This is the finest private collection of English global exploration and discovery to have been formed in the last century.  When he began to collect in the late 1960s, Franklin Brooke-Hitching set himself two guiding principles.

First, and the greatest challenge, was that the books in his collection were to be perfect to the eye.  This commitment to superlative quality, whenever possible in first or best editions in original condition, has remained paramount throughout the formation of the library.  Brooke-Hitching’s inspiration as a collector in pursuit of the most stunning copies was William Beckford (1760–1844), who rated the visual perfection of his books above all else and would admit nothing to his shelves that failed to satisfy this fundamental requirement.

Second, in subject matter, the library was to focus on English voyages of discovery and exploration, that is, of seas and lands that were unknown or seldom visited by Britons.  In this he was, unconsciously, emulating Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616), the first great collector of English voyages, who set himself similar criteria in publishing the two editions of his Principal Navigations (1589, 1598) when he focused on ‘search and discoverie’ rather than voyages ‘neere home’.  The Brooke-Hitching library is not, therefore, a record of mere travel, but of first and early encounters with, as Hakluyt put it, ‘Strange, remote and farre distant countreys’.

However, as titles were acquired, this second principle was broadened geographically to include coastal and inland exploration.  In this the library followed the course of British exploration itself, beginning with the early English settlements in North America and the dogged search for a Northwest Passage through which, it was hoped, China could be reached, then, via the shores of South America, the exploration of the Pacific – conducted above all by Captain James Cook – and the revelation of Australia, that great continent in the south.  Voyaging eastwards to India and further Asia, there were routes to the Levant, the Gulf and the Middle East to be discovered.  Once the oceans had been traversed and the coasts of the continents of the world had been established, the interiors were still to be explored.  Some of this exploration was by river, but, at this point, the library’s scope was widened yet further to include overland discovery, notably of Central Asia and the interiors of Australia and Africa.

Many of the explorations had a pioneering scientific dimension, and this, too, comes within the remit of the library.  Thus, for example, Cook’s three voyages are complemented by their volumes of astronomical observations, while Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle and other nineteenth-century expeditions are accompanied by their companion studies of natural history.  Also represented is a crucial adjunct to the story of maritime exploration and discovery: the establishment of accurate longitude and the prevention of scurvy, the two fundamental practical scientific challenges confronting the early oceanic voyagers.  The works relating to the understanding and mastering of these problems, famously by John Harrison for longitude, and James Lind for scurvy, remind us that not only did the voyages of discovery recounted in the Brooke-Hitching library bring the world together, but that they also led to many of the scientific discoveries that have brought about the modern world.

By the early twentieth century transoceanic travel was commonplace, but there remained one great void to be explored, that of the Antarctic continent, and it is with books – remarkably all exceptional copies still with their dust-jackets – from the heroic age of Scott and Shackleton that the global geographical scope of the Brooke-Hitching library is completed.

Exploration and Discovery 1576-1939: The Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching Part 2, D-J

30 September 2014 | London