John Locke, Esther Masham, and the Works of the learned Isaac Barrow (1700)

Isaac Barrow (1630–77) was admitted as a foundation scholar of Peterhouse in 1643, in the middle of the English Civil War. He did not stay long at the College, where his uncle and namesake had been a Fellow, but transferred to Trinity in 1646, and was elected a Fellow there in 1649. In 1655 he undertook a four year tour of France, Italy, Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands ― after which he was successively appointed Regius Professor of Greek in Cambridge (1660), professor of geometry at Gresham College (1662), and Lucasian professor of mathematics (1663), a position he vacated in 1669 for Isaac Newton.

Portrait of Isaac Barrow (1630-77) by D. Loggan from volume 1 of Works of the learned Isaac Barrow (1700)

Throughout this eventful career, Barrow wrote several works on mathematical and theological topics, including a series of Lectiones geometricae (Geometrical lectures), and A treatise of the pope’s supremacy. In 1681 the publisher Brabazon Aylmer (c.1645–c.1719) bought the copyright of Barrow’s works and manuscripts and gathered them into several editions ― including a three-volume Works of the learned Isaac Barrow in 1700, which printed Barrow’s sermons and works on ecclesiology. (The second volume of the 1700 Works is available to view here on Google books).

There are numerous copies of the 1700 Works listed on ESTC: R12735, R226554, R226555. But the Peterhouse copy, at classmarks PET.F.326.E.4 and PET.F.326.E.5(1), is quite unusual. The set is incomplete ― only two of the three published volumes are conserved in the Ward Library ― but both of its volumes carry a remarkable inscription: ‘E. Masham. Given me by Mr Locke 1703’.

Provenance inscription by Esther Masham

Provenance inscription by Esther Masham

The author of this note is Esther Masham (1675–1728), the daughter of Sir Francis Masham (c.1646–1723), the step-daughter of Damaris Masham (1659–1708), and the brother of Francis Cudworth Masham (1686–1731).

Esther lived with her father, step-mother, and brother in Oates Manor, High Laver ― a large house, now destroyed, depicted here in a nineteenth-century etching available at Wellcome Images.

In 1691 the family was joined by a permanent guest: the philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), a friend of Damaris who had recently returned to England from his voluntary exile in the Netherlands. Locke spent his final years in the company of the Mashams at Oates; he was given a room and afforded space for his library of around 3,500 volumes, and it was there that he wrote most of his work on money (edited in this superb edition by Patrick Hyde Kelly, a Peterhouse alumnus), his Some thoughts concerning education (1693), and his Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). Locke’s stay at Oates lasted thirteen years, and ended with his death in October 1704. It was then that his library was split in half and devised to two beneficiaries: Locke’s cousin, Peter King (1669–1734), and Francis Cudworth Masham, Locke’s seventeen year old housemate.

These two halves of Locke’s library would have remarkable, but very different afterlives. A significant portion of Peter King’s share of Locke’s library remained in the possession of the King-Lovelace family until the 1950s, when it was discovered in the family’s hunting lodge by Peter Laslett (1915–2001) and purchased for the Bodleian Library by the philanthropist Paul Mellon (1907–99). The greater part of Francis Cudworth Masham’s portion of Locke’s library was dispersed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Peterhouse copy of Barrow’s Works is a remnant of this dispersion; it was owned by a descendant of Masham, appropriated by his creditors, and sold at auction in 1883 ― after which it presumably entered the Ward Library as a gift.

Many aspects of Locke’s life are minutely documented by his surviving journals and correspondence. Yet Locke’s friendship with Barrow is surprisingly difficult to reconstruct. A letter to Locke of December 1672 thanks him for a piece of ‘newes’ which he had provided about Barrow, but the ‘newes’ itself does not survive. A letter to Locke of July 1674, written by Sir Peter Colleton (1635–94), asks Locke to present his ‘service’ to Barrow, without clarifying the nature of their mutual acquaintance. Three years later, in August 1677, Locke himself would describe his sadness at Barrow’s recent death, without otherwise detailing their relationship or explaining how it commenced; Barrow, he laments, was a ‘very considerable freind [sic]’.

A terminus ab quo for their friendship could be 1670, since Locke was the recipient of a presentation copy of Barrow’s Lectiones geometricae ― which was first published in that year. But it is possible that the book was given to Locke by Barrow at a later date. Barrow’s finest biographer, Mordechai Feingold, does not delve into the question, but he describes Barrow’s practice of giving away presentation copies as ‘almost an indulgence’: ‘his main concern about the delays in the publication of his geometrical and optical lectures’, Feingold writes, ‘…was his inability to present copies of the book to his friends’.

