Guildhall Library has an exceptional collection of bookbindings associated with Elkanah Settle (1648-1724), which we have digitised to make better known and to encourage others with Settle books to share information on this intriguing figure.
Settle was a successful playwright in the decades following Charles II’s Restoration in the 1660s and 1670s, whose career gradually went into decline as fame and fortune went elsewhere. In the 1690s he became the last person to hold the official title of Poet to the City of London, and he was noted as a great organiser of lavish pageants and displays. Between about 1700 and his death in 1724 he developed a new way of trying to make friends and raise money by writing poems to celebrate the births, marriages or deaths of noblemen or other celebrities of the time, and presenting them with lavishly bound copies of these poems decorated with their coats of arms.
He seems to have had very mixed success as books were sometimes returned to him unwanted, and he died in poverty in the Charterhouse. But his books live on as a testimony to what was a very unusual operation in its day and several hundred now survive in libraries around the world.
They include a 1708 funeral poem to the memory of Sir Edward Waldo, and a 1715 Eusebia triumphans. As well as the gilded bindings, the books are often decorated inside with special features. We have a copy of a funeral poem to a member of the Pettit family which has been lovingly embellished on blank pages preceding the title page with a nicely painted coat of arms. Our earliest example of a fancy binding on a Settle poem dates from 1700, on a copy of a birthday ode he wrote for Queen Anne’s son, the Duke of Gloucester. Occasionally, the books contain direct echoes of the man himself. The Guildhall copy of Virtuti sacellum, a 1714 funeral poem to Sir Charles Hedges, has a note from Settle pasted in the front:
“The enclosed to so fragrant a memory most humbly begs your acceptance. I had made you an earlier oblation had I not waited your arrival in town”.