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Ricci, Seymour Montefiore Robert Rosso de (1881–1942), art historian and bibliographer, was born on 17 May 1881 at Meadowbank, Twickenham, the eldest son of James Herman de Ricci (1847–1900), barrister and former colonial judge, and his second wife, Helen, née Montefiore (1857–1932). His parents were divorced in 1890, and de Ricci thereafter lived with his mother in Paris, where he attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly (1890–98). He was brought up as an Anglican. His fellow pupils at the lycée nicknamed him Pico della Mirandola because his interests were so eclectic. In a working career of barely forty years, he published over two dozen books. He also wrote several hundred articles, and although many of these are essentially journalistic—for he made a name for himself as an art critic, becoming the Paris art correspondent for the New York Herald (1929–32)—they are all distinguished by his attention to detail and, frequently, to the history of who owned whatever he was writing about. While still at the lycée, he was admitted to the École Pratique des Hautes Études, at the Sorbonne, where he proceeded bachelier ès lettres in 1896–7; he attained his licence in 1901. His first publications were in 1896; in the following year they included a substantial repertory of the Roman inscriptions in the Breton department of Côtes-du-Nord. Saturday afternoon visits to the Musée Guimet fired a growing enthusiasm for Egyptology, and he took up the study of hieroglyphs and—again to the level of publishing—of coptic and Greek papyri.

About 1900 de Ricci began to acquire auction sale catalogues: his collection of these ultimately became one of the largest ever formed by an individual, and they underpinned many of his bibliographic and art historical publications. He also gained his first patrons: Émile Guimet, Émile Picot, and, crucially, Salomon Reinach (1858–1932). The last was a member of the Institut de France, director of the Musée National des Antiquités, and founder of the École du Louvre; extremely well connected, he moved with ease in half a dozen scholarly and social worlds, and yet was remarkably prolific as an author. His protégé from about 1896, de Ricci became virtually his adoptive son early in the twentieth century, and owed to him introductions to a glittering array of cosmopolitan friends, such as Bernard Berenson and Princess Bibesco.

On his twentieth birthday, 17 May 1901, de Ricci became a French citizen. He was now eligible for any French state-funded post or for grants for learned missions and the like. With powerful patrons, astonishing talents, and already about twenty scholarly publications to his credit, he might have been expected to scale the heights of the academic world. Instead, he took to the life of an independent scholar, living by his pen and from modest private means; the buying of books (especially bibliographical), coins, and small-scale works of art (such as Renaissance bronze plaquettes) was his only luxury. It was a choice which he occasionally regretted—as when he applied unsuccessfully for a post in the museum of antiquities in Alexandria (1902)—but it was the way of life to which he was temperamentally best suited. He was not a reflective person, but he had an astonishingly retentive and quick memory, and could easily marshal supplementary details from his various and ever growing slip-indexes. He could rapidly turn out a piece of journalistic writing, while he often startled contemporaries by the speed with which he produced more serious works. It took him only a few weeks to compile the catalogue of the Musée Cognacq-Jay (1929) or the Handlist of Manuscripts in the Library of the Earl of Leicester, at Holkham Hall (1932). He enjoyed a busy social life, with many friends in the artistic world, but his own lifestyle was hard-working and even austere.

Not until the 1920s was de Ricci to find what was surely his most satisfactory vocation, as a cataloguer of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and even then his ever curious mind led him to produce book after book on subjects only tangentially related to this theme. In the century's first decade he perhaps gave primacy to Egyptology and epigraphy; on the other hand, he greatly enjoyed the no less technical problems posed by early typography. Sometimes he would explore such problems in detail, but he eventually decided on the formula of preparing an all-embracing catalogue or census in which he traced the history of each member of some class of materials. In 1906 he proposed to the Bibliographical Society a Census of Caxtons; this listing of every recorded copy of each of Caxton's printings duly emerged two years later, to be followed in 1911 by a comparable Catalogue raisonné des premières impressions de Mayence (1445–1467). Perhaps because of an innate modesty that made him a ready annotator of other people's work, his next work in this bibliographic genre was a revision of Henri Cohen's Guide de l'amateur des livres à gravures du XVIIIe siècle (1912), detailing all the remarkable copies of French illustrated books of that period.

Enumeration was only one way of acquiring mastery of the subject. Sometimes de Ricci would step back from the task and summarize his knowledge in a different way. His Sandars lectures in bibliography, delivered at Cambridge in 1929, have proved to be among his most enduringly useful works because he offered such a limpidly clear exposition of the subject: English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts, 1530–1930, and their Marks of Ownership (1930). However, he was always eager to try out new methodologies or approaches that resulted from new documents or simply from a new way of looking at familiar material. A catalogue of Twenty Renaissance Tapestries from the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection (1913) was an exercise in dating through constructing a chronology of female headdress.

Tall, immaculately dressed, vivacious, and quick, the young de Ricci cut an attractive figure; one friend of his early years, Louis Réau, was later to recall him as a dandy. In these days he moved among fashionable and avant-garde literary and artistic circles in Paris. His bachelor years ended in his mid-twenties, when he married (Jenny Gabrielle) Thérèse Dreyfus (1882–1936). Marriage appears to have had little impact on his literary activities, save perhaps to make him veer more towards the remunerative and journalistic side, and he also began to involve himself in the book-trade side of the bibliographic world. From 1911 he had a daughter, Jacqueline, to bring up. In 1914 he launched his own bilingual review, Art in Europe. Only three of its monthly issues were published before it was halted by the outbreak of war. From 1914 until 1919 he was mobilized, as a second-class chasseur à pied in the French army and then as an interpreter for the British army. His marriage broke down in these years; in 1920 he was married again, to a war widow, Delphine Levy, née Feher (1887–1977), who had two children from her previous marriage. They rented a flat at 18 rue Boissière; even with the extra capacity offered by cellars that had been specially lined to render them damp-proof, it was never capacious enough for his collections, which filled every little space, not excluding parts of Delphine's bedroom wardrobe.

