Following the trail of Simonides to the State Library of Victoria

Recently we visited the State Library of Victoria (who we thank for their help and hospitality) to inspect a small archive of papers relating to the mid-nineteenth century manuscript forger Constantine Simonides. The papers once belonged to the London chemist and prominent microscopist Henry Deane, and chronicle his attempts to test the authenticity of some of the manuscripts which had been alleged to have been forged by Simonides, principally the palimpsest manuscript of the Kings of Egypt by Uranius, as well as some of the papyri from the Joseph Mayer collection in Liverpool.

Wyburd, Francis John, 1826-1893; Henry Deane (1807-1874), President of the Pharmaceutical Society (1853-1855)
Henry Deane Sr, a painting by Francis John Wyburd (1826–1893) in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum (https://artuk.org)

Although these manuscripts are now universally agreed to be forgeries, and the Uranius had already been declared to be such by German scholars well before Deane began to examine it in 1862, the issue of their authenticity was very much alive in England in the early 1860’s, chiefly promoted by John Eliot Hodgkin, a Liverpudlian businessman and collector antiquities, who was the chief supporter of Simonides and his manuscripts in England at this time. Hodgkin engaged Deane, as well as his fellow scientists Francis Wenham and Richard Beck, to determine the authenticity of the manuscript. While the others declared it a forgery, Deane wrote a report asserting it was genuine. The manuscript of Deane’s report, along with briefer reports from Wenham and Beck, is now contained in the State Library, along with a small archive of letters, mainly from Hodgkin to Deane, concerning the latter’s work. These range over 1863 and 1864, and chronicle the progression in Deane’s opinions on the Uranius from his firm statement of its authenticity in 1863, to a complete reversal of this position – to the dismay of Hodgkin – in the following year.

1250 Deane
The old Deane and Co building, Clapham. Source: http://paintedsignsandmosaics.blogspot.com.au. Image: Sebastien Ardouin

What are these papers doing in Melbourne, far from Clapham Common in London where Deane had his Pharmacy (which functioned as a chemist up until 1986, and whose sign can still be seen at 17 The Pavement Clapham)? Deane’s son, Henry Deane Jr, emigrated to Australia in the 1880’s, where he worked over the succeeding decades to build the railway network in New South Wales, including the (now sadly dismantled) Sydney tram system. He retired to Victoria, and made a gift of his father’s papers on the Simonides affair to the then Public Library of Victoria. His name lives on round Sydney in Henry Deane Plaza in the city, and a swish cocktail lounge in Millers Point.

These papers help tell a small part of the story of the attempt to scientifically authenticate the Simonides manuscript, which will be supplemented by the other side of the correspondence, which we will read again in the British Library when we visit England in September. And as we continue this work, we’ll bear in mind this connection with 19th century Australia, and the story behind these letters being in Victoria.

Malcolm and Rachel.

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