Lady of Spain: A Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Country Life

This book plunges you into the dark, confusing mindset of a 16th-century Europe divided between two antagonistic belief systems. Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I were the first British women to rule as crowned monarchs in their own right, overseeing the brutal execution of hundreds of their own subjects for professing the rival faith. The principal difference between the Catholic and Protestant persecutions was slight: during Elizabeth’s reign, Catholic martyrs were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn crossroads; during Mary’s reign, leading Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake at Smithfield’s meat market. The actions of the Queens’ various councillors and spy-masters remain fascinatingly opaque, although both fake conspiracies and real plots informed the final chill decisions of state. Which is why this life of an obscure Spanish duchess brings such unexpected enchantment.

Jane Dormer, who was English through and through, was one of those rare souls who rose above the murderous passions of her age. She clearly married her bluff Spanish soldier husband for love; their wedding was held in secret, after the death of Mary had removed any political advantage from the match. However, she had the good manners to take her formal leave of Elizabeth as she left England.

Sir John Hawkins in 1581, aged 44. (National Maritime Museum.) Jane Dormer helped him escape the clutches of the Inquisition.

Jane clearly listened to some mad plots in her long life, but was wise enough to never put anything down in writing. She concerned herself with getting hostages returned, releasing prisoners of war and delicately chiding monarchs into paying promised pensions. She was invariably more successful in getting things done as a genuine Catholic exile trusted by the King of Spain than any of England’s official ambassadors, but even with them she found something in common, if only how to liven up her Spanish kitchen with English cheese and butter, imported with the aid of a bureaucrat working for the Spanish Inquisition.

Simon Courtauld is the perfect narrator, intimate with both the landscapes of Spain and the dense tapestry of English dynastic politics.

The English lady exiled in Spain out of love

Duchess of Feria

The Daily Telegraph

A slow train used to take all day from Madrid to reach the little town of Zafra in Extremadura. The indefatigable hispanophile Simon Courtauld told me about it 30 years ago or more, enthusing about the Plaza Grande and the Plaza Chica, not then marred by loud music from bars.

A 17th c. view of Zafra by Israël Silvestre

Zafra has a curious connection with England because Jane Dormer, a lady in waiting to Queen Mary Tudor, married a Spaniard in the entourage of the Queen’s king-consort Philip. She left England in a ship stuffed with relations, retainers and horses in 1559, never to return. But she lived until 1612, the last 40 of her 74 years as a widow administering huge estates and negotiating the tangle of exiled Catholic politics.

Her steward Henry Clifford wrote a life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, but it is vague on dates and gives no explanations. Now Simon Courtauld has delved away to produce a proper biography, Lady of Spain.

Clifford didn’t exaggerate her standing, for Courtauld reproduces a letter from Queen Elizabeth, half in her own hand, remonstrating at her absence from England but calling herself her “friend and sovereign”.

The Duchess even wrote to James VI before he came to the English throne, telling him to become a Catholic, following it up with another friendly letter as though she had not committed lese-majesty.

Almost a monarch on her estates, she dealt with the machinations of spies, zealots, popes and kings. An English ambassador brought her cheese, on the grounds that they both hated Spanish food, though a recipe book she left showed a liking for bizcochos (sponge fingers) and marmolet of quinces.

I’d thought she’d presided over events mostly at Zafra, but Courtauld cites a secondary source saying she kept to her Madrid house. Her husband planned the Renaissance transformation of Zafra castle as a miniature Escorial, work on which he had inspected with Philip II. The rebuilding was finished by her son.

Her body returned to Zafra at Candlemas 1612, the patronal day of the parish church. There it narrowly escaped a body-snatching plot by the nuns of the convent of Santa Marina, which she had built next to the castle. They reasoned their founder deserved to be buried in their chapel. Only a lock on the coffin and the insistence of the Abbess of Santa Clara, her destined burial place, that it be opened to prove she lay within, ensured that the plot was thwarted.

