Bohn, Henry George (DNB00)

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BOHN, HENRY GEORGE (1796–1884), bookseller and publisher, was the son of Henry Martin Bohn, a native of Munster, Westphalia, who, after learning the art of bookbinding in his native town, settled in 1795 in London, where he married a lady of Scotch parentage. By the introduction of certain new features of the bookbinding art he acquired a considerable connection, and after removing to 17 and 18 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, he also established a business in second-hand books. The son Henry George was born 4 Jan. 1796. Immediately after leaving school he entered his father's business, but at a very early date his energetic and independent character showed itself. Some of his suggestions were not followed, and thereupon, leaving Henrietta Street, he accepted post in a mercantile house in the city. He made great progress there, but his father speedily persuaded him to return to the family roof, and until he was well over thirty years of age he took a leading part in the conduct of his father's business. As early as 1813, when Bohn was in his eighteenth year, he published in London a translation from the German of the romance of ‘Ferandino.’ His knowledge of languages was turned to account in trade, and he visited the chief continental cities to make purchases of rare and valuable foreign books. As his father declined to admit him into partnership, he resolved, after his marriage in 1831 to Elizabeth Simpkin, only child of William Simpkin, of the firm of Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., to commence business on his own account at 4 York Street, Covent Garden. Notwithstanding that his capital at starting was, it is stated, only 1,000l., supplemented with a second 1,000l. lent by a friend, his progress was rapid. He devoted his attention during the next ten years chiefly to the amassing of important and valuable old books. In 1841 he published a ‘“guinea catalogue” of these books,’ containing 1,948 pages and 23,208 articles, with a list of remainders occupying 152 pages. The issue of the catalogue at once made him famous, and secured him an unrivalled position as a second-hand bookseller; but he soon discontinued the purchase of rare and valuable works to take up the ‘remainder’ trade, which he developed with astonishing skill and for a time made his chief business. In 1846 he discovered, in the cheap issue of works of a solid and instructive kind, a new method of turning his copyrights to account; this method proved far more lucrative, and has given him a unique position among publishers. In 1845 Mr. David Bogue of Fleet Street commenced the publication of the ‘European Library,’ into the first issue of which, the ‘Life of Lorenzo de' Medici,’ illustrations were introduced from a volume of illustrations of which Bohn possessed the remainder. After obtaining an injunction in the court of chancery against Bogue, Bohn started a rival series, the ‘Standard Library,’ similar in size and appearance, but at a reduced price. The enterprise was prosecuted by Bohn with such energy and skill that the ‘European Library’ was discontinued, and the books passed into his hands. The ‘Standard Library was followed by the ‘Scientific’ and the ‘Antiquarian’ in 1847, the ‘Classical’ in 1848, the ‘Illustrated’ in 1849, the ‘Shilling Series’ in 1860, the ‘Ecclesiastical’ in 1861, the ‘Philological’ in 1862, and the ‘British Classics’ in 1868, the whole ultimately numbering over six hundred volumes.

The success of the ‘library’ scheme led Bohn to entertain the ambition of founding a publishing house of the highest rank; but as his sons did not enter into his views and took to other professions he resolved gradually to realise his property and retire from business. In 1864 he sold the stock, copyrighhts, and stereotypes of his ‘libraries’ for about 40,000l. to Messrs. Bell & Daldy, afterwards Messrs. Bell & Sons, who succeeded him in York Street. Various other valuable literary property was also sold to this firm. From 1866 to 1876 he was more or less engaged in cataloguing his general stock stored at the several warehouses rented by him near Covent Garden. Meantime he secured temporary premises in Henrietta Street, occupying the old site of his father's house there. During these ten years his second-hand books were sold by auction, realising over 18,000l. His principal copyrights not included in the libraries were bought by Messrs. Chatto & TVindus for about 20,000l., and other sales were effected, the entire properties realising from beginning to end little short of 100,000l.

