Out of the many million items in the British Library collections, I have a few favourites. One can only be viewed in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. Printed in 1664, it’s a first edition of John Evelyn’s Restoration classic Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions.
There are plenty of reasons to like Sylva. It was the first book published under the aegis of the newly formed Royal Society. It is an early example of collaborative science, with Evelyn acting as the central creative and organising force, tapping into the arboreal wisdom of a network of friends across the country. It was a successful book, too. More than a thousand copies were ‘bought up, and dispersed’ within two years, as Evelyn immodestly pointed out. But what makes Sylva speak most eloquently to us today is its subject matter. In an age blighted by ash dieback, alder disease and sudden oak death, Evelyn’s plea to Charles II to take care of and rejuvenate England’s woodlands feels eerily resonant.
There is more to the British Library’s copy of Sylva than its contents, however. If you examine it carefully, you will find on the back of its title page a book stamp featuring the name ‘Jos: Banks’. It is easy enough to miss, but it adds an enticing history to