Treasures of the Collection

Our unique collection provides a tangible insight into the Georgian and Victorian culture of Boomtown Manchester, reflecting the literary, intellectual and cultural mindset of the Library's founding members over 200 years ago and of their successors throughout the 19th century. The collection covers a range of subjects with a particularly strong focus on travel literature, biography, natural philosophy, poetry, fine arts, history and maps. Unusually for a 19th-century special collection, there is also a fine representative selection of fiction, including many first editions. You can see some of the Library's most treasured items at our changing public exhibitions and can apply to become a member, reader or researcher to gain access to all of the Library's books.

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Belzoni in Egypt and Nubia

Plates Illustrative of the Researches and Operations of G. Belzoni in Egypt and Nubia. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, 1822, cat. Wg 20-2.

Comprising the accompanying plates to Giovanni Belzoni's Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, this handsome elephant folio volume is rarely found together with its descriptive narrative. It contains various etchings and magnificent hand coloured lithographs of ancient antiquities and Egyptian artwork.

Born in 1778 in Padua, Italy, Giovanni Belzoni escaped the French invasion of 1798 and worked as a barber in the Netherlands and a circus strongman in London before embarking on ambitious archaeological excavations in Egypt. A century before the rediscovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, Belzoni recorded equally breathtaking examples of ancient Egyptian art in this stunning volume.





Icones plantarum rariorum

Icones Plantarum Rariorum. Nikolaus Joseph Freiherr von Jacquin, 1781, cat. C supp Jacq.

Icones plantarum rariorum was published between 1781 and 1793 and in its final form consisted of three volumes in sixteen fascicles. The 648 coloured copper engravings were the work of Joseph Hofbauer, Ferdinand and Franz Bauer, and Joseph Scharf. This beautiful folio volume, donated to the Library by Henry and Lynne Simon, is an abridged collection of 100 plates selected from the aforementioned edition.


North & South

North and South. Elizabeth Gaskell, 1855, cat. Bw 41.

William Gaskell was a prominent member of The Portico Library, and although as a woman in the mid-19th century his wife Elizabeth was excluded from the membership, she was still provided access to the books through her husband. "I can see all the quarterlies three months after they are published,” she complained to the publisher George Smith, “till then they lie on the Portico table, for gentlemen to see. I think I will go in for Women’s Rights” (Letters, no. 438, p. 567). North and South is just one of a number of Elizabeth Gaskell first editions contained in the collection. She is a defining figure in bringing Manchester into the mid 19th century literary consciousness, and the novel provides a perfect snapshot of Manchester life.

Ocean Gardens

Ocean Gardens : the history of the marine aquarium and the best methods now adopted for its establishment and preservation. Henry Noel Humphreys, 1857, cat. Ca 9.

A combination of practical advice and beautiful illustrations of aquariums and their contents. This first edition from 1857 is in need of repair and rebinding, and is eligible for sponsorship through the library's Adopt-a-Book scheme.

A voyage towards the South Pole

A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world : performed in His Majesty's ships the Resolution and Adventure, in the years 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775. James Cook, 1777, cat. M supp Cook.

Historically James Cook's most important voyage, where the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the very first time, this rare 2 volume set is illustrated with maps and charts, and a variety of portraits of persons and views of places, drawn during the voyage by Cook's colleague, William Hodges. The resulting engravings were never seen by Cook himself, who had perished on his final journey by the time this first edition was published.

In 2018 The Portico Library began working with members of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College London to examine this and other volumes in the collection that speak of the extraordinary global encounters of the 18th century. An exhibition sharing the results of this collaboration will launch on 23rd August, almost 250 years to the day that Cook set sail on his first voyage.

Chief at Santa Christina , engraving, William Hodges, 1777

Chief at Santa Christina, engraving, William Hodges, 1777

A description of the human body

A Description of the Human Body : its structure and functions. John Marshall, 1860, cat. Dk 40.

Famed surgeon John Marshall's acclaim rests greatly upon the ability with which he taught physiology and anatomy in its relation to art, and many of his lectures were in fact delivered to art students at Marlborough House. This is no more evident than his important work on human anatomy, A Description of the Human Body, which is supplemented with 9 incredibly detailed plates with unmistakable elements of artistic flair.

The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England

The sports and pastimes of the people of England : including the rural and domestic recreations, May Games, mummeries, shows, processions, pageants, and pompous spectacles, from the earliest period to the present time. Joseph Strutt, 1830, cat. Wf 18.

This book is a key source for information on leisure time activities in 'Olde England,' including sports, hunting, games, dancing, gymnastics, music, festivals including Christmas and May Day and customs such as Mumming, The Boy Bishop, and The Lord of Misrule. It is a delight to peruse and has inspired some of our prints and greetings cards (available through our online shop).

Paradise lost

Paradise Lost : a poem in twelve books. John Milton, 1688, cat. A supp Milt.

This rare fourth edition of Milton's seminal work Paradise Lost is the handsome, folio-sized volume that his supporters had been clamouring for in the years following his death in 1674. It is notable for being the first illustrated edition, with full-page copper engravings by John Baptiste de Medina, Bernard Lens, and Henry Aldrich bringing to life the passionately and methodically described battle of truly biblical proportions between the Good Almighty and the Evil Almighty.

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Dances of death

The Dances of Death, through the Various Stages of Human Life : wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited. Hans Holbein, 1803, cat. Nd 23.

The Dances of Death, Hans Holbein's macabre masterpiece, was originally published in Lyon in 1538. It was newly etched at the end of the 18th century by Scottish engraver David Deuchar who was known for producing several series of etchings after great masters, such as Rembrandt and Van Ostade. It was thereafter re-issued in 1803 as a collection of 48 engraved plates, each accompanied by short description.

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More illustrations from the collection are available to buy as prints and cards

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