is part of the Sir George Grey collection, which he donated to Auckland on 26 March 1887. Grey collected a range of books, but the items generally fall into two categories: items that were old, and items that concerned indigenous things (especially about languages), thus this book was clearly bought as part of his efforts to collect old things.

How did the images end up being bound into this volume? The bookplate at the start shows the volume was once owned by Arthur Onslow, who I assume is the British politician (1691–1768).IMG_1525.JPG

Where the book went to after Onslow, I don’t know. My guess at this stage is that all of the additional items were bound into the book at the same time, although I have no proof for this. If this is the case, however, it must have occured after 1884 (when Ryland images were published) and before 1887 (when Grey donated the volume to Auckland).


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