Theodore Irwin was born in Sodus, New York, in July 1827, but became best known for his personal and professional association with the port city of Oswego, in north-central New York, where he established himself as an industrialist and financier. Irwin’s library was defined in 1902, in The New York Times, as holding ‘a high and distinguished rank among the world’s great book collections’. Yet, as a bibliophile, Irwin often avoided the limelight, expressing on occasion how he had ‘no desire to become celebrated as a collector’.
The wealth created from his business in agriculture, transportation and banking enabled him to begin collecting rare books and manuscripts in 1853, at the age of 26. The subsequent 34 years were dedicated to amassing a vast and eclectic collection, leading to the production of a library catalogue in 1887, in which 3084 books were listed. Amongst the highlights were precious incunabula (including a Gutenberg Bible), original Shakespeare folios and quartos, and a selection of illuminated medieval manuscripts. However, his most important manuscript acquisition – the so-called Golden Gospels of Henry VIII – was secured only in 1890 from Bernard Quaritch at the record price of $12,500. The tenth-century manuscript, now at the Morgan Library & Museum (MS M. 23), was described as ‘the noblest and most precious volume sold in a century’.
In 1900, aged 73 and reportedly struggling to cope with requests to visit his library, Irwin decided to part with his collection. The sale was conducted privately and was mediated by Joseph F. Sabin and George H. Richmond who sold it en bloc to John Pierpont Morgan in the same year. This was a landmark in the history of American book trade, reported as ‘the largest private transaction in rare books that has ever taken place in this country’.
At the beginning of his library catalogue, Irwin left us a personal note. Here, he briefly reflects on his activity as a collector and on the disadvantages of living away from the principal centres for book trade, stating that his collection was ‘gathered under the disadvantage of residence distant from the chief book markets, otherwise the same amount of labor and outlay might have shown a more important result’. His library was nevertheless described after his death as one of the most important of his time, with Irwin recognised as a ‘distinguished member of the old school of American collectors’.
Ana O. Dias
The Hand List of Illuminated and Historical Manuscripts on Exhibition at 15 Piccadilly, 4-14 June1889 (London: Quaritch, 1889).
D. C. Dickinson, Dictionary of American Book Collectors (New York-London: Greenwood Press, 1986).
Leslie A. Morris, ‘Bernard Alfred Quaritch in America’, The Book Collector, 46 (1997), pp. 180-197.