January 2009 Archives


Going back to ancient times is a pictorial genre depicting the course of human life — an illustration of a man’s progress from start to end plotted onto the length and depth of a two-dimensional plane. By convention, the beginning point is in the foreground; the end is in the distance. Such images are a single-sheet form of the “picture story,” a means of expression developed so well by Hogarth (“Rake’s Progress”) or Daumier. As Hogarth said “I treat my subjects as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players.”

One of the earliest examples of this genre is the “Tablet of Cebes,” a mural said to be in the temple of Chronos in either Athens or Thebes. It showed one’s progress from entry at the gate of Genius to the goal of reaching Happiness in the end. Here is an image from a 1694 work showing the path.

[H. L. Spieghel, Hertspieghel en andere zede-schriften (Amsterdam, 1694), folding plate following page 72.]

[Note: Detail about the picture can be found on page 8 -11 of Richard Parsons, Cebes’ Tablet (Boston, 1901) available in Google Book Search. Much more on the topic is available from Reinhart Schleier,
Tabula Cebetis; oder, “Spiegel des Menschlichen Lebens darin Tugent und untugent abgemalet ist” : Studien zur Rezeption einer antiken Bildbeschreibung im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Berlin, Gebr. Mann Verlag (c1973).]

Equally forceful is the depiction of the course of life in reverse — in the case of this temperance broadside, cast as a railway route from “Sippington” to “Destruction” with 30 stops in between.

[Black Valley Railroad, Great Central Fast Route, colored wood engraving issued by the National Temperance Society, New York and Boston.(1880?) Ex Item 5184327q]

Up until about 1900, a moral dialogue about the Tablet was widely used as a school text for the teaching of elementary Greek, so it is not surprising that the learned advocates of temperance in the United States adapted the genre for popular, moral instruction.

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Illustrated above is an uncommon survivor of the book trade: an entrance ticket to a general sale of “several thousand volumes” in Edinburgh in 1818.

Unsold stock is the bane of any bookseller. In this case William Nivison put up for sale at the Royal Exchange Coffee House not only single copies of timely books, such as the London, three volume edition of Lewis and Clark’s Travels, but also offered titles in bulk, such as “100 (copies) Burns’s Works, 4 vol. 12mo, calf, titled, [individually priced at] £1, 6s.” He sold more than books, for the catalogue includes such items as drawing boxes at different prices (at 2s, 6s, 10s, and “complete” at £1, 10s), drawing pencils, quills, “maps published within these last 12 months,” and “Church Music Tunes.”

The 2645 volumes and other items in the 11 page catalogue are listed and priced. How did his prices compare with the market? One case in point may well tell the story of the whole. Nivison offers Hannah More’s Sacred Dramas at 3s 6d in calf. An 1815 Scottish advertisement for this same book offered it at 6s in boards. The price differential may give us a clue as to why Nivison was charging admission to the sale (price on the ticket “seven shillings and sixpence.”) He was underselling the trade, which had several consequences. On the one hand, as his prices approached his cost for stock, it meant slim profits per unit. On the other hand, there was money to be made, because profit could be had from the gate fee charged to the bargain hunters coming to his sale. Nivison realized there was value not only in the stock offered but in the event itself. He did not overlook putting a fee to a customer’s opportunity.

But, were there all that many customers? This ticket is number 1592. If it is indeed the 1,592nd ticket sold, then, he would have grossed £597. (He gave £991 as the total value of the stock on sale.) We will never know, perhaps, the final outcome of Nivison’s sale, but, it is recorded “In October 1819, [the Edinburgh Booksellers Society] … was exercised by the ‘system of underselling [that] has prevailed for some time in the Book Trade of Edinburgh.’ ” (p. 138, Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland [2007], vol. 3)

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To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Description de l’Égypte, Princeton University Library is currently presenting the exhibition Egypt Unveiled: The Mission of Napoleon’s Savants.

Despite the failure of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 military campaign in Egypt, the work of the scholars who accompanied him on the expedition was an incredible success. A group of 151 scientists, engineers, and artists was recruited to explore, describe, and document every aspect of the country. From the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt to contemporary customs and trades, from Egyptian animals, plants, and minerals to local topography, the savants—or scholars—captured it all.

The single greatest archaeological discovery made by the French in Egypt was a dark gray granite slab found in July 1799 near the town of Rosetta, east of Alexandria. Measuring forty-seven inches tall and thirty-two inches wide, the scholars immediately recognized the importance of the artifact. The same decree from 196 B.C. is inscribed on the stone in three scripts: Greek (bottom), Egyptian demotic (middle), and Egyptian hieroglyphics (top). The Rosetta Stone proved to be the key to decoding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, allowing the language to be read for the first time in fifteen hundred years.

Description de l’Égypte, the comprehensive result of all of the scholars’ work and research, was published beginning in 1809. Comprising twenty-three volumes and 837 engraved plates, it is considered an extraordinary scholarly achievement as well as a foundational work of modern Egyptology.

Egypt Unveiled: The Mission of Napoleon’s Savants is on view through Sunday, May 10, 2009, in the Main Gallery of Firestone Library. The exhibition was organized by Jen Meyer, Assistant to the Curator of Rare Books. Former Assistant, Paula Entin, also contributed. For more information, visit: http://www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/exhibitions/main.html

Note regarding the exhibition poster: The scholars enjoyed drawing each other at work in Egypt. In this sketch, an expedition artist contemplates a mighty granite statue of Rameses II in Thebes. Citation: “Thèbes. Karnak. Vue d’un colosse placé à l’entrée de la salle hypostyle du palais.” Antiquities. Vol. III, pl. 20. Description de l’Égypte: ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1822. Gift from the library of Ralph E. Prime (1840-1920), presented in 1921 by his sons, Ralph E. Prime Jr., Class of 1888, and William Cowper Prime Jr., Class of 1890. Rare Book Division. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Recent Comments

  • Susan Naquin: Such a fine photograph of this Qing dynasty statue is read more
  • AR Cee: Offering the Paris Exposition book, art lithos and story..." 1878 read more
  • Andy Ramus: Hi, I stumbled across this blog by chance while searching read more
  • katrina: June 9, 2013 I beleive I have # 324 read more
  • Katherine: Do you know where I could get a copy of read more
  • book lover: What an interesting article--thank you! We had no idea that read more
  • Sanda Jackson: Hi Does Princeton now own the copy right to read more
  • Bill Roberts: I'm not sure about that. I suggest these marginalia do read more
  • Bob Burgess: Does anyone know if photos exist of the British Exhibitors, read more
  • Jane Bradbury: I am very interested to see this material at Princeton. read more