Courtauld is sympathetic to the woman, but sees the world from a very different angle. He quotes J A Froude (1818-94), whose History of England ends with the defeat of the Armada and Catholicism, declaring that Philip II had a “heart to which an iceberg was warm”, as a man ” to whom love was an unmeaning word”. That’s not my picture of Philip, walking affectionately in the bright private galleries of the Escorial with his children.

No matter. The author fills every page with the people whom Jane Dormer knew, or might have. You need a genealogist’s brain to keep them all in play. The great problem is that the Duchess left tantalisingly little trace. Where there are letters there may be no reply. But there are vivid scenes, such as her visits to the sick in old age, leaving money done up in paper under their pillows.

Courtauld concludes: “Neither Sir Francis Walsingham nor Lord Burley was ever able to pin anything significant on her.” That may be because, while favouring Mary Queen of Scots, she plotted no treason. Or it might be that those spymasters preferred to monitor her contacts. In a kaleidoscopic world of double agents, Jane Dormer had made her choice and let events blow round her.

The reign in Spain

Jane Dormer in the habit of a nun

The Oldie

Every summer, the English in their millions jet off to Spain, swelling the hundreds of thousands already living out their retirement in the Spanish sun.

In the 16th century, a visit to Spain was a rather less enticing prospect for residents of England, even before the two countries went to war. It wasn’t just the absence of air-conditioning and the stomach-churning passage across the Bay of Biscay. There was also the danger that your beach reading might not get past the bloodhounds of the Inquisition, who nosed through the luggage of new arrivals for unsound texts.

It isn’t surprising that few English men and women at this time voluntarily went to Spain. Those who had no choice in the matter – merchants, sailors, diplomats – made haste to depart at the earliest opportunity (Henry VIII’s ambassador to the Spanish court, Sir Thomas Wyatt, even composed a poem celebrating his recall to England). Yet, for one small group, Spain presented a haven: Catholics unwilling to conform to England’s new Protestant order.

Foremost among these was Jane Dormer, wife of the Duke of Feria, the Spanish grandee who left England shortly after Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne and died in Madrid a full half-century later.

Simon Courtauld’s short new life of Jane not only memorialises this largely forgotten figure, but also casts a sidelight on the motley collection of traditionalists, zealots and chancers who abandoned England for the Spain of Philip II.

Dormer was born into a Catholic gentry family from Buckinghamshire. Then as now, the expectation was that she would marry a suitable Englishman of similar breeding. But a more exotic destiny awaited her. Through family connections, she entered the household of Mary Tudor as lady-in-waiting.

Shortly after becoming queen, her mistress married Prince Philip of Spain (later Philip II). Jane caught the eye of his confidant, the Count of Feria, a blunt yet dutiful aristocrat 15 years her senior.

Gomez Suárez de Figueroa y Córdoba, 5th Count and 1st Duke of Feria

Courtauld considers it to have been a love match: Jane, a contemporary wrote, was ‘of shuche lively hewe that who so fedes his eyes on her may sone her bewte vue’, and Feria was duly smitten.

Yet, while the marriage brought Feria no financial gain, Jane did possess one crucial asset: information. Philip was absent from England for most of his four-year marriage to Mary and depended on Feria, whom he left behind for periods at Mary’s court, to supply him with intelligence about his wife. Few were better placed to procure it than Jane.

Jane and Feria (who was raised to the rank of duke in 1567) married shortly after Mary’s death in November 1558, before the possibility of a Catholic wedding was ruled out. Feria remained briefly in England as Philip’s ambassador to Elizabeth I, but his irascible, plain-speaking style ill suited him for such a role and he was soon replaced. With Jane in tow, he returned to Spain via Flanders and France, where the newly-weds were sumptuously entertained by Mary Stuart and her husband Francis II.

They were accompanied by two dozen attendants and a train of refugee monks, for whom there seemed no future in England. En route, Jane gave birth to their first son.

The book’s most novel parts deal with Jane’s years in Spain, where she lived between her husband’s estate in Extremadura and Philip II’s court in Madrid. At first, she struggled with the weather and the food – she requested consignments of herring, salmon and Shropshire cheese from England – but within a few decades she was producing recipes for Spanish cakes and biscuits.

