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John Ferguson (1837-1916), who was Regius Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University, is well known among scholars for his bibliographic survey of alchemical books the Bibliotheca Chemica published in 1906. This was, in fact, a catalogue of the alchemical collection of James Young (1811-1883), a self-made Scottish entrepreneur who amassed a considerable fortune developing the paraffin industry.
In the minds of many scholars the Young Collection is so linked with John Ferguson, that they are unaware that Ferguson's own collection of alchemical books and manuscripts far outweighs the Young Collection in size and scope. Ferguson's collection of some 7500 books (about 2500 of which are on alchemy) and 338 manuscripts now in the Special Collections department of Glasgow University Library, is among the finest collections of alchemical materials available at present, however, the full extent of its holdings is not appreciated by many scholars because they do not have access to the catalogue.
Due to a strange quirk of history, the 2 volume (800 page) comprehensive catalogue of the printed books was published during the Second World War (in 1943), and due to the rationing of paper only 40 copies were printed. None of these were for sale, but they were presented to various major libraries throughout the world. Because no copies seem to have passed into private hands, the Ferguson catalogue must be one of the rarest of 20th century printed books.
The Ferguson Collection of printed books consists of some 7500 volumes (counting the duplicate copies). The alchemical material in the collection amounts to 2574 books. The rest of the collection is taken up with 670 books on the history of witchcraft, 120 on gypsies (Romanies), and some 1290 miscellaneous books mainly on medicine, science, bibliography, herbalism, cosmetics, and legerdemain. There are 104 incunables in the collection.
The Ferguson Collection's strength lies in its possessing many editions of key works, though it is extremely weak in twentieth century commentaries and reference works, and it has not grown significantly since Ferguson's death.
As I have indicated the alchemical part of the Ferguson Collection is most distinguished by its possessing many editions and even multiple copies of individual works, thus ensuring that one can make a fairly complete survey of the history of the various editions of key works. There are 720 books in German, 997 in Latin, 344 in English, 309 in French and 36 in Dutch.
In 1893 Ferguson purchased a significant part of the library of Eduard Schubert who was a collector and bibliographer of Paracelsus, and his Paracelsus collection was recognised at the time as the best in the world. Consequently, the Ferguson Collection's holdings of Paracelsus material, must still rank as among the best. There are some 183 separate editions before 1800 ascribed to Paracelsus in the Ferguson Collection plus a few nineteenth and twentieth century items associated with him. In total there are 230 separate volumes of Paracelsus in the collection, and a few of these are not entered in the Sudhoff bibliography of Paracelsus material.
The Ferguson Collection of alchemical manuscripts is especially distinguished by its including some 35 manuscripts which contain series of coloured illustrations. Thus all the main series are represented - the ‘Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit', ‘Aurora consurgens', ‘Petrus Bonus', ‘Rosarium Philosophorum', ‘Splendor Solis', Flamel ‘Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques', ‘Pretiosissimum Donum Dei', Solidonius, the ‘Crowning of Nature' and a number of previously undescribed works. It is the wealth of symbolic material at the heart of this collection that has ensured that the Ferguson alchemical manuscripts are in some demand for exhibitions and for reproduction in catalogues and books. The bulk of the manuscripts date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but there are a few items from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
13th Century 1 MS.
14th Century 1 MS.
15th Century 21 MSS.
16th Century 28 MSS.
17th Century 113 MSS.
18th Century 149 MSS.
19th Century 25 MSS.
The earlier manuscripts (pre-sixteenth century) in general consist of copies of well known works by such authors as Raimon Lull, Geber, Constantinus Africanus, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and there is also a ‘Turba Philosophorum'. The fifteenth century MS. 147 contains an English translation of the Antidotary of Nicholas.
Of the sixteenth century items, MS. 6 is recognised as an important manuscript. It contains a number of beautiful watercoloured drawings, including some of the classic series such as the 12 figures of ‘Pretiossissimi Donum Dei', the 18 drawings of Petrus Bonus, the 20 images from the ‘Rosarium philosophorum', and the 38 pictures from the ‘Aurora Consurgens' series. In addition there are a number of watercoloured emblems unique to this manuscript. Other sixteenth century ‘Donum Dei' series are found in MSS. 148 and 222. (The Ferguson collection has 9 versions of the ‘Donum Dei' series, in Latin and French.).
The seventeenth century manuscripts have many treasures amongst them. MS. 4 is a seventeenth century copy of the ‘Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit' in Dresden (MS. N 110.), and although not an early version it has rather fine coloured illustrations. MS. 21 is a previously unknown (1691) English translation of the ‘Monas hieroglyphica' of John Dee. There is a copy of Norton's ‘Ordinall', with some very fine miniatures in watercolour and gold ink on vellum. MS. 230 is a finely written and illustrated collection of alchemical treatises in English translation, presented to Sir Henry Berkley in 1635. A very interesting item is an alchemical diary in English covering the period 1687-89, much of which consists of notes given to the writer by ‘Sir Joseph *** of Loughton', and the results of experiments. This is a personal notebook and the writer's alchemical experiences are written up in a clear and straightforward way. Another unique item is a tract on the application of alchemy to agriculture, in which the writer gives precise instructions upon the making of an alchemical fertiliser.
The eighteenth century items are also numerous. A beautiful and unique item, MS. 115, consists of a series of 52 circular watercolour drawings without text or commentary, which seem to illustrate the emergence of form out of chaos. These illustrations are very striking and unlike any other alchemical sequence, indeed they seem almost modern, impressionistic or surrealistic, in style and conception. There are many eighteenth century French manuscripts in the Ferguson collection, some of these being copies or translations of key alchemical works, but a number of these are especially important. There are two finely illustrated copies of Nicholas Flamel's ‘Figures hiéroglyphiques', and a copy of an illustrated work by Honoratius Marinier his ‘Miracle naturel...' the original holograph of which is found in the Wellcome Library MS. 3442. There are three copies of the ‘Solidonius' series of 18 watercolour drawings which has text in French. MS. 271 has a series of 20 coloured figures of a symbolic alchemical process, which seems to be unique. Unfortunately the title page and the opening section of text is missing.
The ‘Crowning of Nature' series of 67 coloured illustrations depicting an elaborate alchemical process mostly taking place in flasks, is represented by no fewer than 8 manuscripts, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mostly in Latin but two manuscripts have English translations of the text. The ‘Crowning of Nature', also called in some manuscripts the ‘Angelorum opus', is one of the most important symbolic representations of the alchemical process. I have been able to locate about 40 examples to date. The ‘Rosarium philosophorum' series is also found in 6 manuscripts, MS. 210 containing an eighteenth century English translation of the text of the ‘Rosarium' with 20 fine miniatures, and there are also French, and German translations in MSS. 29 and 96, while MS. 149 uniquely depicts the well known symbolic sequence of figures of the ‘Rosarium' as taking place within flasks.
Manuscripts of Sigismund Bacstrom and Ebenezar Sibly, the late 18th and early 19th century collectors and translators of alchemical works, are found in the Ferguson collection (7 of Bacstrom's and 5 of Sibly's), and there are also 3 manuscripts formerly in the possession of the late nineteenth century French writer Stanislas de Guita.
Unlike some other collections of alchemical manuscripts, only a small percentage of the Ferguson collection is taken up with obscure volumes of recipes. By far the bulk of the collection consists of unique works, transcriptions and translations of key texts, and a significant focus of the collection is upon manuscripts reflecting the spiritual or philosophical side of alchemy, especially those incorporating symbolic illustrations .
The Librarian responsible for the collection is:
Department of Special Collections
Glasgow University Library
Tel: 0141 339 8855 ext 6767