The library of Henry Spencer Ashbee features volumes with printed erotica and a great number of editions of Cervantes' works
About the collection
The library of Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900), bequeathed at his death in 1900, contains approximately 900 works of erotica, many of which are now in the Private Case, and 748 editions of the works of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).
Henry Spencer Ashbee was a businessman, book collector and bibliographer who specialised in erotic literature.
Ashbee travelled extensively, on business and for pleasure, and amassed a significant collection of erotica during his frequent visits to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. He kept his collection in chambers at Gray’s Inn Square, perhaps unbeknownst to his wife. He entertained like-minded people there, including Richard Burton (1821-1890), Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885), and Frederick Hankey (1833-1892). Within Ashbee’s library, there are books formerly owned by fellow experts in the publishing and bibliography of pornography and erotica, John Camden Hotten (1832-1873) and James Campbell Reddie (1807-1878).
The first of Ashbee’s three bibliographies of erotica was published in 1877. It was called Index Librorum Prohibitorum and was published under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi.
Erotica was not Ashbee’s sole interest. His collection of Cervantes works was one of the largest in private hands. The collection is now kept at the shelfmark Cerv.1 etc.
Towards the end of his life Ashbee fell out with his wife, possibly due to her discovery of an affair. He also had a difficult relationship with his son after discovering that he was gay.
Following his death in 1900, Ashbee’s library was left to the British Museum. Of a total of 8764 works in 15299 volumes, c.1600 volumes were of an erotic nature. Of these, the museum destroyed any duplicates and also others which it deemed to be “of offensive matter which is of no value or interest”. This included a lot of low-end English nineteenth century erotica. Some of Ashbee’s erotica was transferred to the Private Case. Most was sufficiently mild to go into the general library collection.
Ashbee’s books can be identified by their accession stamp and date, his pencil marks or the presence of one of his many bookplates.
What is available online?
- Ashbee’s books are fully catalogued on the British Library’s main online catalogue Explore the British Library, however they may not always be identified as such in the catalogue description
- Work has been done by John Goldfinch, former Head of Incunabula at the British Library, to identify Ashbee’s books that are now or were formerly in the Private Case
- Our online guide for the Private Case Collection of erotic printed books
- The Private Case has been digitised by Gale Cengage as part of their Archives of Sex and Gender resource. The database can be accessed for free onsite at the Library.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Private Case copies are held at British Library shelfmarks beginning 'P.C.’. A small number of Private Case items are restricted from access due to their physical condition. Please contact email@example.com for more information.
A selection of Ashbee’s correspondence, diaries and papers relating to his bibliographical work is held in the library’s Modern Archives & Manuscripts Collection and can be viewed in the Manuscripts Reading Room:
- Henry Spencer Ashbee papers Add MS 38808-38809
- Private letters to Ashbee from writers including Sir Richard Burton, Louis Octave Uzanne and others Add MS 38808
- Bibliographical notes on erotic books in H. S. Ashbee’s collection by J. C. Reddie Add MS 38828-29
- Diaries, etc, of H. S. Ashbee with related correspondence and research notes Add MS 88947
- Ashbee’s correspondence and research notes about Rochester’s play ‘Sodom’. From the Ashbee bequest in the Department of Printed Books Add MS 57732
- Ashbee’s copy of the information against John Wilkes for blasphemy concerning his Essay on Woman. From the Ashbee bequest in the Department of Printed Books Add MS 57733
B. Taylor and G. West, ‘The Cervantes Collection of Henry Spencer Ashbee’, in T. Lathrop (ed), Studies in Spanish Literature in Honor of Daniel Eisenberg (2009), 337-61.
David Chambers, 'Ashbee, Henry Spencer [pseud. Pisanus Fraxi]', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2015).