She became an important figure at Philip II’s court, where the king treated her as an oracle on the inscrutable English queen and she in turn acted as spokeswoman for England’s increasingly downtrodden Catholics.

Although the 16th century is commonly regarded as an era of polarisation, Courtauld shows how Jane was able to a degree to straddle divisions of religion and politics. She remained a pious Catholic throughout her life and provided succour to Catholic exiles in Spain, yet also served as unofficial consul general for English Protestant visitors to the country. She involved herself in intrigues against Elizabeth I, but never formally renounced her allegiance to the queen.

Occasionally, Courtauld exaggerates Jane’s influence. She was never, for instance, a serious candidate to become Philip’s Governor of Flanders after the death in 1571 of her husband (who had been due to take up that office), however noisily the Catholic exiles championed her cause. Dynamic Jane may have been, but in the i6th century women not of the blood royal were still required to operate in the shadows.

Yet, overall, this is a balanced, colourful and revealing biography of a pioneer of Anglo-Spanish living.

“A darline of lively hewe” – Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Lady of Spain cover

The Field

Few modern writers know and understand the historical complexities of Spain as well as Simon Courtauld. His Footprints in Spain is a must for anyone wanting a detailed insight into Spanish culture, Catholicism, countryside and the corrida.

Now he brings Spain to the court of Mary Tudor with a biography of Buckinghamshire landed beauty Jane Dormer, who married the leery Duke of Feria, twice her youthful age. “She was a darline of lively hewe,” court poet Richard Edwards recorded.

Here are stories of influential Protestants against Catholics, intrigue, diplomatic missions, even an abortive attempt by a ‘dishonourable adventurer’ called Stukley for the Spanish to invade Ireland. Throughout her life in Spain, Jane Feria championed Catholicism. ‘Her saintly reputation drew many to her deathbed.’ Not so a recent Duke of Feria, imprisoned, so Courtauld tells us in one of many fascinating and amusing asides, ‘for kidnapping and corrupting a young girl’.

Working with illustrators: Roland Pym

Biddesden House, from Biddesden Cookery (1987)

Mount Orleans Press has brought out three titles illustrated by Roland Pym. Biddesden Cookery is a reprint of the original by Mirabel Guinness, first published in 1987.  The two other titles are On a Bat’s Back, A Poetry Anthology for Children, edited by Mirabel Guinness and The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope. Both were illustrated in the late 1980s. The commissions for the drawings were made following the publication of Biddesden Cookery; as the demands of jobbing printing at The Letter Press overrode the financial risks of publishing the two projects were sadly put in a drawer; but not forgotten.

            Motif for The Rape of the Lock

I was lucky to meet Roland Pym. Staying at Biddesden for weekends in the late 1970s one gradually became aware of him. Gradually because he was quiet-spoken, not exactly shy but certainly a bit reticent. As a good friend of Bryan Guinness (Lord Moyne) he was often there. And wherever Roland was in his long life (1910-2006) evidence of his presence could be found in the work he left behind, such was his prolific output and obvious enjoyment in it. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph recorded a wartime experience in the desert: ‘When his unit briefly took Rommel’s headquarters Pym did a mural of Kentish oast houses, and wondered what the field marshal made of it when he retook the position shortly afterwards.’ That was typical of him, both in his enthusiasm for painting and the slightly quizzical amusement as to what the German’s reaction might be. At Biddesden he painted three trompe l’oeil windows and a number of pictures. More important were the many illustrations in the Visitors’ Books;  beautiful, fanciful and spontaneous, toying with themes and stories which wove their way through the life of the large Guinness family.

One of the trompe l’oeil windows at Biddesden

Roland Pym’s career after the Second World War focussed on theatre design, murals and book illustration. He designed opera sets for Lohengrin at Covent Garden and Eugene Onegin in Paris, painted murals for Lord’s pavilion and the Queen’s Retiring Room at Westminster Abbey. However in the biographical ‘blurb’ he provided for the book jacket of Biddesden Cookery the commission he chose to highlight was the State Saloon at Woburn. Alan Powers, in his obituary for Pym in the Independent, recorded that on his first meeting the Duke of Bedford Pym confessed his greatest ambition was to paint the Saloon. He was promptly commissioned.

