Rare 18th-century Bible acquired by archives


Two hundred years after its printing, a copy of John Baskerville’s folio edition ofthe Holy Bible – one of only 1,250 printed in Cambridge, England in 1763 – made its way to Canada. That same rare Bible was transferred by Richard Tottenham to York University Libraries’ (YUL) Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, making it one of only two copies in a Canadian academic library.

Baskerville’s folio edition ofthe Bible was printed by Cambridge University Press in 1763. Baskerville was recognized as a typesetting trailblazer, and Random House notes that this edition of the Bibleis, “a Baskerville masterpiece, regarded as the finest and most important work from Baskerville’s Cambridge Press.”

From left, University Professor Emeritus John Lennox, Richard Tottenham and University Librarian Cynthia Archer examine John Baskerville’s 18th-century Holy BibleFrom left, University Professor Emeritus John Lennox, Richard Tottenham and University Librarian Cynthia Archer examine John Baskerville’s 18th-century Holy Bible

The Bible was printed in Baskerville’s Great Primer type, which is slender and delicate, combining elegance with readability – important traits since the book was intended to be read aloud from church pulpits. Talbot Baines Reed, 19th century historian of English typefounding, describes the Bible in A History of the Old English Letter Foundries as Baskerville’s “magnum opus… his most magnificent, as well as most characteristic specimen.”

Michael Moir, university archivist and head of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, notes the scholarly value that this Bible can bring to coursework and research at York. “At first glance, one may think a Bible would be an excellent teaching aid for humanities courses, but I think it could seamlessly be integrated into fine arts curriculums and research – specifically book design courses,” says Moir. “John Baskerville is known as a typographic expert, and this folio edition ofthe Holy Bible can be a valuable resource for fine arts undergraduate students studying the evolution of the printing process and typography.”

Speaking to the authenticity and longevity of this 250-year-old Bible are hand-scribed records of birth and baptismal dates within Tottenham’s family, dating back to the year 1810. These recordings trace Tottenham’s lineage and suggest the year in which the Bible was originally purchased by the second Marquess of Ely (Tottenham’s ancestor). Preserving these familial references was important to Tottenham and part of the reason that he decided to bestow the Bible to Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections. “My siblings and I wanted the Bible to be housed at York so it could be studied and used to enhance scholarship and research,” Tottenham explains. “But I also knew it would be well preserved, which The second Marquess of Elywas important to me because the Bible contains references to my ancestry.”

The second Marquess of Ely

This Bible has been entrusted to the archives due, in large part, to a coincidental conversation between Tottenham and University Professor Emeritus John Lennox, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “Richard (Tottenham) and I have been friends and neighbours for many years, and in a recent conversation he serendipitously mentioned that he inherited an 18th century Bible,” Lennox explains.

“I thought it would be of great interest to scholars and researchers and a marvelous addition to our rare books collection. I mentioned to Richard that the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections would be able to conserve the Bible’s historical value while making it accessible to the public,” says Lennox. “I’m delighted about the whole thing and tremendously grateful to Richard for placing the Bible in York University Libraries’ (YUL) care, and to Michael Moir for making it happen.”

For more information about John Baskerville’s edition of the Bible or how to integrate it into coursework and research, contact Anna St.Onge, archivist, digital projects & outreach, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Room 305, Scott Library, at astonge@yorku.ca.