Last revised 15 September 2023
This note covers the Oxford English Texts series up to 1939. For a checklist of subsequent editions see my further note, also on this site: "The Oxford English Texts 1940 to the present Day"
The series of scholarly editions known as the Oxford English Texts (OET) is familiar to most students of English literature, and to a modest extent to collectors, since these volumes are often pleasantly printed. Volume III of the standard History of the Oxford University Press (2013) covers the period 1896 to 1970 in great detail, and provides useful discussions of the series, from which I learned, for example, that R. W. Chapman was largely responsible for its development. However, I am not quite convinced by the History's observation that the OET series began in essence with Grierson's 1912 edition of Donne. As will become apparent from my discussion below, that is both too late and too early.
On other points the History is, quite understandably, elliptical; the eventual choice of a blue binding for the OET is noted but left undated. That is forgiveable, but unfortunate since the decision tells us much about how the press saw the series. Furthermore, and again irreproachably, not all of the books related to the series are discussed. More information can perhaps be found somewhere in biographical discussions of the press employees or the University printers, or in another standard history not at present available to me, but in the meantime, and for my own purposes, I have tried to form a view on the subject of the OET's genesis and evolution from examination of copies in my possession, bookseller listings on abebooks.com, and correspondence with booksellers including Jarndyce and Peter Goodden Books.
Crucial evidence has been obtained from the series listings printed on the dust wrappers of three copies. The first is a wrapper dated July 1932 on a copy of the blue cloth edition of the 1914 Vaughan in my possession.
The second wrapper is dated May 1934 and was seen on a blue cloth bound edition of the 1912 Coleridge in the stock of Jarndyce (at 29th October 2020). This 1934 wrapper gives the first use of the series title, "Oxford English Texts", and describes 22 titles in 30 volumes, the collection being available as a uniform set for £18 10s.
The third is the wrapper to my own copy of the 1939 edition of H. W. Garrod’s Poetical Works of John Keats, which lists 23 titles in 33 volumes, the set being available for £22 10s. This wrapper is reproduced below:
1. Oxford English Texts series listing as it appears on the cover of what I believe to be a first issue of the 1939 Keats.
The list on both the 1934 and 1939 wrappers contain a number of surprises. The 1934 wrapper lists H. C. Beeching’s 1900 edition of Milton, Hutchinson’s Shelley of 1904, and Clark's 1907 edition of the Shirburn Ballads, none of which are today considered to be in the OET series. The 1939 wrapper omits the 1907 Shirburn Ballads, but continues to list the 1900 Milton and the 1904 Shelley. However, these editions of Milton and Shelley disappear from subsequent listings in the post-war period. A full list of all titles that I have observed as described at some point by the OUP as Oxford English Texts is given below. The following discussion attempts to describe the emergence of the series as a publishing concept.
It seems that the Clarendon Press began to produce scrupulously edited and printed editions of major works of English literature with the Beeching Milton of 1900, but that the endeavour did not begin to approach its recognisable format until the first volume of Saintsbury’s Minor Poets of the Caroline Period in 1905 and Sampson’s superb Poetical Works of William Blake in the same year. The two volume edition of S. T. Coleridge's Complete Poetical Works of 1912 is also an important moment, and a testament to the growing ambition of the press, the earlier issues of this magnificent set being decorated with an expensively printed engraving of C. R. Leslie's portrait drawing of Coleridge. This engraving is on tinted Ingres paper and is tipped in to the bound volume. Later issues, even of the 1912 pages, print this drawing, I think lithographically, on regular paper.
For some time, the books, or at least most of them – the Hutchinson edition of Shelley of 1904 may be an exception – appeared bound in a stout terracotta buckram cloth with a paper label, and sometimes, but perhaps not always, in a wrapper. I have never seen such a thing myself, but some booksellers provide evidence of a wrapper on terracotta bindings:
2. Wrapper on a terracotta buckram copy of the 1927 Crashaw. Information and photograph from the website of the booksellers, Rothwell & Dunworth.