While the success of Bohn indicated practical shrewdness of a very exceptional kind, it is traceable as much to his extraordinary energy and capacity for work. Besides being a constant attendant at all important sales and being present at the meetings of the learned societies of which he was a fellow, he personally superintended every department of his business. Nor did these cares by any means absorb his whole attention. He took a large share in the editing and compiling of his own publications. His knowledge of foreign languages enabled him to make several of the translations for his series of ‘Foreign Classics.’ The information obtained in the practice of his business he also utilised in ‘Observations on the Plan and Progress of the Catalogue of the Library of the British Museum,’ 1866, in which he suggested various improvements in method, and especially the addition of an index of matters, which he endeavoured to show might be rapidly accomplished by a proper subdivision of labour. He prepared a greatly improved reprint of Lowndes's ‘Bibliographer's Manual,’ ‘The Origin and Progress of Printing,’ 1857, and the ‘Biography and Bibliography of Shakespeare,’ 1863, the bibliographical part being a reprint with some additions of the pages relating to Shakespeare in the ‘Bibliographer's Manual.’ The last two books were written for the Philobiblon Society, of which he was a member; he also wrote a ‘Dictionary of Quotations,’ 1867, into which he introduced a few verses from his own manuscript poems. For his ‘libraries’ he wrote a variety of compilations, including a ‘Handbook of Proverbs’ and a ‘Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs’ for the Antiquarian Library; a ‘Handbook of Games’ for the Scientific Library, and a ‘Pictorial Handbook of Modern Geography’ and a ‘Guide to the Knowledge of Pottery and Porcelain’ for the Illustrated Library. He also contributed an edition of Hurd's ‘Addison,’ in six volumes, to his series of ‘British Classics.’ His miscellaneous contributions include a biographical notice of Robert Seymour, with a descriptive list of the plates to Seymour's ‘Humorous Sketches illustrated in Prose and Verse by Alfred Crowquill,’ 1866; prefaces to editions of Iring's ‘Life of Mahomet,’ and Emerson's ‘Representative Men;’ a chapter ‘On the Artists of the Present Day’ to the second edition of Chatto's ‘Treatise on Wood Engraving,’ 1861; and an alphabetical reference, with a ‘list of all the coloured plates of the genus Pinus published in the great works of Lambert, Lawson, and Forbes,’ to the edition of Gordon's ‘Pinetum’ published in 1880. He was strongly opposed to the abolition of the paper duty, and in 1861 published a pamphlet on the subject, consisting of letters contribute by him to several newspapers.

About 1860, when he was in the zenith of his fame, he secured a fine residential property at Twickenham. From time to time he enlarged his freehold estate, and expended considerable sums in acquiring rare and valuable shrubs. He also became known for his annual entertainments, when his remarkable collection of roses was exhibited.

Very early in life he exhibited a taste for purchasing articles of vertu, and for half a century at least he was a frequenter at Christie's and other sale rooms. In 1875 his various works of art exceeded the capacity of his house, and being then nearly eighty years old he resolved to sell that portion of his collection consisting of china, ivories, &c., and between 1875 and 1878 this sale was effected, bringing nearly 25,000l. The pictures and miniatures were left untouched; and having freed his rooms of the china, beyond what was required for decorative purposes, he largely added to the pictures, and by 1883 his house was as crowded as before, up to his eighty-seventh year he had possessed, great physical strength — it is related that he joined actively in a quadrille party on his Twickenham lawn at the age of eighty-five—but early in 1882 he became very infirm, although still mentally strong. He then resolved to employ his enforced leisure in the compilation of a catalogue raisonné of his art collection, comprising a short account of the painters represented, and for two years and upwards he was engaged with his daughter, Mrs. F.K. Munton, in this work. Amidst growing feebleness he struggled almost to his last moment to complete the task—indeed his indomitable spirit was shown in his eighty-ninth year, about a week before he died, when he refused to obey the injunction of his medical adviser to desist, saying he could not die till he had settled the preface; and he actually revised the proof of this a day or two before his death, which took place on 22 Aug. 1884. The sale by his executors of the remaining portion of the art collection (which realised a further sum of about 20,000l.) attracted considerable public attention in March 1885.

[Times, 25 Aug. 1884 and March-April 1885; Athenæum for 30 Aug. 1884; Bookseller for September 1884; Bibliographer for October 1884; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. F. H.