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3D in the 18th century: John Cowley’s appendix to Euclid’s Elements (1758)

Erika Delbecque21 June 2019

Ever since the fifteenth century, printers have grappled with the question of how to make geometrical texts easier to understand by illustrating the text with diagrams. However, the flat surface of a page does not easily lend itself to the clear illustration of complex multi-dimensional figures. In a rare 18th-century edition of Euclid’s Elements that UCL Special Collections recently acquired, John Cowley introduced a new technique that enabled readers to create three-dimensional figures while they studied Euclid’s text.

Elements of Geometry by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid is a mathematical treatise on geometry and the theory of numbers. Dating from around 300 BC, it became the most influential mathematical text ever written. It remained a standard work until the 19th century, and its influence on mathematics, modern science and the reception of classical philosophy cannot be underestimated.

The Elements has also assumed a central position in printing history from the very beginning. It was one of the earliest mathematical works to be printed (you can find a copy of the first edition of 1482 in our collection), and it is one of the most extensively printed texts ever written, with the number of known editions second only to the Bible. Because the text is typically accompanied by diagrams that illustrate Euclid’s figures, editions of the Elements are also an important source for the study of the history of typography and graphic design.

University College London holds the largest dedicated collection of editions of Euclid in the world. The core of this collection was donated in 1870 by John Thomas Graves (1806-70), Professor of Jurisprudence at UCL, as part of his magnificent mathematical library collection. It has since been added to by subsequent purchases, and now numbers 430 works. The acquisition of the first edition of John Cowley’s An appendix to Euclid’s Elements has filled a conspicuous gap in the collection.

John Cowley was a leading mathematician of the 18th century. He had a particular interest in how to make Euclidean geometry easier to understand for students. Cowley’s 1758 edition of the sections of the Elements dedicated to solid figures presented an important innovation in the visual representation of Euclid’s figures. It includes 42 diagrams printed on pasteboard, designed to be folded into three-dimensional pop-up figures by the reader. The accompanying text contains step-by-step instructions for folding the figure.

Although the use of pop-up diagrams in editions of the Elements was not new (the first attempt at using these can be found in John Day’s edition of 1570), Cowley’s edition introduced more advanced folding techniques than any previous diagrams, and it was the first attempt at representing polyhedrals in a three-dimensional way. The success of his approach is apparent from the publication of a second edition in 1765, of which there are two copies in the Graves Library collection.

Our copy of Cowley’s 1758 edition will be on display at our South Junction Reading Room between 12 and 2 on Tuesday 27th August as part of our weekly drop-in Rare-Books Club, which is open to all. It is also available for consultation in our reading room, and for use in teaching and academic events. Contact Special Collections for more information.

This acquisition was made possible by a generous grant from the Friends of the National Libraries.

Further reading

Eunsoo, Lee (2018). Let the Diagram Speak: Compass Arcs and Visual Auxiliaries in Printed Diagrams of Euclid’s Elements. Endeavour 42 (2018), 78–98

‘A book full of anxieties’: The Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Erika Delbecque3 May 2019

Our copy of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

The production of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy was beset with difficulties. The handmade paper from Italy that had been ordered was so defective that it was unusable, and the stained orange calfskin that was used for the binding, which naturally shrinks and extends in reaction to changes in temperature and humidity, made the boards warp. Francis Meynell, one of the founders of the Press, wrote that ‘it has been a book more full of anxieties than any I have ever tackled’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). Nevertheless, the book became an unprecedented success for the Nonesuch Press; it was the most oversubscribed of all of their publications.

The beginning of Dante’s famous work

Meynell founded the Nonesuch Press imprint in 1923 with his wife, Vera Mendel, and the writer David Garnett, with the aim of applying advances in mechanical book production to fine book printing. As opposed to the private presses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which according to Meynell produced prohibitively expensive books intended to grace library shelves rather than to be read, the aim of the Nonesuch Press was to produce well-made appealing books that were available at relatively low prices. They specialised in carefully designed editions of established literary works, often illustrated by contemporary artists.

Their edition of the Divine Comedy, of which 1,475 copies were printed, presents Dante’s Italian text alongside an English translation. The italic type and the use of roman capitals to mark the start of each line was inspired by the page design of Venetian books from the early sixteenth century. Meynell preferred to use italic fonts for poetry as he felt that it encouraged the reader to slow down. The volume includes 42 illustrations after the famous Renaissance painter and fellow Florentine Botticelli. He designed 19 engravings for Nicholo di Lorenzo della Magna’s 1481 edition of the Divine Comedy, of which we also hold a copy (INCUNABULA FOLIO 6 b ), and he illustrated a late 15th-century manuscript of the work with 92 drawings.

One of the reproductions of Botticelli’s illustrations

The book will be added to our unrivalled Dante collection, which comprises of over 4,000 editions of Dante’s work from the fifteenth century to the present day. When the Nonesuch Press edition was published, a reviewer wrote in the Spectator that he hoped that the copies would not go to ‘those perverse bibliophiles who thwart the holy intention of books by locking them uncut upon their jealous shelves’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). He can rest assured when it comes to copy number 868 – it has joined fellow Dante editions on our shelves, waiting to be requested by eager readers.

Further reading

Dreyfus, John. A history of the Nonesuch Press. London: Nonesuch Press, 1981.