I have seen a photograph, in a bookseller listing, of one such jacket, which is dated July 1931 (7/31; my thanks to Jim McCue for explaining this convention to me) on a copy of the 1900 Milton in a terracotta buckram binding. The rear panel of this jacket lists ten titles "In the Same Series", the latest of which is the 1930 Lovelace, and it is possible that wrappers were first applied to the terracotta bindings at or just before this time. However, the fact that there are no surviving wrappers on terracotta bindings that are known to be early, i.e. pre-1920, is not firm proof; the custom of retaining wrappers and even treasuring them is relatively recent, and not even universal today, some preferring, as I do myself, the hard outline and surface of a unwrappered book. There may have been wrappers before and during the First War, but purchasers simply threw them away as a matter of course, as if they were shopkeeper's paper bags.
It would appear that the terracotta binding was available up to and including the 1930 edition of Wilkinson’s Poems of Richard Lovelace, the last production for which I can find evidence of its application, though according to the 1934 wrapper terracotta cloth was still available on the entire series in that year.
It is not clear exactly when the press began also to bind in blue cloth, issuing in a wrapper of a dun colour with traces of blue fibre, nor is it known when blue cloth became standard and and terracotta buckram unavailable, but it seems that this was probably in the middle 1930s and certainly by 1939 and the Garrod edition of Keats. The adoption of blue cloth might be taken as a landmark in the conception of the series as such, inviting comparison with the already established Oxford Classical Texts, though there seem to have been other pressures.
3. Representative examples of terracotta buckram, and blue cloth, on identical page sets, in this case the 1915 Herrick.
I cannot be certain about this, and there is some evidence against the idea, but it seems possible that the press bound these books only in terracotta buckram up until the middle to late 1920s, then added the option of blue cloth, applying the new livery retrospectively to the earlier editions, right back to Beeching’s Milton, where they had unbound sheets held in stock.
My own copy of Beeching's Milton is bound in a recognisable OET blue, with gilt titling and head and foot spine decorations. This copy has been dated by an earlier owner: 18 June 1928. As far as I can tell, the blue binding of the Milton is very unusual, with terracotta bindings being relatively common, a fact at least consistent with the hypothesis that the blue binding is a late innovation. Furthermore, my copy of the 1928 Osborne, bound in blue cloth with gilt arms on the front cover, is dated 1928 by an earlier and possibly the original owner; blue bindings of this edition seem common, and terracotta bindings less so, which would at a minimum not be inconsistent with the hypothesis that the press regarded blue as the standard after the middle 1920s, and only offered terracotta buckram on request.
There can be little doubt that unbound sheets were held for long periods before being bound. My own copy of the 1912 Deloney is bound in blue cloth, which as far as I can tell is a less common state than terracotta buckram, and was issued for sale in a highly unusual light blue Ingres paper wrapper with minimal printing. A small paper label is pasted on the spine noting that additional "war costs" had increased the price to 21 shillings, up from the 18 shillings indicated underneath and as listed on the wrapper of the 1939 Keats, so we can presume with confidence that the war referred to is that of 1939–1945. The blue cloth is of a slightly lower grade than those known to have been manufactured in the 1930s, and it may be a war time economy standard. (Curiously, this copy was sold new on the 24th of December 1954 in the bookshop of the University College of the Gold Coast, now Ghana.)
Additional scraps of suggestive but inconclusive evidence in support of the view that the blue livery was introduced between 1926 and 1928 and applied retrospectively to earlier editions can be found on the wrapper of my own copy of the 1914 Vaughan, a photograph of which can be seen below:
4. Jacket of my own copy of the 1914 Vaughan.
The wrapper is clearly dated July 1932 ("[7/32]") at the foot of the listing. Several other features may be noted. Firstly, the latest of the books listed is the 1930 Lovelace. Secondly, while the wrapper describes a "Series" this is not referred to as the "Oxford English Texts", and the listing, while acknowledged as incomplete, concentrates on recent editions, and is selective in regard to earlier editions. Thirdly, the spine clearly states that this is the "Blue Cloth Edition". A fourth, tangentially relevant, is the curious reference to an India Paper edition of the 1927 Marvell Poems and Letters, of which I had never heard let alone seen. A fifth, a minor point, is that the 1928 Bunyan is mistakenly dated 1929.
The reference to the blue cloth edition on the spine leads me to infer that this option was relatively recent and had not yet been fixed upon as standard, otherwise there would be no need to mention it in this way. I suggest therefore, that this jacket is evidence that the Clarendon Press decided in or around 1926 to offer blue bindings as part of a determined effort to establish as authoritative this as yet unnamed series. These bindings were applied to unbound sheets from earlier editions, such as the 1914 Vaughan, and even the Beeching Milton of 1900. Terracotta buckram was still available, and continued to be so certainly until 1934 and perhaps later.
