The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
London: W. Strahan & T. Cadell, 1777-1788. First, second, and third editions. Hardcover. This is a full, six-volume set of Edward Gibbon’s magnum opus, originally published between 1776 and 1788. The Fourth (1788), Fifth (1788), and Sixth (1788) volumes are all first editions. The Second (1781) and Third (1781) volumes are each second editions. The First (1777) volume is the third edition. Each volume is professionally re-backed by Felton Bookbinding Ltd., retaining the contemporary, ostensibly original calf boards, the new spines likewise in expertly mated calf with raised, gilt-tooled spine bands and compartments, and twin red spine labels.
Provenance offers us not only early ownership, but also a compellingly poignant moment in time in the long life of these books. The First volume features three armorial bookplates – those of William Lewis Hughes, Lord Dinorben, and Baron de Spon. The first two – William Lewis Hughes (1767-1852) and Lord Dinorben – are one and the same. Hughes was a Welsh copper mine owner, philanthropist, and politician. He was a Whig Member of Parliament from 1802-1831, the latter being the year he was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Dinorben. Given the presence of the two plates, Hughes’s ownership presumably preceded 1831. The third bookplate is that of John Seymour de Spon, Baron de Spon (1913–98) – a more recent provenance, but quite as interesting as that of Baron Dinorben.
In 2011, the journalist David Twiston Davies (1945-2020) wrote of this very set of books and the collector and collection from whence it came: “I had… more than 1,000 antiquarian volumes left to me by a friend… I reveled in a magnificent early volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before a winter fire… The collection had been compiled by the Baron de Spon, a former Telegraph colleague and the only man to have been simultaneously editor of Burke’s Peerage and assistant news editor of the Daily Mirror during the Second World War. He devoted his leisure hours to… trawling antiquarian bookshops and street barrows for choice works. Once purchased, these would then be graced with the de Spon bookplate and motto, Luctor et Emergo (I struggle and overcome), before finding a place on the shelves of his Marylebone flat.” (“When a man must bid goodbye to his books”, Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2011) The First volume is the only to feature the bookplates of both William Lewis Hughes and Lord Dinorben. The Second through Sixth volumes feature only the two plates of Lord Dinorben and Baron de Spon.
Condition is very good overall. The new spines, echoing the contemporary spines they replaced, have secured the bindings and make a handsome, period shelf presentation. The ostensibly original, contemporary boards show expected age and wear, but have been skillfully and discretely stabilized by Felton Bookbinding. The contents are quite respectable for the edition. Folding maps in the First (A Map of the Western Part of the Roman Empire, following the Contents), Second (A Map of the Parts of Europe and Asia adjacent to Constantinople, at p.222), and Third (A Map of the Eastern Part of the Roman Empire, following the Contents) volumes are present, as is the First volume’s engraved portrait frontispiece of Gibbon by John Hall after Joshua Reynolds. Modest spotting within the set is primarily confined to the first and final leaves, with light damp staining to the First volume gutter spanning a dozen leaves, from the front free endpaper to the end of the Contents, as well as the final leaf, rear free endpaper, and rear pastedown.
Edward Gibbon’s publisher, William Strahan, wrote to Gibbon on 8 October 1775, saying of the work, “…though I will not take upon me absolutely to pronounce in what manner it will be received at first by a capricious and giddy public, I will venture to say, it will ere long… be translated into most of the modern languages, and will remain a lasting monument of the genius and ability of the writer.” What could have been taken as the flattering hyperbole of a publisher proved prescient.
The set is a fittingly substantial shelf presence, the volumes 11.25 inches (28.6 cm) tall and 9.25 inches (23.5 cm) deep, taking up 12.5 inches (31.8 cm) of shelf space and weighing more than 30 pounds (13.6 kg). Item #007212