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French Collections: Highlights

Since the French Revolution of 1789 the British have followed political events in France closely, and the British Museum, whose collections were transferred to the British Library in 1974, made extensive purchases in the fields of politics, current affairs and history, including many newspapers.

Some 20,000 caricatures and illustrations produced in France and Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune are held in the British Library. Forty-two volumes are at shelfmark Cup.648.b.2 and further volumes are at shelfmarks: 14001.g.41 and Cup.648.b.8. Such events were extensively reported and sketched in British newspapers and periodicals, such as The Illustrated London News. Literature is also a major focus of the collection.

La République en danger.

La République en danger. Supplement to La charge, 7/3/1981. Alfred Lepetit (1841-1909). From the collection of French and German caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War at shelfmark: Cup.648.b.2. Copyright © The British Library Board


Some volumes of interest

In 1999 considerable publicity accompanied the publication in France of a "previously unpublished" novel by Alexandre Dumas, which was not held in its entirety in book form in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, although parts were published in Dumas' lifetime. The complete four volumes of La Maison de Savoie were published in Turin, then in Savoy, between 1852 and 1856, handsomely illustrated with lithographs, and the British Library has a copy at shelfmark: 12512.i.9.

The publication of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal in 1857 lead to his prosecution. Six poems were judged "offensive to public morals" and torn out of the unsold copies. Our copy lacks only poem 30 (shelfmark: The second, augmented edition of 1861 is at shelfmark Baudelaire's friends rallied in his support and published Articles justificatifs pour C. Baudelaire auteur des Fleurs du mal in 1857 (shelfmark: 11826.g.13). Numerous translations into English can be found in the catalogue, and many studies, including one by Swinburne. Baudelaire's Les Paradis artificiels was published in 1860 (shelfmark:, and another copy with a different title-page dated 1861 is at shelfmark: 8436.h.10.

Other treasures include a copy of Verlaine's Romances sans paroles, Sens, 1874 with a few manuscript corrections in his minute handwriting (shelfmark: C.97.b.37), a presentation copy of his Poëmes saturniens, (1866) to Laurent Tailhade (shelfmark: and his Poètes maudits of 1884 (shelfmark: 011850.f.50) which contains critical studies of some of his contemporaries, of which only 253 copies were sold at the time.

On 25th March 1873 the poet Rimbaud obtained a reader's ticket at the British Museum. In July of that year, in Brussels, Verlaine shot and slightly injured him after a quarrel, and in October Rimbaud's Une saison en enfer, Bruxelles: Alliance Typographique M.-J. Poot et Cie, was published. The British Library copy has been bound by Rose Adler (shelfmark: C.129.m.13).

Books which consisted mainly of prints were placed in the Department of Prints and Drawings, still part of the British Museum, but some books with fine illustrations remain in the British Library's collections. Lêda, by Pierre Louÿs, published by Mercure de France in 1898, contains illustrations by Paul-Albert Laurens, hand-coloured in shades of dark blue (shelfmark: KTC.37.b.12). Maurice Denis provided lithographs for Le voyage d'Urien by André Gide (1893), published by Libraire de l'art indépendent (shelfmark: 12515.h.31).

 New acquisitions

The frontispiece to Henry Bordeaux. Les Roquevillard.

The frontispiece to Henry Bordeaux. Les Roquevillard. 34 bois originaux de Honoré Broutelle. Paris: Fayard, [1928] (Le livre de demain)

A collection of over 80 books which were published in the series Le livre de demain has been purchased. This paperback series of novels was launched in 1923 by Arthème Fayard, then at a price of two francs fifty centimes, though the price rose gradually to three francs fifty, and then five francs. The books were reprints of novels which had proved successful, but for this series Fayard commissioned up to thirty wood-cuts for each volume, from some of the finest illustrators of the day. The series was a great success, selling many copies, and bringing good literature and art within the reach of all. The books were issued in yellow covers, and the paper, although yellowed, has not become brittle. Many of the titles were not previously held by the British Library and they include several works by Henry Bordeaux, André Corthis, Jean Fayard, Myriam Harry, Henri Duvernois, René Benjamin and many others. These particular editions were not purchased at the time of publication. Illustrators include Paul Baudier, Roger Grillon, Charles Hallo, Paul Vigoureux, Pierre Falké, the prolific Jean Renefer, Jean Lébédeff, G. Jeanniot, L. William Graux, Morin-Jean and Honoré Broutelle, who died in 1929, whose work can therefore be reproduced.

Great Exhibitions
Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Paris Commune
The First World War
The Second World War

  Selection policy

Books and periodicals were also extensively collected in the fields of language studies, philosophy, art, architecture, archaeology, anthropology and the history of the book. Major official publications and documents reflecting France's colonial activities were also purchased. Items from the minority languages of France were acquired.

In recent years our common membership of the European community is reflected in our selection policy, as we seek solutions to similar social and economic problems in our two countries. There is also a greater interest in the social sciences, in problems of development and of the environment and in information technology.



French Section
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