Tales from the Archive: Something Fishy

The library of John and Joséphine Bowes housed in the Museum’s archive is eclectic. Whilst it is made up largely of works of French fiction, poetry, history books, books on art, and travel guides, there are occasional volumes that seem, frankly, odd. As a librarian, these volumes give rise to a whole array of questions: Where did it come from? How did it get here? Sometimes even why is it here? And these lead to the more practical yet less readily answerable question: what on Earth do I do with it?
One such volume in the Bowes library is a book entitled Les Plantes de la mer (‘Sea Plants’). From the title page it is easy to determine that the book dates from 1866, was published in Brest, and written by F. Stenfort. This text, however, does not appear on any other library catalogue I can find. There is another work, Les Plus belles plantes de la mer, méthode à suivre dans la recherche et la récolte des algues (‘The Most Attractive Sea Plants: Method to Follow in the Research and Collection of Algae’), also by an F. Stenfort, which it seems safe to say was written by the same individual, though there are no further clues as to the identity of this man.


Cover of Stenfort’s Les Plantes de la Mer.
Cover of Stenfort’s ‘Les Plantes de la Mer’

So far so straightforward, but the mysteries of this volume lie within. It begins with 23 pages of text about sea plants, which makes sense given the book’s title. But after these 23 pages comes a series of plates, some of which remain blank, but many of which contain pressed seaweed specimens. It would appear the idea behind this volume was that it would function as a practical handbook destined for the amateur botanist, with the plates there to record specimens found according to the guide in the main body of text. In addition to posing questions about its purpose, as a rare books librarian this also gives rise to questions of conservation, as these biological materials could cause damage to the volume that contains them.


Example of a plate bearing pressed seaweed, labelled in a manuscript hand as ‘Ectocarpus firmus’.
Example of a plate bearing pressed seaweed, labelled in a manuscript hand as ‘Ectocarpus firmus’.


Since I have been unable to locate any other copies of this text, I cannot compare its contents with another edition, which may give further clues as to when these specimens were added, and by whom. There is, however, a further piece of the puzzle on the title page, which not only gives the usual basic information about the volume and publication. It also bears a handwritten inscription that reads: ‘A Monsieur Larchey, chef du bureau au ministère de l’Instruction publique hommage empressé de l’auteur, Paris 1 juillet 78, Stenfort’ (To Monsieur Larchey, chief of the Ministry of Public Instruction, attentive homage of the author, Paris 1 July 78, Stenfort’). This inscription gives us information on the provenance of the volume, and in fact means that we can almost certainly trace its history from the author’s pen, through the printing press, to the Bowes Library where it now resides. Lorédan Larchey (1831-1902) was the librarian at the Bibliothèque Mazarine, the oldest public library in France, and then conservator at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris. The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal has a long and illustrious history and contains a great many rare manuscripts and historical works, including the archives from the Bastille, as well as having a focus on French literature and bibliophilia – prominent writer Charles Nodier famously held a literary salon, known as Le Cénacle, during his time as librarian here, which attracted renowned writers like Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Sainte-Beuve (it is perhaps worth noting that volumes by all members of Le Cénacle appear in the Bowes Library).


Title page of Stenfort’s Les Plantes de la Mer, bearing his handwritten dedication to Lorédan Larchey.
Title page of Stenfort’s Les Plantes de la Mer, bearing his handwritten dedication to Lorédan Larchey.


Larchey is a somewhat significant figure for the Bowes Museum. There are strong indications that he and John Bowes had a close friendship: the Museum’s archive contains a letter from Larchey to John accepting an invitation to dine with him at 7 rue de Berlin, as well as a letter containing information about the painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Hubertusburg that appears in the collection (B.M.623), indicating John consulted Larchey for details about Museum objects. Moreover, John owned a number of works written by Larchey, including his famous dictionary of French slang and his editions of the Journal de marche du sergent Fricasse and of his history of Pierre Terrail, chevalier de Bayard, a fifteenth-century soldier celebrated as the pinnacle of chivalry. More telling still is the fact that the edition of Histoire du gentil seigneur de Bayard bears a handwritten inscription from Larchey to Bowes, stating ‘affectionate compliments’, and the Bowes also owned a copy of the Froissart’s Chronicles printed as a presentation copy for Larchey and since given to John according to the handwritten inscription as a ‘souvenir d’ami’, a memorial of friendship. It seems likely, then, that this volume of seaweed given to Larchey by Stenfort was then given to John, though the motives behind this gift remain a mystery. Whether these seaweed specimens were sourced by Larchey or Stenfort is also impossible to say.


Faustin Besson, Portrait of Lorédan Larchey, Oil on Canvas. B.M.377.
Faustin Besson, Portrait of Lorédan Larchey, Oil on Canvas. B.M.377.


In a final testament to the friendship between Larchey and John, a portrait of Larchey also appears in the Museum’s collection. Larchey clearly showed an interest in the Bowes Museum project, and offered John a choice of paintings from his own private collection. In what I feel is a real reflection of the respect and friendship the two men had for each other, the work John chose to include was a portrait of Larchey himself, as a means of commemorating his generosity. This is pure speculation, but I like to think John’s friendship with Larchey during his time at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal influenced John’s own book collecting, suggesting too that the collection of French books in the Museum’s Library are more integral to the Museum project than perhaps we had previously understood. Regardless, what I know for certain is that these volumes reveal important details about the Museum and the lives of its founders, John and Joséphine Bowes.

By James Illingworth, PhD Student, French Library


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