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Smith, James

Specimens of ancient carpentry, consisting of framed roofs, selected from various ancient buildings, public & private, also some specimens of mouldings for cornices, doors & windows, by the late Mr James Smith. Engraved on 36 plates.

London, J.Seago 1 June 1787 (but reissue of 1820s or later ?).

Reference: 11325
Price: £1,650.00 [convert currency]

Full Description

4to. Engraved title leaf, engraved list of plates, 35 engraved plates (of which the first five plates carry 17 separately numbered illustrations). Nineteenth century cloth (a binding of the 1830s ?), neatly rebacked. Ownership inscriptions of Philip A.Robson, 1907, and of Sir Howard Colvin. Some internal spotting. The copy contains several inserted letters, written by librarians in Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere in response to an inquiry from Howard Colvin in the late 1970s, indicating that their libraries then possessed no copies of Smith’s Specimens of Ancient Carpentry. An inserted autograph letter, signed, to Colvin from Christopher Wilson, dated 18 November 1975, pointing out the possible relevance of a plate in the 1736 edition to the design of the roof of the City of London’s Guildhall, seems to have sparked Colvin’s interest in this matter.

Smith’s Specimens of Ancient Carpentry, first published in 1736, offered its readers seventeen engraved designs for the internal framing of timber roofs and twenty-three engraved illustrations of notable examples of mediaeval and early modern roof construction. These were the first illustrations of historic English roof carpentry to appear in a published book and they show the interest taken by Smith, himself merely a working carpenter resident in Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, in the most celebrated ancient roofs then surviving (ten in London and Westminster, eight in Oxford colleges, two in Cambridge colleges, and roofs at Netley, Burghley House and Eltham). Copies of this 1736 edition soon became unavailable – the British Architectural Library copy, acquired by the BAL as recently as 1984, is almost the only copy in an institutional collection – but in 1787 an enterprising London engraver and printseller, John Seago, had Smith’s plates re-engraved and reissued. Seago added to the original volume an illustration of the roof of the great hall of Hampton Court Palace (apparently also from a drawing by Smith but not included in the volume of 1736), together with five new plates of Gothic mouldings and a plate of “Gothick railings”, but omitted Smith’s explanatory engraved text.In the earliest state of this version by Seago the plates were printed on just 19 leaves (including the title leaf), but following Seago’s death or retirement from business around 1809 the copper plates passed into the possession of the architectural bookseller Josiah Taylor, and in the Taylor firm’s subsequent undated reissue the plates were printed on single leaves, with a redesigned title leaf and a new engraved contents list. The Taylor reissue, which carries the Taylor firm’s imprint at the foot of its title leaf, is dated 1814 ? by the compilers of the BAL Catalogue (their no.3076), but they indicate that the book remained available from the Taylor firm well into the 1820s, and our present copy, of an apparently unrecorded reissue on wove paper without the Taylor imprint, may even date from the 1830s.The Seago version of Smith’s plates, of interest in its own right as the first publication to include plates of Gothic mouldings (as Howard Colvin has pointed out), is rare in all its issues – Harris/Savage cite the Taylor reissue from the BAL copy and the New York Public Library copy only – and is well worth acquiring by any serious specialist library or private collector, particularly in light of the fact that the 1736 edition is virtually unobtainable.