Collecting Longitude

The Cambridge University Library offers an unusual prize to undergraduate and graduate students at Cambridge: The Rose Book-Collecting Prize for students with interesting book collections. I have seen adverts for this go out over the past two years and never thought I had anything that I could enter, until last week when I realised that I’ve built up quite a collection of longitude-related books and ephemera, especially to do with Hogarth (no surprise there really). So, I thought I would try entering my collection for the prize and the 500 word essay required makes a perfect blog post too …


Like all good collections, this started with an idea: to look at representations of longitude for my PhD. Like, I suspect, all personal collections, it grew with the conviction that I would understand each item better if I owned it myself. And, like all modern collections, it started on amazon.co.uk.

The process began with a ‘bridging’ item. In writing my masters thesis, I had been particularly influenced by the historian Paul Fussell’s work from the 1960s, now hard to find. In 2010, while Christmas shopping on Amazon, it appeared as a recommended purchase, and I bought it as a sort of talisman for future research. The look, feel and, most importantly, smell of these older hardbacks always brings them to life for me.

As I worked on the PhD, researching popular discussions and representations of the problem of measuring longitude at sea in the eighteenth century, I became particularly interested in a print by William Hogarth, which shows a ‘lunatic’ solving the longitude problem on the wall of Bedlam. The collection grew out from this one image three ways. Firstly, I scoured second hand and discount bookshops searching for Hogarth print collections, and couldn’t resist some of the secondary material on Hogarth and visual culture that I found along the way. I like owning second hand copies of books that feel like they have an independent life, and bring with them the previous ideas and emotions with which they have been associated.

Secondly, I bought myself a new copy of Hogarth’s art theoretical text, The Analysis of Beauty, thinking that I could annotate it. But the book turned out to be so white and beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to mark it. I did, however, find cheap versions of other eighteenth-century literature that discuss the longitude problem – authors like Pope, Swift and Sterne – and made them into working copies. I went to theatre productions of eighteenth-century plays and added the programmes to my collection.

Researching Hogarth, thirdly, made me aware of the varied responses to his work by other artists, especially George Cruikshank, David Hockney and Grayson Perry. I purchased catalogues, postcards, prints and even DVDs that show how they developed Hogarth’s iconography. This makes my collection disparate in both chronology and content, as it extends to ephemera, digital and website items, but I think any modern collection has to incorporate these media, and that is one of its beauties.

Detail from Hockney's programme for the 1975 season at Glyndebourne. Author's Own.

I like the highly personal nature of my collection, but would like to expand the more traditional part, to buy the classic works on Hogarth by Ronald Paulson, older editions of the eighteenth-century literature, and a set of Hockney’s Rake’s Progress etchings. One day I will display the whole collection together: the books and pamphlets housed in shelving units between the prints and postcards, with a screen showing the digital items. It will cohere around an original copy of Hogarth’s Bedlam print at the centre, which, one day, I might afford to buy, and then the collection will be complete.

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