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When a book becomes an archive – Rosamond Stephen’s first book

When a book becomes an archive – Rosamond Stephen’s first book

By Dr Susan Hood 

The RCB Library holds some 70,000 print items, and there is a substantial portion of these that are classed as rare books. These include early editions of the Book of Common Prayer, as well as signed books from limited print runs. However, there are few as rare and unique as the volume which forms the basis of this Archive of the Month.

The inscription gifting the item to Rosamond, signed by her father.
The inscription gifting the item to Rosamond, signed by her father.

The book does not follow the usual conventions that we associate with printed materials. There is no title emblazoned on the cover, nor is there a title page with bibliographical details included. What we have is a beautiful red blind–tooled Morocco bound item listed as a volume ‘of Indian paintings of and related to the Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of Lahore’. The personal nature of this item, a gift from a father to his daughter, is highlighted by the beautiful paintings and the inscriptions lovingly inscribed on the first leaves.

Originally accessioned as a book for the open shelves, when the Library was run by Miss Stephen, it was latterly accessioned as a unique archive along as part of the Stephen family collection (RCB Library MS 253). This collection features correspondence and miscellaneous papers and objects of the Stephen family, principally Sir James Stephen (1789–1859), Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829–94), and Rosamond Stephen (1868–1951). For the first time the volume been carefully digitised and can be viewed through the following link: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/pdf/AboutUs/library/AoftM/2023/February/ms_253_7_4_.pdf

Rosamond and her nine siblings (the children of Sir James Fitzjames Stephens and Mary Richenda Cunningham) were exposed to a broad and privileged education in England, where they originated. The family were part of the political and intellectual elite enjoying social contact with such figures as Froude, Gladstone, Carlyle and Thackeray. Her father was a High Court judge while his brother and her uncle, Sir Leslie Stephen, was first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and father of Virginia Woolf.

An image of the ornaments, which formed the models for the paintings as seen in Rosamond's book.
An image of the ornaments, which formed the models for the paintings as seen in Rosamond's book.


Although not herself formally associated with any educational movement Rosamond firmly believed in the necessity of education for all and was proactive in many strands of voluntary work in Ireland – not least the foundation of a lending library – open to all faiths and classes.

The early origins of her love of books are made clear by this deeply personal item. On her second birthday on 19 June 1870, Rosamond received the gift of this handmade book from her father, Sir James, at the time in the legal service of the Governor General of India – based ‘at Simla’.  He jokingly annotates the opening page with the order ‘All gentlemen buy this book and send it to London’, which he then follows with 57 folios containing his vivid hand–painted drawings of various Indian scenes, intended as an education tool for the young child.



“The Hunter” – depicting a tiger – is his drawing which copies a 19th–century ornament (also on display in the Library, with other pieces including ornate book ends) which with the book formed part of Miss Stephen’s original bequest to the RCB. This is the first time that the book can be viewed by a wider audience and is a wonderful insight into the early family life of the Stephen family.

The Hunter
The Hunter

It follows on the back two further Stephen–related online presentations also available through the Archive of the Month link – The RCB Library Marking 90 Years (December 2022) and the Library’s Fiction Department (November 2022).




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