Richard Lyne (active about 1570-1600), Angliæ Heptarchia, about 1574, hand-coloured engraving, Harley MS 5957, f. 8, no.13

The Bagford Collection

Antony Griffiths explores the print collection of John Bagford (1650–1716), a trained shoe-maker, book seller and library agent who helped to form the libraries of Robert Harley and Hans Sloane. Encompassing grub-street satires, views, rare maps, book-fragments, title-pages and much more, Bagford’s is a hugely important resource in the history of printmaking and bibliography.

Who was Bagford and what was his collection? 

John Bagford was accurately described by T.A. Birrill as a library agent and book runner. He was a man of no education, and was trained as to be shoemaker. But he developed a love of books, and had that extraordinary memory for titles and copies that marks the great bookseller. 

He did not have a shop though; instead he snuffled out copies of books that he could sell on at a profit, and became a trusted agent for some of the great book collectors of the day. They gave him the run of their shelves, and he worked out what they lacked and turned up the books they needed. 

He also collected for himself, assembling materials for ‘An historical account of the art of typography’ that he intended to publish. But this never happened: he had no training in writing, and his almost illegible manuscripts show that spelling and grammar caused him constant difficulty. 

Like many pioneer researchers he began to drown in the material he had amassed, and at his death in 1716, at the age of about 66, all that he had published was an essay on the invention of printing that appeared in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions for 1707.

Dronken soldaat vergezeld door een vrouw, after Karel van Mander

Anonymous, after Karel van Mander (1548-1606), Nu ben ick lustich frijn ende fris…, about 1588, engraving and etching, Harley MS 5944, f. 12.

John Bagford collected a wide variety of prints, including this Dutch engraving of drunken soldiers after an original drawing housed the Rijksmuseum

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19th-century historians excoriated Bagford for being a destroyer of books, but this was very unjust. He was a friend of the greatest bookseller of the day, Christopher Bateman, who according to Bagford, ‘always gave me notice whenever he had any waste books to sell and freely gave me liberty to take out of them as I thought fit, such as the blank leaves at the beginning of them, old pieces of manuscript, titles, frontispieces, borders, printers’ devices, and by this civility hath very much added to my collection which I have put together in 40 volumes in folio, quarto and octavo, so that I am enabled to show the titles of several hundreds of books from the beginning of printing at Westminster by Caxton to the 16th century, and not only their devices, titles, great letters, but specimens of most of the old printers’ letters that they used. And I am apt to think no-one in Europe hath the like collection’[1].

Angliæ Heptarchia

Richard Lyne (active about 1570-1600), Angliæ Heptarchia, about 1574, hand-coloured engraving, Harley MS 5957, f. 8, no.13

This map shows the English Heptarchy, or the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and is included in the print collection of John Bagford

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The collection was well known. Humphrey Wanley, librarian to Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, saw it and wrote in 1707 that Bagford’s albums ‘were many of them in some state of order, and others not’[2]. When Bagford died in 1716 things had not changed. James Sotheby wrote that his collections needed to ‘be perfected and reduced to method by some able person’[3].  

Through Wanley, Harley bought the whole lot, and from him, or rather his estate, the collection arrived in the British Museum at its foundation, when the volumes were allocated numbers in the series of Harleian manuscripts between 5892 and 5998. This makes 107 numbers, which were described in the 1808 printed Catalogue of Harleian manuscripts, and I think perhaps all previous writers have assumed that this describes the collection as Bagford left it. 

However, in the first printed catalogue of Harleian manuscripts published in 1759 a rather different description can be found. Here is one, for Harley 5910. In 1759 it consisted of ‘Severall paste-board covers with loose papers’. In 1808 it was ‘Several loose papers, now bound together in 4 volumes’. The 1759 description makes a clear distinction between ‘books in folio’ and ‘portfolios’, the former with the material pasted in, the latter with the material loose. 

In 1759 there were roughly 20 folio books, and 45 portfolios, together with 40 smaller quarto books. By 1808 there were no portfolios, and only books. The volumes may have arrived in the Museum in 1753 in more or less the state that Bagford left them. But librarians abhor loose sheets, and soon after 1759 they were pasted into albums, keeping the same material in the same unit – so one portfolio became one album.

Fechter Büechlein Ge Duckt

Martin Pleginck (active 1575-1600), after Jost Amman (about 1539-1591), Fechter Büechlein Ge Duckt, 1594, engraving, Harley MS 5944, f. 57, nos. 175-179.

