Library Bulletin No 7

The re-emergence of an old friend: Gunnis

Since the 1950s there have been two outstanding single-volume reference works which have been regarded as unequalled aids to librarians, students, historians et al. These are Howard Colvin's A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 and Rupert Gunnis's Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851 (originally entitled Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851). In 2009 the fourth edition of Colvin was purchased for the library. This year, through the kind offices of Charles O'Brien at Yale University Press, Bedford Square, London a copy of the revised edition of Gunnis has been donated to the library.

The Gunnis is much expanded from the original work, with an additional 1000 entries, and has taken into account more than 50 years of research; it now extends to 1620 pages.
First let us dispense with any reservations we may have about what is undoubtedly a major work. What must have been a determination to retain the single volume format has resulted in a mixture of single and triple column entries – over prolonged use the small typeface can prove tiring. Another concern has been that, although Gunnis is given full credit on pages iv, vi and vii, no place has been found for his name on the title page itself. Nevertheless, if ever a single-volume work deserved to be described as monumental in both concept and execution, this is surely it. In the preface to his first edition Gunnis writes

 This is but an "attempted" dictionary, and I hope that younger and more experienced hands will add to it as the years pass. If it has formed a foundation for others to build on it has served its purpose.

Gunnis's wish has surely now been realised by the many years of research undertaken by Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy and M G Sullivan.

Finally, it is good to see due acknowledgement given for the contributions of Sarah Bridges and Crispin Powell (both of Northamptonshire Record Office), and Bruce Bailey, who has been a contributor to Gunnis for many years.

Dictionaries on our Shelves

Below is a selection, showing the wide range of subjects covered.

  • Baxter and Johnson. Medieval Latin Word List 1934
  • Blakely. A Handy Dictionary of Commercial Information 1878
  • Bosworth. A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary 1848
  • Godefory. Lexique de L’Ancien Francais 1901
  • Halliwell. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words 1860,1889
  • Simmonds. A Dictionary of Trade Products 1858
  • Skeat. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language 1898 (3rd edition)
    (A magnificent one-man effort, Skeat laid down strict guidelines for himself, allowing up to three hours for any one word; this incurred criticism from James Murray and others.)
  • Stratmann. A Middle-English Dictionary… from the 12th to the 15th Century 1891

A Connundrum for Members

Library Bulletin No. 6 left members with something of a mystery. Members will have been puzzled by the statement that a study of the Imperial Dictionary reveals the role played by a one-legged ploughman, cross Atlantic Dictionary making…. and the production of possibly the greatest dictionary ever published in the United States of America. The solution is as follows. The ploughman is John Ogilvie who lost a leg in a farming accident at the age of 21. He immediately took on the roles of local schoolteacher and private tutor, at the same time pursuing his own studies; he graduated in 1828. Noticed by the Scottish publisher Blackie and Son for his academic abilities, and after work on a history of the bible, he was commissioned to compile a British version of Noah Webster’s American dictionary of 1841. Re-evaluated in recent times, Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary is now described (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) as hugely competent, and heralding a period for the encyclopaedic dictionary. He died in 1867 from typhoid at the age of 70, whilst revising the Imperial Dictionary; the revision was passed to fellow Scot, Charles Annandale, a worthy successor, and proved so successful in 1882-3 that it was published in America and proved the inspiration for William Dwight Whitney’s Century Dictionary, regarded by many in America as the ‘finest ever produced in the US’. A wonderful legacy which resulted from an accident on a Scottish Farm in 1818.

Did You Know that?

The Century Dictionary was seen as the main rival to what became the ‘OED’, as Sanskrit scholar Whitney had an international reputation, and had already (1864) edited an edition of Webster. In its early days the OED cited the Century Dictionary over 2000 times for scientific and technical terms.

Did You Also Know?

That the preferred partner for the OED was Cambridge University. They turned it down, which is why we have the OED and not the CED.

On Dictionaries in General

It is generally acknowledged that we all need dictionaries to hand, whether researchers, students or editors. The famous film comedian Charles Chaplin had a dictionary in every room of his houses. Nowadays, with the revolution in technology, we have fingertip access to such marvellous works as the Oxford English Dictionary. Arguments still rage about the use of regular dictionaries as opposed to encyclopaedic dictionaries. The difference is well shown when checking the entry for ‘atmospheric railway’, a concept which it was hoped would revolutionise the railway system in the first half of the 19th Century. That greatest of all English/English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry of 21 words; Ogilvie (supplement, 1855 page 35) has an entry of over 300 words supported by three explanatory drawings.


This is my final Library Bulletin. My main aim over the seven issues has been to describe the contents of our valuable and wide ranging library. I hope that members have found the bulletins interesting. None would have seen the light of day but for the hard work and expertise of our secretary, David Harries.

John Munro

A selection of books included in the bulletins will be on display on the library's long table from 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. on Saturday, 19th October. I shall be in attendance to answer questions as best I can.


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