However, it is obviously possible that this is mistaken, and that the press offered the blue binding from a much earlier date, but on the present evidence this seems unlikely. Perhaps a blue-bound copy will come to light with an early ownership inscription, but without such evidence we can for the time being assume that blue cloth editions were only available from the mid-1920s on.
The precise moment at which the terracotta livery was abandoned is not clear to me. The 1930 Lovelace is the last edition that I have seen in terracotta cloth. The 1932 revised impression of Selincourt’s edition of the Prelude (1926) was as far as I can tell only issued in blue cloth, and I can find no evidence of terracotta bindings on the 1937 Landor, the 1939 Keats, or of still later volumes in the series, such as the 1941 Herbert, or the 1941 Johnson. However, the May 1934 wrapper clearly shows that terracotta buckram was still available, at least on request. This wrapper also informs the reader that the book is part of the "Oxford English Texts", which is the earliest reference to the series that I have so far found. It adds that the series is "Uniformly bound in cloth with paper labels, or alternatively in blue cloth, gilt lettering". We can infer that there may be terracotta buckram bindings on all titles listed on the 1934 wrapper. Furthermore, I have seen a wrapper on the 1937 Landor that described the book as the "Blue Cloth Edition", suggesting that it is possible that the terracotta binding was still available as late as 1937.
With regard to the blue livery, I further suspect that the first release of a new edition (or the first release of an older edition now bound in blue cloth, if that is what happened) was honoured with the arms on the front cover being gilt, and in later issues only blind-stamped, but this is extremely speculative. All I can say with confidence is that some copies have gilt arms and some have blind-stamped arms. However, on the basis of comparison of two copies of the 1928 Bunyan, one with gilt arms and one without, I am prepared to say that it seems to me that the copies with gilt arms have bindings that are slightly superior in other ways, such as grade of cloth and rigidity of boards.
5. Cover of my copy of the 1923 Herbert of Cherbury, showing the gilt rather than the blind-stamped arms.
In summary, it seems that the Oxford English Text series as we think of it today, blue bound and on a par with the Oxford Classical Texts (OCT), only gradually took shape as a coherent project. It isn't clear precisely when the blue livery appeared, but, and in spite of the absence of evidence for terracotta copies of the 1914 Vaughan, I am drawn to the idea that the blue binding was introduced in the mid 1920s, after which it was applied to unbound stock of the earlier publications, but did not become standard until the mid or later 1930s. We know from the May 1934 wrapper that terracotta buckram was still available alongside blue cloth on all the titles then listed in the series, but it seems to have been uncommonly requested and may not have been available by 1939.
If this account is correct, it indicates an only gradual and somewhat hesitant emergence of a conceptually defined series on the lines that we now recognise, confidently asserting that there are English Texts on a par with Classical Texts. Judging from my blue bound copy of the 1900 Milton, with its 1928 inscription, that first retrospective binding could be in the years 1926 to 1928. I have a hunch, no more, that the 1926 Blake and Wordsworth texts may be a decisive moment. – Certainly, the period 1926 to 1930 saw a striking number of publications, seven editions in total, and some of them of landmark importance, the Marvell for example, which, as already noted, I have never observed in a terracotta binding. If the press was forming a view and making a determined effort to deliver an integrated series at this time, this would explain the decision to bind the 1900 Milton and others in the blue livery.
We can infer from the July 1932 wrapper that a relatively firm concept of a series of some sort was arrived at in the early 1930s, though it was not yet referred to as the Oxford English Texts, the May 1934 wrapper providing the first use of that form of words of which I am aware. It seems that at some time between 1932 and 1934 the press looked back over its stock, and its previous binding practices, and assigned 22 titles (30 volumes) to the OET series and advertised it in the latter year as comprising a set, available for the price of £18 10s, and, as noted above, uniformly bound in either terracotta buckram with paper labels or in blue cloth, gilt titling and decorations.
Then, for reasons that are unclear, the series became dormant, with nothing being added to the lists apart from the 1937 Landor, which is a very unusual title of which I have seen only one copy, my own, which is bound in blue cloth with gilt arms. (The bibliography of this edition is also curious, but I will not discuss it here.)