Published in Ansbach in the late 16th century, these engravings were originally part of a larger series on the subject of fencing and were collected by John Bagford

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That was the first big Museum re-organisation. But a second soon followed. In the 1808 catalogue Harley 5950, ‘A book with the genealogy of the Kings of England their effigies etc’, has a printed comment: ‘From this and most of the other books many things seem to have been taken out’. This was one of the new books pasted up in the British Museum, so it is possible that a second generation of librarians had already re-arranged the contents between the albums, doubtless tidy-mindedly putting like with like, using exactly the same sort of approach that we find with the albums of Hans Sloane’s drawings.

The re-arranged volumes were not left alone for long. In 1808 a new Department of Prints and Drawings was created as a response to the theft by Robert Dighton of numerous valuable prints from the Cracherode collection. In order to protect better what he had left behind, the Trustees determined that it should be moved into a separate room with one key. The entire collection of the new department was created by transfers from the library. The choice of what to transfer was made by the Trustees themselves, and either they or the newly appointed Keeper, William Alexander, discovered the Bagford albums and found that there were numerous engravings and woodcuts among them. So 771 were extracted from the volumes and transferred to Prints and Drawings. 

A surviving list of these, signed by Alexander and Henry Ellis, gives a basic description of each print and which volume it came from, but it does not give the precise number of the folio from which it was removed. The prints were cut out from the volumes, possibly with a paper-knife, and in the case of Harley 5950 it was noted that ‘from this volume it was necessary on account of small portraits strongly pasted down, to cut out numerous leaves’. 

Another note records that of the prints ‘a very large proportion were title pages containing portraits of authors’.

Nocturnæ per domos inquisitiones

Giovanni Battista de’Cavalieri (c. 1525-1601), Nocturnæ per domos inquisitiones, 1602, etching and engraving, Harley MS 5916, f. 26, no.58.

Collected by John Bagford, this engraving published by Richard Verstegan depicts the persecution of English Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I

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Membra disiecta of this kind are a nightmare to catalogue and arrange. In Prints and Drawings the Hollars and historical prints were added to the volumes Ee.2 and Y.1 respectively, and the rest were arranged roughly according to subject and kept loose in 22 parcels. Some of them were marked with a bold B in pen to record their provenance. It was not until 1837 that the parcels were registered in summary form, using the register numbers Gg.4.A to W, and they were then distributed in the main collection, mostly among the series of portrait prints; this was the third great upheaval.

In 1879 a later Keeper of Prints and Drawings G.W. Reid, went through the Harleian volumes again, and made a list of some 1,500 ‘Prints, drawings and etchings in the Bagford collection proposed to be transferred to the Print Room from the Department of Manuscripts’. In a report to the Trustees he cautiously recorded that this had been done ‘with the concurrence of Mr Thompson’, but nothing happened. We must assume that the concurrence of Sir Edmund Maunde Thompson, as he later became, did not stretch so far as to allowing prints to be cut out of his volumes.


Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612), Stonehenge, 1610, etching, Harley MS 5957, f. 30, no.59

This fragment collected by John Bagford was taken from a map of Wiltshire published in Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain 

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The next landmark in the history of the Bagford manuscripts was in 1890–91 when title-pages and other printed fragments were transferred in 59 volumes from the Department of Manuscripts to Printed Books; in exchange Manuscripts got 59 manuscripts that formed part of the Grenville library. C.E. Wright gives the details in an appendix to his Fontes Harleiani. This deal explains why a large number of volumes, which still retain their Manuscript numbers, are kept within the collection of Printed Books, to the lasting confusion not only of many readers but also of many staff within the library. This transfer involved a wholesale division of printed and manuscript material, and Bagford’s manuscript notes or printed material were extracted from any volume that was heading in the wrong direction.

Thermae Aureliani Imp. in Transliberina Regione

Giacomo Lauro (1583-1645), Thermae Aureliani Imp. in Transliberina Regione, 1612-1628, etching and engraving, Harley MS 5944, ff. 63 (no. 185).

