Tag Archives: Bibliography

George Steevens: Bibliophile, Scholar, and Prankster


George Steevens (1800)

Perhaps best remembered for his exceptional contributions to the study of Shakespeare, George Steevens was also an incredible collector of books. His enthusiasm for Elizabethan literature led him to build an amazing collection, which also included a number of William Hogarth prints. After Steevens’ death in 1800, his library was sold. A significant portion went to the British Museum. But among his contemporaries, George was equally well known for his literary pranks–which did little to endear him to his colleagues.

Shakespeare Scholarship

Steevens’ first published works on Shakespeare were 49 notes to Samuel Johnson’s 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s works. He strongly believed in preserving the quarto editions of Shakespeare, and soon published Twenty of the plays of Shakespeare, being the whole number printed in quarto during his life-time, or before the restoration, collated where there were different copies, and published from the originals. Johnson was so impressed with Steevens’ work, he suggested that Steevens undertake the entirety of Shakespeare’s works.


Samuel Johnson

That edition, The plays of Will Shakespeare (1773), was ten volumes long and took six years to publish. Though Johnson had contributed to the book only minimally, Steevens lionized his involvement to bolster sales. The edition was received quite well, though later it was discovered that Steevens had borrowed generously from Edward Capelli’s 1768 edition. Steevens and Isaac Reed published an updated edition in 1778. Reed undertook a third edition in 1785, but Steevens, who considered himself a “dowager” editor by this time, had little to do with the project. He resumed involvement only because of his resentment for rival editor Edmond Malone.

Steevens’ Hoaxes and Exploits

For all Steevens’ scholarship, he earned the nickname “Puck of Commentators” for his mischievous pranks. This was certainly a gentle assessment; Steevens executed some exceptional pranks. For his first (mis)deed, Steevens forged a letter from George Peele, recounting his meeting with Shakespeare and other dramatists at the Globe Theatre. Everyone accepted the letter as genuine, and it even appeared in Dr. John Berkenhout’s Biographia litteraria (1777).

Later Steevens decided to exact revenge on Richard Gough, a well known antiquarian against whom Steevens held a grudge. Gough refused to trade his Hogarth plates for some of Steevens’ rare books. Steevens had a large marble block engraved with an Anglo-Saxon inscription and the name “Hardecanute.” The tombstone was displayed in a Southwark shop, and Steevens circulated the story that the headstone had been discovered in Kennington. The faux artifact gleaned a write-up in Gentlemen’s Magazine (1790), and it was Steevens himself who revealed the forgery.

Even accomplished biologist and botanist Erasmus Darwin was taken in by Steevens’ ploys. In the December 1783 issue of London Magazine, Steevens published a description of the invented upas tree of Java, which could kill all other life within 15 to 18 miles. He based his account on the reports of an invented Dutch traveler. Darwin accepted the account and included it in his 1789 Loves of the Plants.

The Other Side of the Coin

Though Steevens obviously loved a good prank, he also helped to expose some of the most notorious forgers of his era. When Samuel Ireland announced that his son William Ireland had discovered a treasure trove of Shakespeare manuscripts. Steevens was quick to criticize the “discovery” and declare the Ireland editions to be forgeries. He also played an important part in exposing the Chatterton-Rowley forgeries.

Meanwhile Steevens was also known for his generosity–sometimes helping the family members of his own rivals. He assisted the family of author Oliver Goldsmith and many others. Ultimately these acts mitigated Steevens’ peers’ evaluation of him. Now he’s remembered not for these hoaxes, but for his scholarship and bibliography.


Hit the Books with Us at RBS

Rare-Book-School-University-VirginiaWhen’s the last time you were in school? If you’re into antiquarian books, bibliography, or any other aspect of the printed word, it’s time to re-enroll. Rare Book School (RBS) offers an incredible array of courses taught by leading scholars in the field. This year, Tavistock Books is pleased to offer a scholarship to an RBS course for an excellent class taught by expert Dr. Joel Silver.

About Rare Book School

Founded in 1983, Rare Book School had its first home at Columbia University. The program moved to its current home, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, in 1992. Each year RBS offers about 30 five-day courses related to old and rare books, special collections, and manuscripts. These courses, mostly offered in Charlottesville, are quite intensive; students attend all-day classes and often opt to participate in lectures and other bookish events in the evenings.

As RBS has grown, it has become much more than a collection of bookish classes; it’s now a mainstay of bibliographic education in the English-speaking world. Schools following the RBS model have been established globally. Meanwhile, in 2005 RBS expanded to offer courses at the Morgan Library & Museum and the Grolier Club, both in New York City. Some courses are now also offered in Washington, DC and Philadelphia.

Our RBS Scholarship

Tavistock Books is pleased to offer a full-tuition scholarship for Joel Silver’s course, “Reference Sources for Researching Rare Books” (L-25). The scholarship is available to all antiquarian booksellers interested in the course, and preference will be given to individuals who are early in their careers or who may not be able to attend RBS without the assistance of a scholarship.

The scholarship is offered every year that the course is taught at RBS, and the deadline for 2013 is rapidly approaching! To apply, you’ll need to submit your 2013 RBS summer application along with a cover letter that outlines your reasons for applying for the scholarship, your work in the antiquarian book trade, and any other relevant information.

About Joel Silver and His RBS Course

First offered in 2012, “Reference Resources for Researching Rare Books” (L-25) offers students a comprehensive overview of the myriad resources available for researching rare books. Emphasis is on early printed works; American and British literature; maps and atlases; science and medicine; historical Americana; voyages and travels; and the book arts. Students will systematically learn about approximately 350 printed and electronic reference sources, along with how each was compiled and the strengths and weaknesses of each resource.

Dr. Joel Silver is Associate Director and Curator of Books at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington, where he’s been on the faculty since 1983. His articles have appeared in Fine Books & Collections Magazine and AB Bookman’s Weekly. Dr. Silver has taught many rare books-related courses at the Indiana University school of Library and Information Science, where he is the Director of Education for Special Collections.

If you have questions about RBS or the Tavistock Books Scholarship, please don’t hesitate to contact us!