The John Ashburner collection

Earlier this year we completed the cataloguing of the Drama Collection; material within it ranges from 1598 to 1927, and out of the 900 items there are about 400 which can be considered Restoration drama.  Within this collection 53 are known to have formerly belonged to John Ashburner, a 19th century physician and spiritualist.

The fifty three items from the Ashburner collection range in date from 1713 to 1784, a range of about seventy years, although about half of the books date from either 1735 (15 items) or 1736 (10 items).  The authors represented in this collection are typical of the period, as reprints of earlier Restoration playwrights, with examples from John Banks (1650-1706), Colley Cibber (1671-1757), George Farquhar (1677-1707), Nathaniel Lee (1653-1692), Thomas Otway (1652-1685), Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), amongst others.

Ashburner books 008The Ashburner books are identifiable by his bookplate which is a nineteenth century armorial bookplate; the design harkens back to previous centuries rather than the more plain examples common for this period.  At the top of the design is an Ash tree on a wreath of twisted cloth – this is the Ashburner crest; on the plain shield we find the family coat of arms, which includes 3 crescents and 3 mullets on one side, and a lion rampant with three hands on the other.  Above the shield is a knight’s helmet, and the shield has foliage above it.  Also included on a scroll at the bottom is the family motto: Quicquid crescit, in cinere perit which means Whatever grows, perishes in ashes.

Ashburner books 009Of the 53 volumes containing the bookplate there are only seven items which bear any other provenance information, aside from the later Public Library bookplate.  The signatures on these books include the names Mary Wright (Jan 18 1764), Frances Salmon, Catherine Cotton, Ann Harris, and [?]Roger 175[?].

Ashburner books 014c

It is possible to make the assumption, at least with the two cases that bear dates, or partial dates, that these signatures belong to owners prior to John Ashburner.  Two names appear twice, those of Frances Salmon and Catherine Cotton; it has not been possible to discover any information about any of these individuals named.

The signature of Frances Salmon also appears on two other volumes in the Restoration Drama collection which don’t contain the Ashburner bookplate. However, these volumes match the other items in the Ashburner collection in size and in style of binding – half bound in leather with marbled paper covered boards.  They are both on plays by George Farquhar, The beaux stratagem (1733) and The constant couple (1735), and the leather on the binding matches the colour used for other Farquhar volumes which do bear the Ashburner bookplate.  It is reasonable to assume that there are a number of other volumes in the Drama collection which although not bearing the Ashburner bookplate did belong to his collection.

Ashburner books 024a

John Archibald Ashburner was born in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1793, where his father was a member of the Supreme Court, under the Privy Council of India. He was educated in England, and studied medicine at Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where he graduated as a doctor of medicine in 1816.

At some point he married Elizabeth Grey-Farquhar and they had a child in 1818; this was the same year that he was appointed as physician to the Small-pox hospital in London.  He held this position until 1824 when he left for duties in India.  When he returned to Britain he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and a physician to Queen Charlotte’s Lying In Hospital, London and a lecturer of Midwifery and the Diseases of Women and Children at St. Thomas’ Hospital.[1]

He died in London in 1878 at the age of 85, and his wife died the following year.

Ashburner was a physician and physicist, but also an author and a spiritualist who was acquainted with Madame Helena Blavatsky and Mrs Hayden.[2] He wrote Notes and studies in the philosophy of animal magnetism and spiritualism (1867) and was the translator of K. L. von Reichenbach’s Physico-physiological researches in the dynamics of magnetism, electricity, heat, light, crystallization and chemism in their relation to vital force (1853). He also contributed to a variety of spiritualist publications such as the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph, was a member of the Charing Cross Spirit Power Circle, and was on the committee of the Mesmeric Infirmary.[3]

As an intelligent and educated man, it is not surprising he had such a collection of dramatic works, although they appear not to directly correspond to the interests he was known for.

The Ashburner collection comprises approximately 5% of the Drama Collection, and is somewhat larger than the bookplates give evidence for.  It is an interesting snap-shot of drama from the mid 18th century, although it was acquired about a century after it was published by Ashburner.  All the volumes are bound in a distinctive style to bring a cohesive look in the owner’s library.  The majority are single plays, although there are some multi-work items; and in some cases items which had previously been bound together have been separated and rebound individually (either by Ashburner himself, or a previous owner).

Although there is relatively little information available about John Ashburner, he was a prominent enough figure within medicine and spiritualism in the nineteenth century to be traceable as an individual; through both internet sources and printed books on the spiritualist movement.

To date it has not been possible to trace how his collection came to Cardiff, as this is not a location he is known to have resided in or have connections with; it can only be presumed that his collection was sold at auction after his death and was acquired at this point by Cardiff Public Library who were looking to build a drama collection.

Ashburner books 023

[1] See p. 16:  Harvey, A., Keelan, P., Pierce, K., & Price-Saunders, H. (2010) Cardiff Public Library sale collections: provenance report: A report produced for CyMAL by Cardiff University Library, January 2010. Cardiff: Cardiff University [unpublished].

[2] For Ashburner’s involvement in the Spiritualist movement see for example Owen (1989, 21): “In London, a loose grouping of middle-class intellectuals and professionals became the early propagators of a particular brand of spiritualism. These individuals included Dr. Ashburner, a Royal Physician and advocate of mesmerism…

[3] See post by Demarest (2013) http://ehbritten.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-nature-of-thought-dr-john-ashburner.html?q=ashburner

One response to “The John Ashburner collection

  1. Hi Karen,

    Your comments on spiritualism in this context are interesting, because we have other 19th and early 20th century collections with spiritualism links – we have Arthur Mee’s ‘Cardiff Astrological Society’ pamphlet collection (he was also interested in Astronomy), and we have the Annie Grace Henderson archive, who had interests in this field (and she was also a Fabian supporter).

    Peter
    (SCOLAR

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