Bibliographical Note: Sainsbury’s ‘Papers Relating to Rubens’.

W.N Sainsbury. Original Unpublished Papers Illustrative of the Life of Sir Peter Paul Rubens As an Artist and a Diplomatist. London. Bradbury and Evans. 1859.

From time to time, I intend to add a note on something of bibliographical or historiographical relevance, and thought I’d begin with a book that contributed significantly to stimulating my interest in Gerbier.

In 1840, a somewhat longwinded argument broke out in the august columns of the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, (vol 167) between Rev. William Burgon, later Dean of Chichester, (under the pen-name of Philalethes,) and Mr. John Bruce, (writing as Chartularius) who at the time was editing Elizabethan documents. Their dispute was the latest phase in an on-going debate over the correct spelling of the surname of William Shakespeare: Burgon favoured the version I have just typed; Bruce felt that the Bard’s own preference for Shakspere should be followed.  An extraordinary number of words was devoted to this skirmish, but – as often happens – a side debate opened up between the two men, concerning the problems caused by researchers in the State Paper Office making errors in transcribing historical documents. Mr. Bruce proposed a solution:

The contents of the State Paper Office should be made known to the public at large, by Kalendars or brief abstracts arranged in the chronological order of the papers…..Readers must know the particular stores of the depository before they could ask for them…access should be granted to applicants, who wished to obtain any documents at length, or…office copies might be furnished to them.”

In effect, Mr Bruce succinctly describes the way in which the National Archives now makes available to scholars the documents in its care. The State Paper Office has of course been transmuted since 1840 firstly into the Public Record Office, and then into The National Archives. Yet without the Cataloguing and Calendaring carried out throughout the nineteenth century and into the present day, modern research would be almost impossible. We take it for granted that we can go to Kew and call up, for example, the originals of all the diplomatic letters sent between London and Venice in April 1632. They will arrive in a neat box, tied up with tape, and immaculately arranged in chronological order. How often do we stop to think about the Victorian men and women who spent their working lives sorting, categorising, annotating and cataloguing that batch of papers? We are massively in their debt.

William Noël Sainsbury is an interesting example of these 19thcentury Cataloguers and one of the few whose names are familiar to those of us with an interest in Gerbier and his circle.  In 1848, at the age of twenty-three, he took a temporary job at the State Paper Office. He obviously took to the work, was taken on permanently six months later, and spent the next forty years working his way up to become Assistant Keeper of the Records at the Public Record Office. His main interest was in the papers relating to the history of America and the West Indies: much of his career was spent calendaring the State Papers pertaining to that part of the world, and building up a network of contacts among historians in the United States, whom he was able to help with their research. American scholars recognised his assistance by awarding him honorary membership of a number of historical societies.

Sainsbury married twice and had ten children, retiring from the Record Office in 1891, and continuing to work unofficially at home until his death in 1895. And in view of his particular concern with American history, it’s interesting that for us his main claim to fame is his publication in 1859 of the collection of papers relating to the career of Peter Paul Rubens. Sainsbury was one of the first to draw together evidence of organised collecting and patronage at the early Stuart Court, and to publish collections of correspondence between the men whom we now associate with that mixture of art and diplomacy that characterised so much of Balthazar Gerbier’s life, and the lives of his fellow agents and courtiers. Documents relating to the purchase of the Mantua Collection, correspondence from William Trumbull, Isaac Wake, Dudley Carleton, Daniel Nijs, Edward Norgate, Inigo Jones and Francis Windebank – and of course many of the best known letters of Gerbier himself: all were put together by Sainsbury to offer a comprehensive picture of the courtly art market of the time. Letters from Rubens to Buckingham, Peiresc and Scaglia in several languages testify to the breadth of Rubens’s personal culture, and the scope of his artistic and diplomatic connections. I suspect that Sainsbury’s book has, over the years, given many researchers a pathway into this area of 17thcentury cultural history, and it’s obvious that these letters also caught Sainsbury’s imagination. For although Rubens is at the centre of the book, its compiler has added more than a dozen appendices, focussing on topics such as Gentileschi, Mytens, Le Sueur, Vanderdoort and the Mantua Collection. He even includes a transcript of the inventory made of Rubens’s own collection after his death, with the permission of its English editor, Dawson Turner.

Sainsbury’s preface reveals that he received a good deal of help from the Belgian Ambassador – to whom the volume is dedicated – and the British Foreign Secretary in researching for the book, and he also recognises the assistance of John Bruce, whose vision for the operation of the Record Office had helped to make it possible. Another colleague Sainsbury acknowledges is Mary-Anne Everett Green – a name familiar from the title page of many volumes of the Calendars of State Papers Domestic. Like Sainsbury, she died in 1895, after nearly forty years’ work on the Records, and continued calendaring at home until her death.

The publication of Papers Relating to Rubens(as the book is often known, in place of its rather cumbersome full title) seems to have been accomplished by subscription. The title page is followed by a list of the subscribers, beginning with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the King of the Belgians, proceeding to a selection of ambassadors and Institutions (for example, the Bank of England and the Reform Club) and followed by two and a half pages of private individuals. Many are peers of the realm; others include Sir Edwin Landseer, John Bruce, and no fewer than twelve officers of the 17thLancers. (I wish I knew why! Perhaps there was a family connection with the regiment.) The index is comprehensive and the footnotes as thorough as one would expect from such a meticulous scholar as Sainsbury. A review in The Spectator, April 23rd1859 implies that his objectives were appreciated by the reviewer:

“ Mr Sainsbury’s volume of papers… has rather a special than a general interest. It contains intimations of the manners and habits of Rubens as painter, courtier, and diplomatist, with a few particulars as to his life, and a good deal of information about his own works and his celebrated collection. The “papers” throw further light on the court and courtiers of Charles the First as patrons of art, as well as on the negotiations between Spain and England: in which, every reader of his life knows that Rubens was engaged.”

Since I first encountered the book as an undergraduate, and became fascinated by the personalities depicted in the documents that Sainsbury put together with obvious personal interest, I’ve come across several copies. They have all shared one characteristic: loose pages, and one is tempted to question the quality of the binding. Not all mid-nineteenth century books have come un-glued so easily, but then all three seem to have been used a good deal. When I eventually managed to acquire a copy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had bought one with a personal connection to W. Noël Sainsbury himself: On the title page is a graceful inscription in ink, which reads:

“To Aunt Matilda, with great affection and many thanks. New Year’s Day 1859. W. Noël Sainsbury”

He was probably not the first author whose advance copies found their way into the Christmas stockings of his relatives, and it may well be that the book remained in the family for some years, as pasted into the front cover is a cutting from the Daily News, Thursday March 14th, 1895. It is Sainsbury’s obituary, which gives an outline of his career, and refers to the many volumes of the Calendar of State Papers Colonial for which he was responsible.

Sainsbury’s Rubens is not very easy to find in hard copy. No doubt Time – and  – poor glue – have taken their toll on numbers. Fortunately modern technology has not overlooked his work, and a complete, highly legible digital edition of it is accessible at

The book is now nearly 160 years old, but has lost neither its fascination nor its relevance. Sainsbury concluded the preface of his book with a declaration with which many historians would probably sympathise:

“And now, good Reader, farewell. I leave the results of this, my first volume, with confidence in your hands; assured that, however inadequately I may have performed my Editorial labours, you will fully appreciate the value and importance of the Original Papers contained in this volume.”



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