James O’Byrne’s Architectural Books

In July 1987 Christie’s dispersed in a 235-lot sale the best books from the Library of the Liverpool based architect James O’Byrne (1835-1897). Hugh Pagan reveals the biographical mistakes in the catalogue and the purchasers of some of the books.

Twenty-seven years ago this month (22 July 1987) Christies dispersed in a 235-lot sale the best books from the library of the Liverpool-based architect James O’Byrne (1835-1897). An introductory note to the catalogue rather strangely described O’Byrne as a pupil of Pugin, who had died when O’Byrne was aged seventeen and with whom O’Byrne had no recorded contact, and went on to say, without discernable evidential support, that O’Byrne “was associated with many eminent British and European architects”, but the library which O’Byrne had assembled was nonetheless the most cohesive collection of books put together by a British architect of his generation to have survived into the second half of the twentieth century, and it is appropriate to offer a few reflections on it.

First, the older books in the library. These were not especially numerous, and not always in the best of condition, but they reflect an appreciation by O’Byrne that any significant library of books on art and architecture should contain such books as Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (lot 3, bought by Sam Fogg), Carlo Fontana’s Templum Vaticanum (lot 72, Sir William Tite’s copy, bought by the Weinreb firm), and William Kent’s Designs of Inigo Jones (lot 105, again bought by Fogg), as well as respectable holdings of volumes with engravings by Piranesi, including a presentation copy from Piranesi himself – a detail which the cataloguer had failed to notice – of the four volume set of L’Antichita Romane (lot 153, bought by Sims Reed).
O’Byrne’s copy of Zabaglia’s Castelli e Ponti, 1743 (lot 235, again bought by Sims Reed), also deserves a mention in that it was William Burges’s copy, another detail overlooked by the cataloguer.

Second, the nineteenth century books in the library. Here O’Byrne’s intention was clearly to put together a comprehensive collection of the larger and handsomer illustrated books on architecture and related subjects published from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, subject only to the fact that he seems not to have been much interested in the classical revival styles fashionable early in the century (hence no titles by Soane or Schinkel). His primary book-collecting interest seems to have been in Ruskin, on whom he put together a 77-title collection bound in 123 volumes (lot 186, bought by Fogg), but his holdings of books on English Gothic Revival architecture and Gothic Revival architects were extensive, including a rare bound volume of pamphlets on the controversy between Pugin’s son and Barry’s son as to which of their fathers was really responsible for the design of the Houses of Parliament (lot 172, part). His shelves were similarly well-stocked with such titles as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (lot 106, first edition, bought by Mackenzie) and Alhambra (lot 107, bought by Denniston), and with similar books with chromolithograph plates by such authors as Ludwig Gruner (lots 83, 84, 111) and Texier and Pullan (also lot 111). More surprisingly, his holdings of books on French architecture included not merely books by Viollet-le-Duc (lots 217-222) but a set of César Daly’s big volumes on L’Architecture Privée aux XIXe siècle (lot 55, bought by Weston) and bound runs of French architectural periodicals.

As often happens at book sales, the attention of the bidders on the day chiefly focused on the more valuable and more familiar titles, but careful viewing of the lots containing multiple items proved productive, and the present writer suspects that our firm, then in its infancy, may have bought more sensibly than almost any other buyer. For the record, we were the purchasers of lots 5 (multiple lot), 36 (Burges’s Architectural Drawings), 64 (Dubreuil’s Perspective), 70 (multiple lot), 85 (multiple lot, including De Vogue’s Les Eglises de la Terre Sainte), 122 (a two-book lot, including Barry’s The Traveller’s Club House as an item not named in the catalogue), 124 (multiple lot), 159 (multiple lot), 168 (multiple lot), 181 (multiple lot), 182 (multiple lot), 192 (Scott’s Personal and Professional Recollections, with two enclosed autograph letters), 195 (multiple lot), 201 (multiple lot), 215 (multiple lot, including Dresser’s Art of Decorative Design, not named in the catalogue), 220 (multiple lot), 223 (multiple lot), and 234 (multiple lot, including Caumont’s Statistique Monumental du Calvados).