A generous award will allow King’s College to catalogue and conserve an important part of an outstanding collection of rare books given to the College by George Thackeray, a former Provost. Behind the Thackeray Collection lies an intriguing and tragic personal story.

It’s thought that Thackeray never recovered from this terrible blow [the death of his wife] and that his book collecting may have offered solace for his grief.

When King’s College was bequeathed a library of some 4,000 books by George Thackeray, who was its Provost from 1814 to 1850, the gift arrived as a mixed blessing. Right up until the 1830s, the College library had been held in the side chapels of its world-famous chapel and there was nowhere suitable to house this large influx of volumes. Eventually bookcases were made for an outstanding collection of rare and precious books ranging in date of publication from the 1470s to 1850.

The Thackeray Collection came to King’s in two instalments – a first donation on Thackeray’s death in 1850 and a second larger gift on the death of his daughter, Mary Ann, in 1879.  Its contents reflect Thackeray’s interests in divinity, natural history, poetry and literature as well as travel and sport. The piecemeal nature of the donation, the wide range of books it encompasses and the lack of resources to organise it meant that a comprehensive and accurate catalogue of the collection in its entirety was never made.

Despite the lukewarm response to its arrival, and the absence of detailed descriptions of its contents, Thackeray’s library is now fully appreciated as one of the three most important gifts of books to King’s College in its long history, ranking alongside collections given by the scholar Jacob Bryant (1715-1804) and the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).

Last month King’s was awarded a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that will enable its librarians to catalogue and conserve around 1,600 of the volumes bequeathed by the Thackerays in a project titled ‘Shakespeare and Austen at Cambridge: Celebrating their Centenaries in 2016 and 2017’.  Funding is earmarked for the 1,000 or so works of English literature in the collection, which includes titles by some of the foremost names in literary history, among them John Milton, John Donne, Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson.

The variety of subject matter covered by his books reveals Thackeray to be something of a polymath. He bought items that interested him personally and he purchased both antiquarian and contemporary titles. Among the works of literature, of particular note on the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death is a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, collated and published in 1623.

The First Folio is one of 233 known surviving copies (only about 45 of which are in the UK). Also in the collection are the Second (1632) and Fourth Folios (1685) of Shakespeare’s plays. The front cover of the Fourth Folio is detached and cannot currently be used in exhibitions. One of the first tasks will be to repair this book so it can feature in the forthcoming outreach activities marking Shakespeare’s death.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen: Thackeray’s collection includes a complete set of Austen’s works. Highlights in the Austen collection include rare first editions of her novels Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion along with early editions of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice.

The creation of a comprehensive catalogue of the novels, poetry and plays acquired by Thackeray will entail producing detailed online catalogue records for each book that include full publication details, physical descriptions, collation, description of marginalia, illustrations of rare and historic bindings, Library of Congress Subject Headings, provenance information, and bibliographic references.

Once complete this catalogue will be made available online, allowing scholars worldwide to search the contents of the collection and to consult items in the Library’s established reading rooms or request copies through its imaging services. Outreach is a key aspect of the award: planned is a series of exhibitions, talks, open days and workshops for the public. An appeal for volunteers to help with the organisation of outreach projects has met with an enthusiastic response.

“Many of these books are in need of conservation and cannot be consulted by users or used in exhibitions because of the risk that handling them may cause further damage: covers are detached; spines damaged; fragile items need to be placed in bespoke archival boxes, and so on. The risk is that further deterioration to the books will occur if we do not act now,” said King’s College Librarian, Dr James Clements.

An intriguing and tragic personal story underlies the Thackeray collection.  George Thackeray was born into a wealthy family and was a cousin of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his novel Vanity Fair.  George Thackeray attended Eton College and then King’s, where he took a BA followed by an MA. He returned to Eton as a teacher and then became private chaplain to George III and three successive monarchs.  In 1814 he was elected Provost of King’s. A preferred candidate had been deemed too young. Thackeray, whose health was known to be poor, was seen as a convenient stopgap.

Thackeray remained stubbornly alive for a further 36 years – and shortly before his death was reported by Makepeace Thackeray to be looking “perfectly healthy, handsome, stupid and happy”. But Thackeray’s life was marked by loss. His first wife died shortly after their marriage. When his second wife went into labour with the couple’s first child, the physician attending her had been badly affected by the death of a previous patient, the Princess Charlotte. When Mrs Thackeray showed similar symptoms, the doctor shot himself. Mrs Thackeray died five days later.

It’s thought that Thackeray never recovered from this terrible blow and that his book collecting may have offered solace for his grief. His obituary notes that “there was not a vendor of literary curiosities in London who had not some reason for knowing the provost of King’s”. The tribute continues: “He was an erudite classic, and an eminent naturalist; and his collection and library, in connection with his study, are reputed (as private ones) to rank among, even if they are not the best in England.” Many of the volumes he purchased were sumptuously and expensively rebound in leather. All were identified by the addition of a bookplate featuring the Thackeray coat of arms.

As Provost of King’s, Thackeray steadfastly resisted change and dealt with miscreants with “an almost Roman firmness”. He was, however, outstandingly generous both to individual King’s scholars and to the college itself – though he could be acerbic and crabby. He blocked reform to an antiquated system whereby students at King’s were exempt from University examinations – and it was only after this death that the College was able to phase out this privilege.

The writer of his obituary comes to a blunt conclusion: “Many men have been more widely popular.” But Thackeray’s alleged grumpiness was accompanied by huge generosity of spirit – and, thanks to a generous award , scholars worldwide will soon have increased access to an important collection of rare books.


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