Robert Proctor, William Morris and the mysterious death of ‘the great bibliographer’

Exploring our large collection of books by the Kelmscott Press, I was intrigued to discover a set of proofs from The golden legend, printed by William Morris in 1892 and featuring manuscript corrections by Morris himself. This unique volume also includes the personal bookplate of a former owner, a man named Proctor, and the following note: “Given by Mrs. Proctor in memory of William Morris & of her son Robert Proctor”.

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Robert George Collier Proctor (1868-1903) was a bibliographer and book collector who is primarily remembered for two very different reasons: firstly, for his revolutionary rearrangement of the incunabula in the British Museum, based on the way in which printing technology spread through Europe in the 15th century; and secondly, for the unsolved mystery which surrounds his disappearance in September 1903.

Proctor

Proctor’s method, now referred to as ‘Proctor order’, arranges incunabula (books printed before 1501) by country and city, and then by printer and edition. His development of this scheme for the British Museum and Bodleian Library collections radically advanced the study of early printing, earning Proctor the title of ‘the great bibliographer’.

IMG_1381Proctor was a fanatical follower of William Morris, who he first met in 1894, and an avid collector of books and ephemera from the Kelmscott Press, established by Morris in 1891 with the aim of showing that the high standards of medieval book production could be reproduced by skilled craftsmen in the present. Books produced by the Kelmscott Press were modelled on the incunabula of the 15th century, which perhaps accounts for Proctor’s great interest in Morris.

Throughout his life, Proctor had enjoyed taking long walking holidays, often with his mother who accompanied him until well into her seventies. IMG_1386However, on 29 August 1903 Proctor left London without her for a solitary tour of the Austrian Alps. The trip was scheduled to last three weeks and he wrote to his mother each day until 5 September, when Proctor told her not to expect another letter for some time. He was never seen again. Weeks later, Mrs Proctor, worried that she had not heard from her son, tried to arrange a search of the area but it was too late. No body was ever recovered and it was presumed that Proctor had perished in the mountains after losing his footing and falling down a crevasse.

Some people, including his friend and fellow collector Sydney Cockerell, believed that Proctor had committed suicide. Proctor’s diaries suggest that he was suffering depression due to failing eyesight and impending blindness. The day before Proctor left for the mountains, he wrote out a list of ‘wishes and bequests’, possibly the clearest indication that he did not plan to return.

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A handwritten letter from Cockerell accompanies another of our unique Kelmscott items, a volume of cancelled pages from The sundering flood: “… Mrs Proctor, the mother of Robert Proctor of the British Museum who was lost in the Tirol last September, asks me to send you these two books for the Library of the City of Cardiff”. The ‘great bibliographer’ was just 35 years old when he died, but he achieved much in his short life and his ‘Proctor order’ is still followed today in the major collections of the world.

Sources:
Bowman, J.H. (ed.), A critical edition of the private diaries of Robert Proctor: The life of a librarian at the British Museum. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston  Queenston  Lampeter, 2010.
Downes, Michael, People from the past: Robert Proctor (1868-1903), http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/robert-proctor.html, 2011

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