Roland’s book illustration began before the War. By 1987 he had illustrated 30 books, eight by Bryan Guinness. Although he was then 77 it was by no means the end of his career: after Biddesden Cookery he illustrated two short stories by Rosaleen Mulji which I printed at The Letter Press, The Tale of a Little Horse-Radish (1989) and The Captain’s Wife (1990).

Johnny & Jemima, the 1991 reprint of the 1936 original, and the back cover of The Pursuit of Love (Folio Society, 1991)

In the 1990s he went on to do some very good work for the Folio Society illustrating Nancy Mitford novels and culminating, in his 87th year, with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1996). The style of these last books was very developed, a long way from the early style of Johnny and Jemima written by Bryan Guinness some 60 years before; I reprinted this at The Letter Press in 1991.

Canto I, The Rape of the Lock

The mock-heroic tone, the water sparkling sunlight and the light frivolity of The Rape of the Lock were I thought ideally suited to Roland’s style; in any case, he gladly accepted the commission and produced full page colour illustrations for each of the cantos, as well as many little motifs for decorating the pages. At the same time Mirabel Helme commissioned the drawings for On a Bat’s Back, a project which was very much a sequel to Biddesden Cookery and drawn in a very similar style.

One of the drawings for A Bat’s Back

As ever Roland was very professional and prompt in completing his work. I remember going to see him with Mirabel at his home Foxwold to discuss the drawings. Happily these will now, finally, be published: slightly less promptly than they took to be drawn, but better late than never.

Biddesden Cookery
Mirabel Guinness, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-03-0
June 2019

On a Bat’s Back, A Poetry Anthology for Children
Edited by Mirabel Guinness, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-02-3
June 2019

The Rape of the Lock
Alexander Pope, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-12-2
September 2019

Oscar Wilde called her “the goddess”: Claire de Pratz

Claire de Pratz was the author of French Dishes for English Tablesto be published by Mount Orleans Press in November 2018. This is the Introduction to the book.

claire de pratz

“Swimming, walking, lying in a hammock…”.  Claire de Pratz’s preferred recreations as listed in Who was Who do not really do credit to the intellectual side of her life; but they are a good evocation of her elegantly hedonistic character. She was comfortable in her skin and secure in her independence. Well educated, both femme de lettres and feminist, her life reflected the Anglo-French cultural harmony of the Entente Cordiale and the good living of La Belle Epoque and the Fin de Siècle. Mixing easily in the artistic, literary and political salons of both Paris and London – it was to her that Oscar Wilde addressed his famous wallpaper observation, “One or the other of us has to go” – she wrote prolifically as well as pursuing a career in education and working for the French government.

Claire was born Zoé Clara Solange Cadiot in Hampstead in 1866. Her parents were French. Her father, Emmanuel-Horace Cadiot, was a businessman. Her mother, Philotea Rosin de Pratz, held a professorship in French Literature at Queen’s College in London. Both came from the French provinces, the father from Pillac in the Charente in the south, and the mother from Armentières in the north. They appear to have met in London, because it was in Clerkenwell that their marriage was registered in July 1865, barely six months before Claire’s birth.

In an era when girls were given little education Claire was lucky to receive a good one, starting in London where she attended Queen’s College, founded in 1848 and the first educational institute in the world to award academic qualifications to women. In 1881 her mother died, following which Emmanuel-Horace moved Claire and her two younger brothers, Julien and William, to Paris; it was at the Sorbonne that she continued her studies and from there that she graduated.

In her introduction to France from Within (1912) Claire describes her bilingual upbringing. Her formal English education went hand in hand with a French domestic life. The 1871 census records the family’s live-in cook Ada as being from the Seine. As Claire described, “I never remember any time of my life when I did not possess the two points of view – English and French – simultaneously, being constantly moving from one atmosphere to another”. As she observed, she was both an insider and an outsider.