Locke was evidently very fond of Barrow; his copy of the Lectiones bears the inscription ‘Ex Dono Authoris Viri cujus eruditionis pars minima est mathesis Laudis doctrina’ (‘The gift of the author: a man of whose erudition the part which is least deserving of praise is the teaching of mathematics’), and Locke’s booklists, partly printed in Peter Laslett and John Harrison’s The library of John Locke (1971), record two other titles by Barrow: The duty and reward of bounty to the poor (1671) and the Works of the learned Isaac Barrow (1700). The former was donated as a gift to Damaris Masham before Locke’s death. The three volumes of the latter were given a unique shelfmark by Locke (14/33f, 14/33g, and 14/33h), and devised to Peter King, rather than Francis Cudworth Masham, but they seem to have disappeared after 1704, since they were not among the volumes found by Laslett and purchased by Mellon.

An interesting quirk about Locke’s ownership of Barrow’s books is that, before his death, he appears to have given away two of the three examples he possessed. The duty and reward of bounty to the poor was given to Damaris Masham, as mentioned. The Lectiones, now conserved in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, was given to Maurice Ashley (c.1675–1726), younger brother of the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) ― both pictured here in this wonderful painting by John Closterman (1660–1711). Locke’s journal for the years 1689–1704 (Bodleian Library, MS Locke. f. 10, p. 199) records that he sent Maurice a copy of the Lectiones geometricae and a copy of Barrow’s Lectiones XVIII…in quibus opticorum phaenomenon genuinae rationes investigantur (1669) on the 15th of June 1693, but it provides no explanation for the gift. An interesting hint may be a letter from Locke’s friend and publisher Awnsham Churchill (1658–1728) of August 1701, in which Churchill comments that ‘old Editions’ of Barrow’s works ‘are not easy to be found’. Perhaps Maurice had met with some difficulty in purchasing the Lectiones, and Locke was happy to oblige.

Whatever the case, Churchill’s letter of August 1701 was prompted, it seems, by the appearance of the Works of the learned Isaac Barrow in 1700. Brabazon Aylmer had issued the Works in instalments after publishing a sheet of Proposals for their publication in 1682: volumes I and II of the Works were issued in 1683, and volume III in 1686. The volumes were re-issued simultaneously in 1700, which evidently sparked Locke’s interest; he seems to have purchased a copy for himself in 1701 for 14 shillings.

Two years later, Locke must have thought that Esther herself would benefit from owning a copy of Barrow’s Works. In July 1703, two letters document Locke’s request to have the Works purchased, bound, and delivered to Oates.

Esther Masham's copy of volume 1 of Works of the learned Isaac Barrow (1700)

Esther Masham’s copy of volume 1 of Works of the learned Isaac Barrow (1700)

This distinguishes the Peterhouse Works from a second surviving gift to Esther: Cambridge University Library, Keynes.W.1.11. This is one of twelve books from Locke’s library which is now conserved in Cambridge; the others are here, here, here (copy T.11.44), here, here, here, here (copy Adv.b.1.6 ), here, and in King’s College, with the shelfmark Keynes.A.13.21 and Keynes.A.13.26 ― a list which doesn’t include the famous Christ’s College copy of Locke’s Two treatises of government.

An inscription in CUL Keynes W.1.11 (inaccurately transcribed on Newton) records that Peter King and Esther’s brother, Francis, decided to give her the book ― a novel by Paul Scarron (c.1610–60) ― as a gift. The Peterhouse copy, however, was given to Esther directly by Locke; indeed, it is one of the only extant gifts from Locke anywhere.

The rationale for the gift is difficult to determine from Locke’s twelve surviving letters to Esther, and the two surviving letters from Esther to Locke, none of which date after 1701. The letters are playful ― and they are discussed in this excellent article by Susan Whyman ― but it is fair to say that they do not develop into a substantive exchange of ideas. Yet it is also clear from Esther’s surviving correspondence, much of which is here in the Newberry Library, that she possessed a penetrating and lively intelligence, and it was presumably this which encouraged Locke to think that she might enjoy Barrow’s writings on divinity.

In August of 1703, soon after he purchased Barrow’s Works for Esther, Locke wrote the following in a prospective curriculum for a young gentleman: ‘I recommend to you the Whole Duty of Man, as a methodical System: and if you desire a larger View of the Parts of Morality, I know not where you will find them so well and distinctly explain’d, and so strongly inforc’d, as in the Practical Divines of the Church of England. The Sermons of Dr. Barrow…are Masterpieces in this kind’.

Esther’s judgement of Barrow is harder to discern: her copy of the Works is unmarked by annotation or signs of close reading (dog ears, for example).

What seems clear is that she held onto the book with care, and long enough for it to return to her brother in 1728 when she died, childless and unmarried. The Ward Library is very fortunate to possess this remarkable association copy.

Written by Felix Waldmann.


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