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UCL Special Collections


Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK


Oscar Wilde’s Library at UCL

By Sarah S Pipkin, on 13 June 2024

On April 24th, 1895, the contents of Oscar Wilde’s house at No 16 Tite Street were auctioned off to pay his debt to the Marquess of Queensberry. Included in the sale was Wilde’s library of over 2000 books, alongside drafts, letters, paintings, furniture and his children’s toys. Wilde did not use a personalized bookplate or write his name in all his books, and the auction only provided an incomplete record of his library collection.  

Of Wilde’s library, only about 40 books have been identified. This list is slowly increasing – including the addition of at least two books that are in UCL’s collection. These books were previously unknown to researchers, and while they’ve long been listed in the catalogue as being connected to Wilde, their provenance was not fully researched.  

The Golden Lotus 

Within Wilde’s collection were several presentation copies – or copies of books given as a gift from the author alongside a personalized inscription from the author to the recipient. One such book at UCL is The Golden Lotus by Edward Greey.  

The Golden Lotus open to an inscription by Greey to Oscar Wilde. The Inscription is written in both Japanese and Romanized characters

Title page of The Golden Lotus, shelfmark FLS C73 GRE

Edward Greey published several works on Japanese history and mythology. The Golden Lotus includes his retelling of several Japanese folklore stories. Today, it is part of the Folklore Society collection, currently on deposit to UCL.  

The title page includes a large inscription from the author to Oscar Wilde. A new year’s greeting is written in Japanese characters, romanised Japanese, and English. Oscar Wilde was known to be interested in Japanese art and literature, so it is not surprising to find a collection of Japanese folklore on his shelves. This volume is also listed in the Tite Street auction catalogue, making it very likely that this book sat on Wilde’s shelves until 1895.  

Auction catalogue entry reading "Art Industries in Japan, The Golden Lotus, Alison 3-vol. Novel &c. 2 parcels

Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of University College Oxford: Ross d.216 p.9 cropped.

At the top of the inscription is a note by a second hand: “Bought 27/4/95 from F. Edwards, 83 High St, Marylebone (From sale of Oscar Wilde’s library under Sheriff’s order 23/4/95 by Brooks at Duke St))”.  


Also in our collection is the English edition of Salome. This edition includes a printed dedication to Lord Alfred Douglass, Wilde’s lover and son of the Marquis of Queensberry.  

Salome holding the head of Iokanaan

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley from Salome, shelfmark ENGLISH RARE Q 120

While our copy contains no ownership notes from Wilde, it includes the same note added to The Golden Lotus. It also includes a donation ex-libris plate noting that the donor was F.M.C. Johnson, a librarian for both UCL and the Folklore Society. Because The Golden Lotus has a clear history connecting it back to Wilde’s library, it is likely that our copy of Salome also came from Wilde’s library. The Title Street auction lists at least two copies of Salome, though there is not enough information to absolutely confirm that the copies listed in the auction catalogue include UCL’s copy.  

Inscription reading Bought 27/4/95 from F. Edwards, 83 High St, Marylebone (From sale of Oscar Wilde’s library under Sheriff’s order 23/4/95 by Brooks at Duke St))

Inscription from Salome, shelfmark ENGLISH RARE Q 120

Sex. Aurelli Propertii carmin 

UCL is also home to a third book owned by Wilde. Sex. Aurelii Propertii carmina : The elegies of Propertius with English notes include an inscription from Wilde dated March 1874. This book dates to Wilde’s time as an undergraduate studying classics at Trinity College Dublin. While there is no evidence connecting it back to the Tite Street sale, this was at least part of Wilde’s student book collection. 

Title page with an inscription reading "Oscar F Wilde March 1874"

Wilde’s inscription in Sex. Aurelii Propertii carmina. Shelfmark STRONG ROOM OGDEN 108

It is heavily annotated throughout, with almost every single page having some degree of notes and underlining. Most of the notes are clearly in Wilde’s own hand, though there are several notes by a different person  

Back boards showing annotations by Wilde and an unknown former owner

Annotations by Wilde and an unknown former owner. Shelfmark STRONG ROOM OGDEN 108

We are pleased that we can add to the growing list of known books from Wilde’s library. Rebuilding Wilde’s library allows us to better understand the works that influenced his own writing and his relationships with other authors. It is also a reminder of how easily history can be lost. Over a couple of days, Wilde’s entire life was dismantled, sold and spread across the world. Who knows how many of Wilde’s other books sit in libraries and private collections across the world, unrecognized because Wilde never wrote his name in them?  

