Thursday, February 16, 2012


One of my most prized possessions is this bookplate that belonged to Joseph Priestley and was most likely affixed by his very hands to one of his books. Very few of these bookplates exist at this time since his library at Fair Hill in Birmingham was destroyed in the riots of 1791 along with many of the books in his library.

Priestley’s ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate

The ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate was first described by Charles A. Browne in The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 12, No.6, June 1920, p. 611. According to Browne: The plate was engraved by Josiah Allen of Birmingham and represents a stream of water gushing through a spout from under a massive rock into a smooth glassy pool. A stone curb, overgrown with grass and flowers, surrounds the spring, on one side of which lies a cup for the convenience of the thirsty wayfarer... For simplicity and charm, the writer has seen no bookplate which surpasses this one. For a chemist who worked so much upon the composition of water, the theme…is most appropriate, while for those who have drawn inspiration from the life and works of Priestley…the symbolism of a fountainhead has an added significance.

When Priestley’s home in Birmingham was attacked by a mob in 1791, most of his books were destroyed, although some survived (see H. C. Bolton, Scientific Letters of Joseph Priestley, New York: privately printed, 1891; letter 78).

Browne found this plate in a copy of The Laboratory or School of Arts by George Smith, “a translation of a German collection of receipts for working gold and silver” (London: T. Cox, 1738), which he had acquired from a dealer in London. Browne claims that he had seen no previous mention of this particular plate and implies that Priestley used the plate in books he had prior to the 1791 riot. Andrea Bashmore, a former historic site administrator at the Joseph Priestley House, has found the ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate in The Works of Peter Pindar (Dublin: Peter Porter, 1795) in the Priestley House collection, which seems to negate the idea that the plate was used pre-1791. In fact, Priestley was already in Pennsylvania when this work was printed.  

I have found another post on the Priestley bookplates which might be of interest.
The bookplate measures 7.6 x 10.5 cm.

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