At around about the time of her graduation from the Sorbonne Claire’s first literary work came out, An Iceland Fisherman (1888), a translation of Pêcheur d’Islande by Pierre Loti which was published under her father’s surname, Clara Cadiot. She wrote an article about Loti for Women’s World (edited by Oscar Wilde), and at this time began a long career as a journalist, writing for the Westminster Gazette, Daily News, Contemporary Review, Athenaeum, Petit Parisien, La Fronde and Revue Bleue. La Fronde was distinguished as being the only magazine of its time entirely managed and written by women.

She also embarked on a career in teaching. She gave adult evening classes before going on to take on professorships in English at the Lycée Racine and the Lycée Lamartine in Paris. In the mid 1890s she was appointed General Inspector of Public Charities for the French Ministry of the Interior.

In the new century Claire embarked on a career as a novelist, writing Eve Norris (1907), Elisabeth Davenay (1909), The Education of Jacqueline (1910) and Pomm’s Daughter (1914). With her non-fiction – French Dishes for English Tables (1908), France from Within (1912) and A Frenchwoman’s Notes on the War (1916) – she was writing almost a book a year. The novels were well received. They are vividly written, strong on characterisation and description though the plots are rather formulaic. Their great interest lies in the fact that they draw on the events of Claire’s own life, and they articulate very eloquently her beliefs and passions.

Her heroines are intelligent, sensitive and independent, but are all a long way from the stereotype of the English blue-stocking of the time; as The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction puts it, “she argues that the English are too mealy-mouthed to recognise the central importance of sex; feminists cannot be expected simply to abstain”. Throughout her writing there is an attack on narrow and restrictive prejudice; in Eve Norris the young heroine fights against her provincial family background, “conventional, prejudiced, with no temperament at all, and weighted with the false narrow morals which are the result of generations of wrongly-applied and misunderstood puritanical principles”. In The Education of Jacqueline the young child is brought up by her mother Francoise, who is widowed before she is thirty and finds herself “totally ignorant of life… Brought up by careful parents in view of a husband who would demand not only an innocent but also an ignorant wife…”.

Claire’s heroines are all capable of great passion – there are passages of richly sensual purple prose, and it is interesting to see that two of the novels were published by Mills & Boon – but ultimately they are independent and confident. In Elisabeth Davenay the eponymous heroine is a young journalist and teacher in Paris, with many eligible admirers whom she finally rejects, wishing to avoid “spiritual bondage”; she leaves France for London where she joins the Suffragette movement. The book created a strong impression, with the Pall Mall Gazette commenting “Elisabeth Davenay is a book that every grown-up girl should read”; more thoughtfully, WT Stead wrote in “The Love Ideals of a Suffragette”
[Elisabeth Davenay’s] interest, and it is a deep and absorbing interest, consists in the fact that more intrepidly than in any other English book that I have read the great question is faced and answered as to the change which the emergence of the soul and intellect of women will effect in the realm of love… The theme is handled with a boldness that never degenerates into coarseness. Although Mlle. de Pratz never flinches, she writes with delicacy that is unsullied by even a passing shadow of the impure. She is a woman handling the greatest of all woman’s questions without any false shame or prudish impurity of thought…

A Frenchwoman’s Notes on the War was the last book Claire wrote. French Dishes for English Tables was republished in New York in 1925 under the title French Home Cooking, with further editions coming out in New York in 1956 and in London in 1958.

Claire died on 27 March 1934.

Kelmscott and Beyond

Kelmscott Press Chaucer
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press 1896

What did Morris ever do for us? The Kelmscott Press, so effective in bringing about a printing revolution, a watershed moment presaging the birth of the private press movement, was a stylistic dead end. The influence of the press was massive, although its life was extraordinarily short, operating from its foundation in 1891 to Morris’ death in 1896, finally closing down under the guidance of its Manager and Morris’ executor Sydney Cockerell in 1898. During that period it produced over 50 titles and fundamentally changed attitudes to printing. Yet despite this great influence the most interesting printers to follow Morris, whose work has best stood the test of time and has had greatest impact on subsequent typography, eschewed his style and turned their back on his heavily decorated pages. The ones who tried to imitate Morris, and there were many, are largely forgotten; who remembers the Essex House Press? Set up by CR Ashbee it inherited both pressmen and plant from Kelmscott; but sadly none of the magic.

