The story begins at University College Cork in 2008. I was working on a British Library manuscript, Egerton 2433, which I was mining for a previously-unedited medieval text. I had seen some digital images before but only of relevant folios and, before travelling to London to look at this and other MSS I ordered a set of digital photographs from the British Library. Pasted onto the marbled papers of the inside coverboard I found a printed bookplate poem, dated by hand to 1859. The poem seemed to me to have unusual materiality: a nineteenth century artefact pasted onto the inside cover of a fairly unremarkable (visually, at least) fifteenth-century manuscript. I showed it to my friend and colleague Mary O’Connell, a Romantic scholar. We had always been very excited about the imaginative relationship that the nineteenth century cultivated with the Middle Ages, but this book, with its bookplate, physically brought our two interests closer together than ever before. We were hooked, and we immediately began to research and dig around.
The poem turned out to have been composed and printed by one Charles Clark, a resident of Great Totham ( and at one time Heybridge), Essex, and who was a voracious collector of books, printer of pamphlets, poems, and ephemera; he was a regular contributor, sometimes under pseudonyms, to Notes & Queries; and he corresponded tirelessly with the litterati of the day. His most frequent correspondents were fellow book-men and booksellers, chief among them John Russell Smith, whose shop was at 4 Old Compton Street in Soho. Clark is a fascinating figure, and Mary and I have been absorbed ever since.
In our blog we wish to record our experiences as we continue to research and piece together the literary and personal life of Charles Clark. There is an archive of letters that Clark wrote to John Russell Smith at Essex Public Records Office (which we visited in 2010), but these letters, rich as they are, do not give a full picture of Clark’s life and interests. Russell Smith was only one of Clark’s correspondents, and Clark, insofar as was possible for someone existing on the margins of literary culture, participated in that culture in a very active manner. We have already identified two manuscripts which bear the bookplate (which you can see below), and would like to hear about more; if you find any, or indeed any references to Clark, please email us. We’ll continue to blog regularly and reveal more about Clark as we publish more and build up our research project.