Vassilii Pushkin: a Collector of Books

1706 - 1775 (c.)

Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Rev A H Caldicott, 1940.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

After the short reign of Paul I when it was forbidden to go abroad, on the 22nd March 1801 the young Emperor Alexander I decreed freedom for travelling. One of the first travellers of the new reign was Vassilii L’vovich Pushkin (1766-1830), a friend of Karamzin and a connoisseur of literature. He was also a poet, like his more famous uncle, Alexander Pushkin. Vassilii went abroad in April 1803 and during 1803-1804 visited Germany, France and England. Unfortunately, only two of his letters from abroad have survived. Both of them were addressed to Karamzin, the first letter (28.06.1803) – from Berlin, the second one (12.09.1803) – from Paris. That is why we can only guess about his English visits and interests. There is, however, some material for speculation:

Vassilii Pushkin was curious, passionate in his literature interests, credulous and easy going. It was a common for his friends to make jokes about him. In 1803 his friend, Ivan Dmitriev wrote a humorous poem The Journey of N.N. to Paris and London, Written Three Days Before the Journey. The third and last part of the poem described Pushkin’s supposed journey to England in the following terms:

My friends, I am in London, and
To you I hold out my arms!
How much I want to see you again!
Today I send to the ship
All my purchases from two famous countries!
I am beside myself with admiration!
In what boots I shall appear in front of you!
What tailcoats! What trousers!
Everything in the latest fashion!
What a wonderful choice of books!
Count – I tell you at once:
Buffon, Rousseau, Mably, Cornelius,
Homer, Plutarch, Tacitus, Virgil,
The complete Shakespeare, complete Pope and Hume;
The magazines of Addison and Steele…
All of them produced by Didot and Baskerville!

50 copies of the poem was published ‘for friends’ in 1808 and were decorated with a vignette shown the French actor Talma reciting for Pushkin. Some of the names and titles mentioned were accompanied by explanations: Didot and Baskerville – “again for some people: Didot is a famous French printer, and Baskerville – an English one”.
The name of John Baskerville (1706-1775) should attract our attention. The reference confirms that Baskerville’s editions were well known among Moscow bibliophiles.

Vassilii Pushkin was a passionate collector of books, particularly of fine editions. His library was so rich that it was said that the famous Moscow bibliophile Count Rostopchin had envied it. The Virgil and Addison mentioned near Baskerville’s name may show that among Pushkin’s books were John Baskerville’s Birmingham editions: Virgil’s poems – his first book printed in 1757 and re-printed in 1766, or Addison’s works printed in 1761 (purchased, of course, before the journey!). Unfortunately Pushkin’s collection of books was burned in the Great Fire of Moscow in 1812, so again we can only guess what kind of editions he brought back from England and where he was able to buy them.

In spite of the fact that Vassilii Pushkin was mainly a man of letters, his curiosity brought him not only to places of literature and art. Among the many sights of Berlin he visited the Arsenal and Porcelain factory. So it is possible to guess that the Wedgwood factory or Soho Manufactory might also have attracted his attention.

Time:   |    |    |  
Donor ref: 1940 P605

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