The Doves Press Bible
The Doves Press Bible, 1902-5

Two of the greatest presses to follow Morris were the Doves Press, set up by TJ Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker, and the Ashendene Press, set up by Charles St John Hornby.

Dante's Lo Inferno, Ashendene Press, 1902
Dante’s Lo Inferno, Ashendene Press, 1902

The change of mood from Kelmscott to Doves or Ashendene could not have been starker: suddenly white space, abhorred by Morris with a passion verging on agoraphobia, becomes an important part of the page. Simplicity, rather than rich complexity, becomes the vehicle of quality. This, on the threshold of the new century, established the central tenet of modern typography, articulated very famously by Beatrice Warde in a lecture entitled Printing Should be Invisible in 1930, subsequently published as The Crystal Goblet. You have a fine vintage wine, what do you prefer to drink it from? A heavy, jewel-encrusted gold chalice, or a clear crystal glass? The basic role of typography, conceived of by William Morris as being to create a beautiful object, has been fundamentally re-thought; Warde wrote:

Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a “modernist” in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first he asked of this particular object was not “How should it look?” but “What must it do?” and to that extent all good typography is modernist.


Penguin Classics cover by Jan Tschichold

Beatrice Warde represented the modern thinking in typography best represented in England by the private press movement as well as some of the better trade publishers, notably Jonathan Cape. Perhaps the greatest expression of this classical simplicity came from Jan Tschichold, who was employed by Allen Lane in the post-war years to clean up the Penguin house style .

So what did Morris ever do for us? His greatest lesson, to go back to first principles, ironically proved to be his own undoing. But he did establish that a book had to have integrity, could be a thing of beauty and that all the components of a book, type, paper, binding and design had to be individually judged and evaluated. He also made money: the Kelmscott Press, like his other enterprises under Morris & Co, was commercially successful, well worth remembering by publishers today.

How I got into this mess: a career in publishing and printing


It might be that I had no choice about becoming a printer. The house I grew up in, 21 Upper Mall in Hammersmith, had been used by William Morris to print The Complete Works of Chaucer. Next door was Emery Walker’s home, Sussex House, opposite No. 15 Upper Mall, where he and his partner T J Cobden-Sanderson set up the Doves Press, producing work of possibly even greater beauty than the Kelmscott Press. Other Hammersmith figures in the world of typography included the calligrapher Edward Johnston (who designed the London Underground typeface), Eric Gill and Eric Ravilious.

My own introduction to print was to take place in Lancashire, at Stonyhurst College. Stonyhurst is England’s second largest residential building under one roof, after Hampton Court, and under that roof the treasures are inspiring: we grew up amidst paintings, prints and books of an exceptional quality. Artists such as Durer, Rembrandt and Piranesi surrounding our daily lives. The College produced two greats associated with the world of printing – the typographer and scholar Bernard Newdigate, who worked with Sir Basil Blackwell at the Shakespeare Head Press, and the artist Paul Woodroffe, who worked extensively as a book illustrator and stained glass artist.

The college had a small printing press, the Octagon Press, for use by the Upper Syntax (lower sixth) year. It was here that I entered the world of pica and nonpareil, of leading and letter-spacing; type catalogues became an entrancing distraction and from sans- to slab-serif I would memorize typefaces and designers. It was not all so dry, though; there was a healthy market under that huge roof for all sorts of jobbing printing, and the press was able to meet this demand on a very sound commercial basis: all jobs were charged. and all bills sent to the bursar, so our turnover became our net profit. We never looked back.

At university (UEA and the University of Texas at Austin) I read History of Art. Returning to London I took on the mantle of committee member of the William Morris Society with responsibility for the three printing presses in the basement of Kelmscott House. Here a small team of us printed for the Society: mostly ephemera, but there was one reasonably sized project, William Morris’s Printing Press (1983). In articles by Sir Basil Blackwell, Ray Watkinson and myself it established the provenance of the press then at Kelmscott House. It was on that Albion that we printed the booklet.

