David Nichol Smith (1875–1962) was born in Edinburgh and educated at George Watson’s College, the University of Edinburgh and the Sorbonne. For a few years he edited school textbooks before becoming Professor of English at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1904. In 1908 he was appointed Reader in English at Oxford University and he lived at Oxford for the rest of his life. In 1921 he was elected Fellow of Merton College and from 1929 to 1946 he was Merton Professor of English. In his retirement he travelled widely and he was Professor of English at Adelaide University in 1950–51.
In his early career Nichol Smith undertook a great deal of research on Shakespeare and his first book was Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare(1903). In later years he devoted most of his time to eighteenth-century literature. His books included Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection (1916), Characters from the Histories and Memoirs of the Seventeenth Century (1918), Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (1928) and Some Observations on Eighteenth Century Poetry(1937). He edited the Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926), as well as writings of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and other writers.
Nichol Smith began collecting rare books when he was an undergraduate in Edinburgh. One of his earliest purchases was a copy of Helidorus, Aethiopicorum libri X (1619). Eighteenth-century English imprints made up the bulk of his library, but he also collected books in Anglo-Saxon type, pirated editions, literary spoofs, Gothic novels, translations, and Greek, Latin and Italian books.
The life and work of Nichol Smith have been commemorated in a series of seminars on eighteenth-century studies. The first seminar was held in Canberra in 1966 and was jointly organised by The Australian National University and the Library. It coincided with the publication of the Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in the British Isles, the British colonies, and the United States of America, and of English Books Printed Elsewhere, 1701–1800, Held in the Libraries of the Australian Capital Territory, edited by William J. Cameron and Diana J. Carroll. The 17th David Nichol Smith Seminar will be held in Adelaide in 2020.
Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in the British Isles, the British colonies, and the United States of America, and of English Books Printed Elsewhere, 1701–1800, Held in the Libraries of the Australian Capital Territory
Shortly before his death, Nichol Smith expressed the wish that his collection would be preserved in the Library. It was purchased in 1962 from his wife, Mary Nichol Smith.
The Nichol Smith Collection contains a little over 10 000 books, pamphlets and issues of periodicals, published between the late sixteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. The great strength of the collection is in English literature, particularly the literature of the eighteenth century. There is a relatively small number of works in Latin, French, German and Italian.
About half the books in the collection were published before 1820. There are good holdings on a number of seventeenth-century writers, such as Francis Bacon, Aphra Behn, Thomas Brown, Gilbert Burnet, Samuel Butler, John Cleveland, Abraham Cowley, John Dryden, Robert L’Estrange, Ben Jonson, George Mackenzie, John Milton, Thomas Shadwell and James Shirley. Dryden is particularly well represented, with about 50 volumes published before 1800.
The collection contains an extraordinary range of first and early editions of all the prominent and minor writers of the eighteenth century. In addition to poetry, plays and novels, it includes essays, opera libretti, sermons, political tracts, histories, memoirs, anecdotes, letters, voyages, travels, and legal and theological works. Works by or about Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift number hundreds of volumes. Other leading writers who loom large in the collection include Joseph Addison, John Arbuthnot, Richard Bentley, George Berkeley, Lord Bolingbroke, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Thomas Chatterton, Colley Cibber, Jeremy Collier, William Congreve, William Cowper, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, John Gay, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Gray, David Hume, James Macpherson, Peter Pindar, Richard Steele, Laurence Sterne, James Thomson, Izaak Walton, Thomas Warton and Edward Young. Another feature of the collection is the number of eighteenth-century editions of the works of Shakespeare, as well as critical writings. There are also good sets of periodicals such as the British Apollo (1708–10), Historical Register (1716–23), Monitor (1713),Observator (1682–87), Rambler (1750–52), Spectator (1711–14) and Tatler (1709–13).
The modern portion of the collection contains editions of poetry, prose, letters and diaries of English writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Crabbe, Thomas De Quincy, Thomas Hazlitt, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. The bulk of the works relate to English literature and history, but there are also works on bibliography, Latin classics, religion, the theatre and Oxford University. There are large sets of publications of the Scottish Tract Society (1883–1934), Oxford Historical Society (1891–1921), the Malone Society (1907–61) and the English Association (1910–46).
Many of the books contain the bookplates and inscriptions of earlier owners. They were usually signed by Nichol Smith and in some instances he added the year of acquisition and bibliographical annotations. He also inserted entries from book dealers’ catalogues, manuscript notes, letters and newspaper cuttings.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
A few manuscripts were found among the books in the Nichol Smith Collection. In particular, an interleaved copy of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnsoncontained letters of Johnson (1778) and Boswell (1787), both written to Dr J. Hussey. Other items include a letter from A.B. Falconer, a memorandum by C.H. Firth, and a listing by Nichol Smith of English newspapers 1770–1800.
Two groups of Nichol Smith letters have been acquired separately. One comprises copies of his correspondence held in the National Library of Scotland, including letters from George Saintsbury, Walter Raleigh, Sir Charles Firth, James Sutherland and Lord Crawford. The other group consists of a long series of correspondence between the writer, collector and bibliographer Hugh Macdonald and Nichol Smith in 1932–55.
The books and pamphlets in the Nichol Smith Collection, including the modern publications, are kept together as a formed collection within the Rare Books Collection. They have been catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefixes RB DNS and RBq DNS.
The manuscripts and copies of letters are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 5411. They occupy five folders. They have been catalogued at the collection level. The correspondence between Nichol Smith and Macdonald is held at MS 1521. It has been microfilmed and the film is held at mfm G18976.
Manuscripts, lectures and correspondence of Nichol Smith are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. See A.S. Bell, ‘Nichol Smith Collections in Edinburgh and Oxford’, in R.F. Brissenden (ed.), Studies in the Eighteenth Century: Papers Presented at the 2nd David Nichol Smith Memorial Seminar, Canberra, 1970, ANU Press, Canberra, 1973, pp. 397–409.
A microfilm copy of the collection in the Bodleian Library is held in the National Library at mfm G7693–7699. Photocopies of the letters in the National Library of Scotland are held in MS 5411.
Davis, Herbert, David Nichol Smith, in Brissenden, R.F. (ed.), Studies in the Eighteenth Century 2 : Papers Presented at the 2nd David Nichol Smith Memorial Seminar, Canberra, 1970, ANU Press, Canberra, 1973, pp. 1–16.
Nichols, Donald W., Globetrotting scholar: David Nichol Smith, National Library Magazine, vol. 6 (2), June 2014, pp. 20-22.
Rickard, Suzanne, A Larger Benefaction in Mind: The David Nichol Smith Collection,National Library of Australia News, vol. 6 (9), June 1996, pp. 3–6.
Sutherland, James, David Nichol Smith, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 51, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 78–9.
Sutherland, James, David Nichol Smith 1875–1962, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 48, 1962, pp. 449–59.
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)