by Giada Gelli, Preservation Assistant
As the cleaning of the Thom Collection drew to an end yesterday, we thought it fair to take a moment to talk about its beauty and richness. This stunning collection of some 3,900 volumes was the personal library of Alexander Thom (1801-79) – Thom’s Directories anyone? – and was donated to the National Library by his family at the beginning of the last century. Having the task of cleaning and surveying each and every item of this collection has been a massive pleasure and honour for the Clean Sweep team. One could think of this collection as a snapshot of the 19th century, of the culture and beliefs of that time, further enriched by several items collected by this Dublin-based printer that date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The subjects and topics represented in the Thom Collection are eclectic to say the least: from literature to science, from statistical accounts to religious volumes, from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to the Bible in Irish.
One of the treasures that was revealed to us in the process, and that is now on temporary display at the Clean Sweep Project, is a book of fairy tales from the Victorian era. This green cloth-bound large book with colour illustrations printed by the famous English engraver Edmund Evans (1826-1905), is the first edition of In Fairyland: Pictures from the Elf-World by Richard Doyle and William Allingham. The gilt lettering of the cover and the vibrancy of the chromolithographs throughout are an absolute aesthetic wonder. This book is a veritable jewel, which ended up taking us by the hand into a journey of discovery of an extremely talented Irish-Scottish family: the Doyle family.
This journey starts here and will continue in other posts, so keep watching this space for more! But let’s go back to the Elf-World for a minute… The book’s title page tells us that it was published in London in 1870, but it was actually published just in time to be sold for Christmas 1869. The book describes the life of fairies in a forest in Fairyland through a series of rich illustrations and a long poem. The poem is written by William Allingham (1824–89), a Donegal-born poet and customs officer, most famous for his poem The Fairies – “Up the airy mountain,/Down the rushy glen,/We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men…”
The illustrations are by Richard Doyle (1824–83), who was also the uncle of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. And this was not the only famous relation Richard Doyle had, since his father and some of his brothers were all important artists and draughtsmen of their time. However, Richard (aka ‘Dickie’ or ‘Kitcat’) himself had an amazing career as illustrator, caricaturist, printmaker and watercolour painter. He worked for the famous Punch magazine from 1843 to 1850. During his time there, among other things, he designed the cover that was used for the magazine up until 1956. As a book illustrator, he contributed works to famous writers such as Dickens, Ruskin and Thackeray, but In Fairyland is considered to be by far his masterpiece. In our Prints and Drawings Department here at the National Library, can be found 3 original preparatory works for this book (PD 3051 TX), sketched in black ink on white paper, and believe me they are amazing. They are so simple and yet they already convey the power and craft of the final illustrations that can be found in the book.
If you’re unable to come to the library to see In Fairyland for yourself, you can find the entire digitised volume, including the colourful illustrations, on Google Books. And see you soon for a new chapter on the Doyle family!