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JOEL Joel's Blog

Book Collecting In the 21st Century - Academy of Armory by Randle Holme (1688)


A random page with animals and a thank you to a patron
A random page with animals and a thank you to a patron

I collect books about woodworking and crafts. I also collect tools, but that's not what this post is about. I have been told by reliable sources, and have seen myself, that antiquarian book prices are dropping. Libraries have less interest in their rare book rooms than they ever have, with perhaps only a spare Guttenberg Bible garnering attention.

It makes a fair amount of sense. The major purpose of rare book collections was to preserve and make accessible information that otherwise would be lost. So thirty years ago, if you needed to consult a book, you needed the book or a reprinted edition. Since most books never got reprinted, it meant a trip to a library that held an original copy. Thanks to the internet, there is really never any need to see the actual original document. And certainly it is a lot easier to call up an electronic copy of something than to actually leave the house.

With their primary function removed, old books have been turned into true collectibles. Paintings were once a way to preserve memories, but with film and video, they have become mostly collectibles. Books, since they don't look like much unless open, are an even more of a collectible, and perhaps even more of an idiosyncratic choice.

I personally love books. I love the idea that I have history in my hand. Occasionally I have had to consult an original edition of a book because the online versions either weren't good enough for research or just not available, and I have certainly made a few discoveries because of access to the original material, but mostly I love the feel of old books. There is a real beauty to original wood engravings printed with ink under great pressure in a press. I see that in the illustrations of all my old books.

But another exciting part of book collecting applies to any collectible: the hunt. I have been looking for a copy of Randle Holme's "Academy of Armory" (1688) for at least twenty years. I finally found a copy and tracked its journey to the US. It showed up at my door in the middle of Covid and I was all a-tizzy. It's sort of anticlimactic that the thrill of the hunt is over, but "Academy of Armory" is one of the few extant 17th century books that those interested in the history of woodworking tools need to consult. The other two that come to mind are Moxon and Felibien. Even months later I have barely cracked the "Academy of Armory" open and I've already learned stuff. Only a tiny bit of the book is about tools. Much more space is devoted to flora and fauna, heraldry symbols, and other information that seemed like the most impressive information to impart in the 17th century. I don't know what information was gathered from original sources and what was copied from other books. Sadly a lot of the woodworking information appears to be lifted from Moxon. Holme was trying to make an encyclopedia of all things. Needless to say, he failed: life is too complicated for that. And the book was a failure in that he never finished all the sections he wanted to because of a lack of customer support. But for me, the book is an amazing success. I'm fascinated by what he found important enough to write about and sometimes illustrate. As I learn more I know there will be some more blogs on the material, but for now here are a few pages for perusal.

The book was printed in Chester and might have been the largest book printed there up to that time. 1688 (when this book was printed) is a couple of centuries after Gutenberg, but printing was still a high-tech endeavor. The quality of printing is uneven, and frankly not as good as many other books of the same era. I don't know why. Some of it could be cost. The project was financed by Holme with some - but not enough, as he bitterly notes - outside patronage. It also could be that the technological skill of the printers of Chester in 1688 weren't up to the same level as London or Paris. I don't know.

But the story gets better. Jump below after the illustrations for the real scoop.
Detail of wool working equipment
Detail of wool working equipment

A page on beer making
A page on beer making

Woodworking tools
Woodworking tools

The Frontispiece
The Frontispiece

A week or so after I got the book I was walking on 20th street on my way home and thinking about lunch when a friend of mine, Jeff Peachey interrupted my thoughts and said "Hi". Apparently he was treating himself to some sushi from a fancy place and while he was waiting outside the restaurant he saw me walk by. We said hello and not being in a rush I decided to wait for him get his lunch, I would pick up something and we would eat in the park. Because of Covid this serendipitous meeting was the first time I had seen Jeff in over a year. It seemed like a good idea. Now, every time I get an important book into my collection I always ask Jeff for his opinion about condition and conservation. The reason is that Jeff happens to be a very well known book conservator and he knows all about this stuff. He was interested of course so on the way to the park I popped into my apartment and got the book. In the park, after eating and wiping our hands I gave him the book. It was nice he said, and just as I look for pictures of woodworking tools in every book I get my hands on (a waste of time in "Lady Chatterly's Lover) Jeff looks for pictures of bookbinding tools. And there, just because of a serendipitous meeting, he found the only known images of 17th century English bookbinding tools. This apparently, is a big deal, and has led to at least one talk and a major article in a major major bookbinding magazine.
But it gets better. A week or so after that encounter I was talking with another friend, Annie Raso, who designs wallpaper and mentioned the book because it was one of the only interesting things that happened to me during Covid, and I thought since the book had all these little engravings it might make an interesting wallpaper. I send her some images and guess what, she turned this 17th century encyclopedia into so really cool wallpaper designs.

There is a point to all of this. As a book collector I can't claim any great achievement other than hunting for the book. But unless collectors find, maintain, and most importantly disseminate their finds, all this information will be lost. Jeff Peachey recognized the information and now can shed a little more light on seventeenth century bookbinding. Annie Raso sees the modern application and has the means for bringing all these illustrations into the light. I know that in the future someone will be sitting in a wallpapered dining room and wonder if people really dressed like that back then. And they did. I am really happy to be able to facilitate all of that.

Annie's Wallpaper
Annie's Wallpaper

N.B. One of the most exciting bits about Holme for me is that it has never been completely reprinted and most of the on-line sources are incomplete. only lists 9 copies in libraries and the scanned copies don't have great illustrations. I don't know how many copies exist in private collections but considering the book rarely comes up for sale my guess is not very many.

Join the conversation
04/20/2022 Jim uber
I LOVE the wallpaper!
I'm sure I would spend hours in front of it if I ever saw it!
04/20/2022 Sverre Aune
I share your fondness for books. Reading electronic versions will never match the tactile and visual satisfaction of hard copy. You found yet another jewel in the dust!
04/24/2022 Peter Follansbee
Joel - around 2000, 2001 the British Library published a CDrom of the manuscript drawings of Randle Holme called Living & Working in Seventeenth Century England. It's amazing. I think Jennie Alexander & I included a few drawings from it in our Joint Stool book. The froe for instance - the only 17th century image of one I've found. In it we learn that Holme started his book in 1649. One of the authors of the CD is NW Alcock - Jane Rees' brother. Peter Follansbee
04/27/2022 David Wheat
Being a woodworking book lover too, I am curious about the asking/selling prices of the books.
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