On November 12, 2011, an exhibition of items from the Phillips Library opened at the Peabody Essex Museum. Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM displayed more than 30 rare and storied objects from the library’s collection. Items on display gave the museum visitor a “glimpse into historical documents that were acquired for their power to both delight the eye and change the world.”
The Henry Tiffin Commonplace Book was one of those pieces. All librarians have special items they choose to share with visitors and for me, this commonplace book ranks high on my list. Henry Tiffin was a British sailor who created this volume between 1748 and 1776. As of yet, we have not been able to find biographical information about him. The entries in the book indicate that he was educated in navigation, mathematics, and English prose and poetry, as well as being an accomplished watercolorist. The book is replete with essays, sea songs, poetry, and documentation on the voyages he made aboard several ships – the packet ship Eagle, the H. M. S. Tavistock, and the Royal Duke. His voyages took him to the East and West Indies, China, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. As with many commonplace books, pages are not organized chronologically; such books were not used as journals, which are chronological and introspective.
Commonplace comes from the Latin term locus communis, which refers to a theme of general application, such as a statement of proverbial or familiar wisdom. Typically, creators of commonplace books would have one or several themes for which they sought information from a variety of sources; such information would be recorded, regularly reviewed by the owner of the book, and/or shared with others who had similar interests. An article in The New York Review of Books, published on December 21, 2000, states that authors of such books made “a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality … a way of making sense of the world.”
In his book A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet, Jonathan Swift advocated the use of commonplace books. According to Swift,
A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there.
In Tiffin’s case, his book included A Succent List of The Royall Navy for 1774, in which he names all the vessels used by the British Navy during that time, including identifying the type of ship and the armaments aboard each. An Epistle upon Cruelty & Lust, An Epitah on a Lady, A poem on A flying fish, and a long article on the death of General Wolfe at Quebec in 1759 are found in the text along with discussions on geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, and navigation. The navigation pages are similar to the ciphering books in MSS 399, American and Canadian Ciphering Books, 1727-1864, which depict mathematical problems on different types of sailing, compass calculations, and real or imagined logs of voyages. These navigational exercises are heavily illustrated, as are those in Tiffin’s book.
What singles out Tiffin’s volume from the ciphering books and other commonplace books in our collection is his skill at illustration and his extensive use of watercolors throughout the text. He included 78 watercolor paintings of vessels, places he visited, buildings he knew of or saw, and land profiles viewed from aboard ship, along with the mathematical illustrations to solve navigational problems. Many of these watercolors were done while he was on board the Eagle in 1774.
I recently learned that this volume will be displayed in the loan exhibition during the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Street Armory in New York City. The 60th annual show coincides with PEMs 215th birthday; the show includes a selection of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, representing the spectrum of the museum’s collection. The exhibition will be on display January 24 through February 2nd, 2014.
Should you visit the Phillips Library and want to view this wonderful volume, request MSS 322, Henry Tiffin Commonplace Book, 1748 – 1776. Further information about this book and MSS 399 can be found in PHILCAT.
NOTE: All images photographed by Walter Silver.