My introduction to publishing during this period was with Bettina Tayleur, who operated as what was known as a book packager: she found the ideas and the authors, costed the projects and sold the package to established trade publishers. We would undertake all the editorial, design and production work, usually involving considerable picture research and close liaison with authors over editorial issues. We used print centres all over the world, delivering the books straight to the publishers’ warehouses, most typically undertaking US/UK co-editions. It was a job I was very lucky to get, because it introduced me to every aspect of book production, and being a tiny company of 3 ½ I got hands on experience in all areas. Within three weeks of starting I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The titles we produced included biographies of John Nash, Eric Ravilious and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in many ways leading public interest.

In 1986 I set up The Letter Press of Cirencester, which I ran with my wife Kate Rous. It became a very successful jobbing printer specialising in high class social and wedding stationery, forming an effective partnership with John Lewis and early on building a commercially successful trading website, However I never left the world of publishing and book production, in 1987 producing Biddesden Cookery and the children’s book The Tale of a Little Horse Radish. I continued to produce books to commission until in 2003 I embarked on an altogether more ambitious project, helping to found St Omers Press as the publishing imprint of Stonyhurst College. With St Omers I have produced a huge variety of titles, from hymn books and prayer books to facsimiles of 17th century titles and limited editions of copperplate prints by Rubens. Production continues steadily, drawing on the huge resources of the collections at Stonyhurst and fed by a steady succession of exhibitions requiring catalogues.

In 2016, faced with a shrinking market for jobbing stationery, The Letter Press entered into a merger with Gee Brothers of London; after a year working with the combined company I decided in October 2017 the time was right to leave the jobbing world in order to devote myself completely to book production and publishing; I have produced since then Banners of the Bold, a book on the heraldry of the Knights of Malta; Peter the Power Chair’s Birthday Bash, a children’s story; and Hold my Hand, a limited edition of poetry, just 15 full leather bound copies. Forthcoming projects include a fully illustrated guide to the paintings collection at Meols Hall; and two weighty museum catalogues. And I am always looking for more!

Athanasius Kircher’s Musaeum Celeberrimum


Athanasius Kircher, “the last man who knew everything”, was a Jesuit polymath of the 17th century who put together an extraordinary collection in Rome which came to be accepted as the first museum of modern time. In 1678 Giorgio de Sepi published the Musaeum Celeberrimum, a large and prestigious volume cataloguing the collection. St Omers Press published a facsimile edition in 2015, a handsome cloth-bound volume including all the original fold-out plates which we printed in Croatia. This would be a worthy addition to any fine library, and copies can be acquired from the Press at Stonyhurst (

Jeremy Warren ( wrote the review below for The London Library.

Anastasi Callinicos, Daniel Höhr, Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson, The Celebrated Museum of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus. A facsimile of the 1678 Amsterdam edition of Giorgio de Sepi’s description of Athanasius Kircher’s Museum, Musæum celeberrimum collegii romani societatis Jesu. Stonyhurst and Philadelphia, St Omers Press and Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2015. isbn 978-0-9553592-4-8 [UK], 978-0-9161010-87-9 [US]. 172 pp., 39 b. & w. illus. £50 / $120.