Just as the war was ending, de Ricci travelled for the first time to the United States, as part of a mission led by Salomon Reinach's brother Théodore; never one to miss an opportunity to inspect rare books or manuscripts, he put the trip to good use. His eyes must have been opened in a more general way to the opportunities that America offered, for henceforth he was at pains to cultivate its rare books world. Almost every year he crossed the Atlantic afresh, and catalogues of private collections were one result, notably of John Clawson's early English printed books (1924) and Mortimer Schiff's Italian maiolica (1927) and French signed bookbindings (1935).

More importantly, a succession of scholarly articles on medieval manuscripts paved the way for de Ricci's most celebrated and colossal piece of work, his Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. Discussions with the American Council of Learned Societies led to this project being adopted by the Library of Congress (1929), thanks to which he was furnished with an assistant, Dr W. J. Wilson, and secretarial back-up. Careful preparation, four extensive journeys around North America (1929–33), and de Ricci's phenomenal speed and his eye for a manuscript's signs of former ownership, combined with his indexes back in Paris, enabled him to complete the work within eight years. Two quarto volumes of 2343 pages contain descriptions of 15,000 books, letters, and groups of charters in 494 libraries (278 of them privately owned), all set out with accuracy and an extraordinary attention to their history and bibliography. These were published in 1935 and 1937; a third volume, with indexes, followed in 1940.

The success of the Census owed much to the way in which it had enjoyed institutional support, and de Ricci was at pains to take equal care over the backing that he realized would be required for his next major project, an even more ambitious survey of manuscripts in the British Isles. In 1934 he put such a scheme before the University of London's Institute of Historical Research and gained an undertaking to publish it, and modest financial support. With his characteristic energy de Ricci set to work, aided by just one secretarial assistant. By July 1939 he had completed 40,000 slips of paper for manuscripts and collections in permanent locations and 20,000 slips for existing or dispersed private collections; that summer he had a campaign of work in London, and went far towards completing his work on the British Museum and other institutions. His labours were halted by the outbreak of war, and there remain only the 60,000 slips, now in the Palaeography Room of the University of London Library, and certain other preliminary notes in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Like most Frenchmen, de Ricci failed to anticipate that the war's onset would be followed by so sudden a collapse of the French government; the fall of Paris in the summer of 1940 left him in a state of numbed shock. His health—hitherto generally robust, despite his intensely hard-working lifestyle—now collapsed; he published nothing further. Almost his last recorded action is his deposit in the Bibliothèque Nationale on 10 June 1940 of some thirty of his more precious manuscripts and collections of autograph letters. Prolonged illness was followed by his death, at 10 quai Galliéni, Suresnes, on the edge of Paris, on 25 December 1942. He was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

De Ricci had long been concerned about what would happen to his extensive collections. In 1935 he gave to the Bibliothèque Nationale his Voltaire papers (including 1500 letters from Voltaire himself). By his will, made in 1938, he gave the pick of his works of art to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, while to the Bibliothèque Nationale he left all his books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, medals, and working papers. His intention was that these last should be made available to researchers; yet the author of a book on library management (Le problème des bibliothèques françaises: petit manuel de bibliothéconomie, 1933) had perhaps not realized what difficulties his will would create for the library. Even after the war, when his old friend Julien Cain returned from deportation and resumed the post of administrator-general, the library was hardly able to cope with cataloguing his manuscripts, sale catalogues, and other printed books (perhaps numbering more than 80,000)—apart from many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century books, essentially a scholar's collection that owed much of its value to de Ricci's abundant annotations—never mind his boxes of working notes.

De Ricci was survived for thirty-five years by Delphine. He had reached only the age of sixty-one, and though appointed an officer of the Légion d'honneur (1935) cannot be said to have achieved public recognition commensurate with his talents; his genius was perhaps too wide-ranging, his spirit too independent.

Nigel Ramsay

Sources  

papers of S. de Ricci, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · E. P. Goldschmidt, ‘Seymour de Ricci, 1881–1942’, The Library, 4th ser., 24 (1943–4), 187–94 · J. Gibbs, ‘Seymour de Ricci's “Bibliotheca Britannica Manuscripta”’, Calligraphy and palaeography: essays presented to Alfred Fairbank, ed. A. S. Osley (1965), 81–91 · J. Porcher, ‘À la Bibliothèque Nationale: le legs Seymour de Ricci’, Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes, 105 (1944), 229–33 · L. Réau, ‘Seymour de Ricci’, Beaux-Arts (20 Jan 1943), 16 · J. Adhémar, ‘Pour les historiens d'art: avec le legs Seymour de Ricci entre au Cabinet des Estampes une documentation précieuse sur les artistes anciens et moderne’, Arts (9 March 1945), 1, 3 · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004); (2008) [T. Venning] · d. cert.

Archives  

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · LUL, corresp. and papers relating to Bibliotheca Britannica Manuscripta


Likenesses  

C. Simatos, drawing (as a young man), priv. coll.