Henry Spencer Ashbee

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Henry Spencer Ashbee

Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900) was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer. He wrote on erotica under the pseudonyms Fraxinus (Ash) and Apis (Bee), and sometimes combined them as Pisanus Fraxi. He was notorious for his massive, clandestine three volume bibliography of erotic literature from 1877, 1879, and 1885.

Ashbee is also said to be one of several authors to have written spanking novels under the collective pseudonym Jean de Villiot.

Life[edit]

Ashbee was born in Southwark, London. He was by occupation a textile trader, the senior partner in the London branch of the firm of Charles Lavy & Co. He travelled extensively during his life, including Europe, Japan, and San Francisco, collaborating with Alexander Graham on Travels in Tunisia, published in 1887. He was an avid book collector, with perhaps the world's most extensive collections of Cervantes and erotica. Influenced by a friendship with the Belgian diplomat Joseph Octave Delepierre, his erotica collecting proceeded with purchases in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris.

Ashbee was a part of a loose intellectual fraternity of English gentlemen who discussed sexual matters with a freedom that was at odds with Victorian mores; this fraternity included Richard Francis Burton, Richard Monckton Milnes, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and others. He also amassed thousands of volumes of pornography in several languages.

Ashbee's will left his entire collection to the British Museum, with the condition that the erotic works had to be accepted along with the conventional items. Because the trustees wanted the materials related to Cervantes, they decided to accept the bequest. The trustees were allowed to destroy any of the books if they had a duplicate, but in practice went much further and destroyed six boxes "of offensive matter which is of no value or interest" including cheaply produced Victorian erotica. The remainder of the works formed the core of the Private Case which were kept hidden from readers in the British Library for many years; they include a work by William Simpson Potter.

Ashbee married Elisabeth Lavy in Hamburg, Germany in 1862. They had one son, Charles (the designer Charles Robert Ashbee, born 1863), and three daughters. His family life grew unhappier as he aged. As he became more conservative, his family followed the progressive movement of the era. "The 'excessive education' of his daughters irritated him, his Jewish wife's pro-suffragism infuriated him, and he became tragically estranged from his socialist homosexual son, Charles". Henry and Elisabeth separated in 1893. He died in 1900 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Books[edit]

Ashbee's most famous works were his three bibliographies of erotic works:

  • Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1877. (The name is a reference to the Catholic Church's list of banned books "Index Librorum Prohibitorum").
  • Centuria Librorum Absconditorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1879.
  • Catena Librorum Tacendorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1885

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Bibliography of Forbidden Books) was arranged by author, the Centuria Librorum Absconditorum and Catena Librorum Tacendorum by subject. Ashbee includes plot summaries of the works listed, with liberal quotations. Of particular note are the 300 pages of the "Centuria" devoted to anti-Catholic pornography. Initially only 250 copies of each volume were printed.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Ian Gibson, "The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee", London: Faber and Faber, 2001, ISBN 0-571-19619-5
  • Steven Marcus, "The Other Victorians: a study of sexuality and pornography in mid-nineteenth-Century England", Transaction Publishers, 2008, ISBN 1-4128-0819-7, chapter 2.
  • Henry Spencer Ashbee, also known as "Pisanus Fraxi", Index of Forbidden Books (written 1880s as Index Librorum Prohibitorum), London: Sphere, 1969.
  • Seccombe, Thomas (1901). "Ashbee, Henry Spencer". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement​. London: Smith, Elder & Co
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