The 1939 Garrod edition of Keats seems to have been an attempt to relaunch and bring into sharp focus the concept of the Oxford English Texts as an integrated whole. The series now amounted to 23 titles and 33 volumes, the Shirburn Ballads of 1907 having been mysteriously removed, perhaps because it was not only out of print but in little demand (copies are certainly hard to come by at present). On what principles the lists of 1932, 1934, and 1939 were chosen, and why, for example, Guthkelch and Nichol Smith's beautiful 1920 edition of A Tale of a Tub was not included in the 1932 and 1934 listings, or why Harold Williams' three volume 1937 edition of Swift's poems was not present in the 1939 listing, is unknown. Presumably, Swift's face just didn't fit in the series as it was then conceived. Certainly, the OET is haunted by what Watts-Dunton called, in 1903, the Renascence of Wonder, indicating contempt for almost every writer between Marvell and Blake. That narrow conception, and what I feel is a prim and unjustifiable over-rating of the apparently transcendent, weakened a little – Johnson was added to the series in 1941 – but a canonising edition of Swift has been left, first, to Blackwells and now to Cambridge, and Pope was resigned to Methuen and Yale.
The following checklist summarises the data available to me on which this note has been based:
A checklist of the Oxford English Texts Series up to 1939: Derived from the listings on the 1934 and 1939 wrappers described above, from copies in the author's possession, and from information taken from online bookseller listings (mostly abe.com). I am aware that this list omits some information relating to corrected reprints, and I will add this as time permits.
1900: The Poetical Works of John Milton. Edited by Rev. H. C. Beeching. Copies seen in terracotta buckram, and in dark blue cloth. Bookseller listings also provide evidence of copies bound in a red cloth with gilt lettering; judging from the style of Oxford arms used on the spine this binding is early, probably before 1910. My own copy in blue cloth, with gilt arms on the front cover is dated by the first owner 18 June 1928. This edition is not generally recognised as in the OET series, but it is referred to as such in the listing on the 1934 and 1939 wrappers described above.
1904: The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley. Edited by Thomas Hutchinson. This edition is not generally recognised as in the OET series, but it is referred to as such in the listing on the 1934 and 1939 wrappers described above. The original binding is not known certainly to me: I own a copy in a blue cloth binding which differs from the OET blue cloth style common after 1926, and may date from 1904. Evidence from booksellers listings and accompanying photographs shows that there were copies in a terracotta buckram, with a paper label, but whether these were issued in 1904 and, or, later is not known. This edition was reset and published, without the tipped in facsimiles of Shelley’s handwriting, in the Oxford Standard Author’s series in 1934, but in a Royal Octavo format uncommon, perhaps unique in the OSA series at that time. I suspect that the 1904 edition was reissued in a more recognisably standard OET blue binding, but I have not seen such a copy.
1905: Minor Poets of the Caroline Period. Volume I. For Volume II see 1906, and for Volume III see 1921. Sets seen in both terracotta buckram and blue cloth. My own set is in blue cloth.
1905: The Poetical Works of William Blake. Edited by John Sampson. Copies only seen in blue cloth, but bookseller listings provide evidence of copies bound in terracotta buckram.
1906: Minor Poets of the Caroline Period. Volume II. For vol 1 see 1905 above, and for vol III see 1921 below.
1907. The Shirburn Ballads 1585–1616. Edited by Andrew Clark. Copies seen only in terracotta buckram. Listed as an OET volume on the 1934 wrapper described above, but not listed as an OET volume on later wrappers, perhaps because no unbound sheets remained.
1909: Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Edited by J. C. Smith. Two volumes. Copies seen in both terracotta buckram and blue cloth.
1909: Campion’s Works. Edited by Percival Vivian. Copies seen only in blue cloth, but bookseller listings provide evidence of copies bound in terracotta buckram. My own copy has gilt arms on the front cover. Subsequent lithographical reprints were apparently not corrected..
1910: Spenser’s Minor Poems. Edited by Ernest de Sélincourt. Copies seen in both terracotta buckram and blue cloth.
1912: The Poems of John Donne. Edited by Herbert J. C. Grierson. Two volumes. Copies seen in both terracotta buckram and blue cloth. I have both, with my blue cloth copy, which is a shade lighter than any other of the editions, having the gilt arms on the front cover.