For anyone who worries from time to time that the history of collecting is a niche subject, Father Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) would seem to offer welcome comfort. The Jesuit polymath, his writings and his famous museum in Rome are the subject of enduring interest, a modest but steady stream of publications, and even a dedicated academic website, the Stanford University Athanasius Kircher project ( Kircher was certainly an extraordinary individual, whose life reflects the troubled times into which he was born and grew up. As a young priest undertaking his novitiate in his native Germany, he was firstly caught up in the turmoil of the Thirty Years War, being driven from one Catholic centre to another before finally escaping to Paris in 1631. After moving to Avignon, he came to the notice of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and other antiquarian-minded intellectuals, and began his own studies into ancient Egypt and its hieroglyphs. Kircher’s arrival in Rome in 1634 came about as a mixture of accident – a picaresque series of shipwrecks, robberies and other mishaps as he tried to make his way across the Mediterranean in order to take up a post in Vienna – and design, Peiresc and Kircher’s future patron Cardinal Francesco Barberini having decided that the promising young man should in fact be appointed professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano. Kircher was to spend the remainder of his life at the college, producing books on an astonishing range of subjects, from the interpretation of hieroglyphs (e.g. Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652) to music (Musurgia universalis, 1650) to the Tower of Babel (Turris Babel, 1679). It is hardly surprising that he should have developed a Europe-wide reputation for his encyclopaedic learning and knowledge, nicely summed up by the scholar of Kircher, Paula Findlen, in the title for one of her books, The Last Man who knew Everything (New York and London, 2004). However, the visual as opposed to literary manifestation of Kircher’s learning was the museum he established in the Collegio Romano. It was a significant reason why the learned and the curious, from all over Europe and from monarchs downwards, sought to visit the College in Rome and the venerable custodian of the museum, and also bore witness to Kircher’s apparently all-but-universal understanding and conception of the world.

The work under review constitutes a full description of the museum, not written by Kircher, who at the end of his life became incapacitated, but by his assistant Giorgio de Sepi. As a guide to what the museum contained, the book is not as comprehensive as that published by Kircher’s successor as curator Filippo Bonanni (Rome, 1709), who did much to try to restore his predecessor’s vision, as well as making his own additions, and whose catalogue has an extensive series of engraved plates of many of the objects in the museum in 1709. But the 1678 work was published in Kircher’s own lifetime, the descriptions are no doubt in many cases his own, and they present the museum more or less in the form in which he had built it, and before it began its rapid decline. So it is wonderful to have the first-ever full English translation in this luxurious edition, which includes a facsimile of the (slightly battered) Stonyhurst copy of the Musæum celeberrimum. This includes all the fold-out plates, mainly depicting Kircher’s beloved obelisks, which formed important exemplars in his then celebrated interpretations of hieroglyphs, subsequently shown to be entirely incorrect. The facsimile is followed by an excellent English translation by Anastasi Callinicos and Daniel Höhr, with notes by Jane Stevenson. Peter Davidson concludes the volume with an interesting short essay, in which inter alia he asks what might be regarded as specifically Jesuit about Kircher’s museum. He rightly points to it as a museum of world cultures, which benefited from regular consignments of material from the Jesuit order’s missions to almost every corner of the globe. But this global reach is hardly untypical of early collections. What is perhaps more special, as Davidson notes, was the collection’s pedagogical element, which reflected the emphasis placed by the Jesuits on education in their missions and schools.

The itinerary through the museum is a fascinating one, which reveals how highly representative it was of early collections in its combination of the exotic and fantastical – flying fish suspended from the ceiling, a Siren’s tail, eternally-burning lamps – with the scientific and practical, seen in the many magnetic and optical machines developed by Kircher, which were for visitors among the most popular sights of the museum. Several of these are in fact illustrated in the Latin text, and their operation discussed in some detail, which makes the lack of a simple crossreference in the translated text to the plates and other images a little regrettable. Not infrequently the fantastical and the scientific come together in the Musæum Kircherianum; for example, the flying fish was in fact suspended within a compass rose and spun about, to demonstrate the workings of an Aeolian magnet. As a Jesuit, Kircher conceived his museum ultimately as a demonstration of a world ordained and directed by God. Already, though, in his lifetime could be felt the stirrings of Enlightenment scepticism and a new spirit of more disciplined scientific enquiry, which would discredit many of the Jesuit father’s theories and would lead some later generations to label him as a charlatan, dependent on magnetic and optical trickery. The 1678 Musæum celeberrimum demonstrates that the truth was considerably more complex. It confirms the status of Athanasius Kircher’s assemblage as one of the great prototypes of the modern museum, so the appearance of this translation, making the work so much more widely accessible, is greatly to be welcomed.

Jeremy Warren