While we keep an eye out for further traces of Wilde’s library in our collection, there are several other libraries that have identified Wilde’s books in their collection: 

One of five surviving copies of the Tite Street Auction Catalogue is held by University College Oxford 

Our collections are open to the public, and you are welcome to make an appointment in our reading room to see Wilde’s books and other items in our collections.  

Thanks to Elizabeth Adams, Mark Samuels Lasner, Thomas Wright and Iain Ross for their help and insights in investigating the provenance of these items!  

Cataloguing Mysteries: Engravings of the Electors of Bavaria

By Harriet S, on 15 November 2018

Retrospective cataloguing can be a great way of unearthing treasures in UCL’s extensive collections. Few other librarians will be so systematically working through a subject or donation from many years ago, and many of the texts are hidden until cataloguing, with only the bare bones of an online record or in some cases nothing at all.

The most recent mystery comes from the unlikely source of 20th century art books being catalogued for storage. Amongst the unremarkable, modern volumes was a small book of engravings. The only text included in the book is instructions from the bookbinder in German (“An den Buchbinder”), and nothing about the text gives much of an idea of its publication or provenance.

An afternoon with UCL’s conservators revealed some probable dates, as the book uses rag pulp paper so would likely have been produced before the widespread adoption of wood-pulp paper (circa 1837), and the binding has many 18th century features such as red bole edges and French Style laced boards, alongside some more recent elements. Already the book was looking to be much older than its shelf-mates.

Perhaps the most unique identifier at this stage was a watermark of the coat of arms of Bavaria, and a letter (M? W?) visible below it. The database of watermarks at Memory of Paper described a similar watermark on a music manuscript at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek but without any image available, the only option to verify the watermark was to contact the library directly and request one.

By some coincidence, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek was conducting watermark research at the time and were kind enough to send an image, verifying that this was indeed by the same paper-maker: Matthias Weitenauer, active 1763-1773. However, as the final engraving is of Karl Theodor, who only became Elector in 1777, the book as a whole would have had to come together after Weitenauer’s presumed working period. So, other than the knowledge the book was not created before the paper it’s printed on, an exact date was still not forthcoming.

To get a more concrete date, the priority was to identify the engravers. 2 out of the 62 engravings were signed: Weissenhahn Sc[ulpsit], likely to be Georg Michael Weissenhahn (1741-1795) who engraved portraits in this period, although none of this book’s portraits seem to be discoverable online. It is likely that the other 3 engravings in a similar style are also by Weissenhahn, which left a mere 57 unaccounted for!

Searching for specific engravers of these very popular subjects is no mean feat, and it wasn’t until a Google Image matching search on the engraving of Carolus Crassus (“Charles the Fat”!) that the rest of the portraits could be reasonably ascertained to be by German 17th century engraver Wolfgang Kilian. Once identified, his engravings could be found in a number of works, including Excubiae Tutelares Serenissimi Principis Ferdinandi Mariae Francisci Ignatii VVolfgangi (Monachii : Leysser, 1637) and Ain und sechtzig Königen und Hertzogen auß Bayern Bildnussen (Munich : Johann Wagner, 1655). None of these also contained the Weissenhahn engravings, however.

An exhaustive search for both engravers, and a trawl through sales records of books finally led to the book itself: Geschichte von Baiern: (zum Gebrauch des gemeinen Bürgers, und der bürgerlichen Schulen) by Lorenz von Westenrieder, 1786. The instructions to the bookbinder appear to tally with the plates’ location in the text, and all plates from both engravers are accounted for. Again the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek is conspicuous as the only public institution holding another copy of the work.

The provenance of the book was also initially unclear – presented “by two old students to commemorate their association with the college” it seemed to give no indication of who these students actually were. Only by examining other books with the same label could the donors be discovered to be Adolf and Nellie Wohlgemuth, early 20th century psychology students at UCL (and Adolf, later, a lecturer).

To go from no information at all to knowing both the plates’ origin and the book’s most recent provenance feels like a huge achievement. Yet on some level the book remains a mystery. Why did this particular group of plates never reconcile with the text? How did Adolf Wohlgemuth, born in 1868, come across this 1786 volume? Maybe Wohlgemuth or his family only ever purchased the plates. Or perhaps a former owner decided to get text and plates bound separately, but if so the text volume has never been found at UCL.