1912: The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. Two volumes. Copy seen in terracotta buckram and blue cloth. My own copy is in terracotta buckram, and volume one is ornamented with an engraved frontispiece, a portrait of Coleridge drawn by C. R. Leslie, impressed on a light blue, very superior, laid Ingres paper, and tipped in to the volume. I have seen evidence of a later issue bound in blue cloth, and with a wrapper dated May 1934 (05/34), where the frontispiece is printed, apparently lithographically, on a white paper of regular quality. The text pages of this copy appear to date from 1912. I infer that though the press still had unbound 1912 text pages in 1934, they had exhausted their supply of the Ingres paper frontispiece.
1912: The Complete Works of George Savile First Marquess of Halifax. Edited by Walter Raleigh. Copies seen in both terracotta buckram and blue cloth. My own blue cloth copy has the gilt arms to the front cover.
1912: The Works of Thomas Deloney. Edited by Francis Oscar Mann. Copy seen in a blue cloth binding, with a light blue Ingres paper dust wrapper, with an additional paper label noting that additional war costs, the 1939–1945 war, had increased the price to 21 shillings. This wrapper has no series list or date. Bookseller listings provide evidence of copies bound in terractotta buckram.
1914: The Works of Henry Vaughan. Edited by Leonard Cyril Martin. Two volumes. Copies seen only in blue cloth, but bookseller listings provide evidence of copies in terracotta buckram. 2nd edition, in one volume, 1956.
1915: The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. Edited by F. W. Moorman. Copies seen in terracotta buckram and dark blue cloth. 2nd edition, revised and enlarged, edited by L. C. Martin, 1956.
1921: Minor Poets of the Caroline Period. Volume III. For volumes I and II see 1905 and 1906 above.
1923: The Poems English & Latin of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Edited by G. C. Moore Smith. Copies seen in both terracotta buckram (dated by a previous owner 11 October 1929) and blue cloth. My own blue cloth copy has gilt arms on the front cover.
1926: The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind by William Wordsworth. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt. My own copy is in blue cloth with gilt arms, but I have seen a copy of the first impression in terracotta buckram. A second impression was produced in 1928, copy not seen, making corrections, and again in 1932, the latter, which I also own, being printed photolithographically and bound in blue cloth. 2nd edition, 1959, revised by Helen Darbishire.
1926: The Prophetic Writings of William Blake. Edited by D. J. Sloss and J. P. R. Wallis. Two volumes. My own copy is in blue cloth, but evidence from bookseller listings suggest that it was issued in terracotta buckram. The binding on my copy does not have the gold arms, and, oddly, numbers the volumes 1 (Arabic) and II (Roman), rather than I and II.
1927: The Poems English Latin and Greek of Richard Crashaw. Edited by L. C. Martin. Copy seen in blue cloth, but evidence from bookseller listings provides evidence of copies bound in terracotta buckram. 2nd Edition, 1957.
1927: The Poems & Letters of Andrew Marvell. Edited by H. M. Margoliouth. Two volumes. Copy only seen in blue cloth. No evidence has been found of binding in terracotta buckram. The 1932 wrapper describes this edition being available in one volume and printed on India Paper; I have not seen this issue. 2nd edition, edited by H. M. Margoliouth, 1951; 3rd edition, edited by H. M. Margoliouth, revised by Pierre Legouis with the collaboration of E. E. Duncan-Jones, 1971.
1928: The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple. Edited by G. C. Moore Smith. Copies seen in blue cloth and terracotta buckram.
1928: The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to That which is to Come. Edited by James Blanton Wharey. Copy seen only in blue cloth. My own copy has the gilt arms on the front cover. Bookseller listings provide evidence of copies bound in terracotta buckram.
1930: The Poems of Richard Lovelace. Edited by C. H. Wilkinson. Copy seen only in blue cloth, but bookseller listings provide evidence of copies bound in terracotta buckram. Based on a two volume large paper edition printed and published in 1925. "Reprinted lithographically [...] 1953 from the corrected sheets of the first edition." The subsequent 1963 lithographic reprint was not apparently corrected.
1937: The Poetical Works of Walter Savage Landor. Three volumes. Edited by Stephen Wheeler. Copy seen only in blue cloth. My own copy has gilt arms on the front covers.
1939: The Poetical Works of John Keats. Edited by H. W. Garrod. Copy seen only in blue cloth. My own copy has the gilt arms on the front cover. 2nd edition, 1958.