This view by Giacomo Lauro was collected by John Bagford and shows the Thermae Aureliani, a bath planned but never built by the Emperor Aurelian

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That was re-organisation number four. The fifth transfer took place a decade later in 1900 when 251 prints were transferred from Printed Books to Prints & Drawings[4]. This made a grand total of 1,022 prints transferred. George Fortescue, in seeking the Trustees’ approval, described them as ‘German prints’[5], and within the Department of Prints and Drawings all the paperwork (paperwork, it should be added, that describes precisely which page of which volume each print came from) is in the hand of the young and brilliant Campbell Dodgson who was then cataloguing the early German woodcuts. So the choice was made in the context of his catalogue, of which the first volume appeared in 1903. One unique early British engraving followed in 1905, but this was the final transfer[6]. Time alone will tell if this was the last.

Part of Westminster and Westminster

John Dunstall (active 1653-1693), after Wenceslaus Hollar (1507-1577), Part of Westminster and Westminster, about 1690, two etchings, Harley MS 5956, nos. 47-48.

These prints showing Westminster were collected by John Bagford, and were probably taken from Robert Morden’s series A Prospect of London (1690)

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T.A. Birrell in 1988 called these transfers ‘the most dreadful inter-Departmental vandalism’. Certainly the way in which the Departments of the British Museum behaved as separate institutions continually surprises their modern successors. The number of volumes of printed material transferred in 1891 had somehow managed to equate exactly to the 59 manuscripts that were removed from the Grenville library. But we do need to try to understand why the transfers were made. 

The 1814 transfer was composed of portraits and other prints relating to British history, which was then a class of material that the Trustees were giving the top priority to collecting. The 1891 transfer to Printed Books was to assist the rapidly developing study of type and to identify lost editions of books from the title-pages.

Dodgson’s group of material in 1900 was to help his forthcoming catalogue – a catalogue in which, incidentally, he included a lot of material in Printed Books. Reid in 1879 seems simply, in a tidy-minded way, to have listed everything that could be defined as a printed image rather than text; but he got nowhere. 

As a result there is a great deal of material left in the albums that later Keepers of Prints and Drawings would have been delighted to add to their collection, and these would have fitted perfectly within the collecting policy of the Department. But it was only the portraits and early German prints that made it. If Dodgson had been cataloguing British 17th century prints, his choice would have been quite different.

The Maiden Granadeere

Anonymous, The Maiden Granadeere, about 1700, etching, Harley MS 5944, f. 181.

This satirical print depicting a cross-dressed female grenadier appears in a volume in the Bagford Collection

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In making these transfers no-one seems to have worried about the damage it might do to the possibility of understanding Bagford’s own methods and achievements. 

Poor Bagford had got left out, and his collection had become simply a quarry for other men’s needs. But this should not surprise us, as it was true of every other collection that was absorbed into the British Museum. The keepers were first-rate scholars and were up-to-date in their interests. So they extracted the material in these collections from its original context in order to serve their current concerns; the needs of taxonomy and research always overrode issues of provenance and history. 

It is only recently that curators have extended their range of interest to embrace the history of the Museum itself and of the collections that formed it; indeed some might claim that they have become too self-reflexive. Today, for the first time, computers allow curators the luxury of having it both ways: we can keep the original albums intact, and at the same time digitally reposition their contents into multiple different contexts to serve other needs. 

This has come too late to save Bagford’s volumes, but if anyone wanted to, it might just about be possible to recreate them digitally in the form they took in 1808, after the second re-organisation. But to go back to the collection that Bagford left in 1716 is unfortunately impossible.


[1] From Harley MS 5910, iii, 120, as given by Robert Steele, ‘Books given to the Library of Christ's College, Cambridge, by the Lady Margaret’, The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, VIII (April, 1907), pp.218–24, p.223; original text from Sloane MS 1435, ff.3v-4 with original misspellings in Margaret Nickson, ‘Bagford and Sloane’, British Library Journal (1983), pp.52–3 (, who gives 40 volumes rather than 20 as in Steele.

[2] Philosophical Transactions of  the Royal Society, p.2407

[3] Milton McC. Gatch, ‘John Bagford, bookseller and antiquary’, British Library Journal (1986) p.158 (

[4] British Museum, London, Museum Number 1900,1019.1 to 251 (

[5] Phil Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, (London: British Library, 1998), p.429

[6] British Museum, London, Museum Number 1905,0429.1 William Rogers, Coats-of arms of 68 kingdoms (=Hind I, no.27, the unique impression) (

  • Antony Griffiths
  • Antony Griffiths is former Keeper, Department of Prints and Drawings, The British Museum