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Dundee Central Library holds one of the largest and most varied collections of local history materials in Scotland. Without the dedication of Alexander Crawford Lamb, the legacy of over 450 boxes of ephemera, including maps, photographs, books and prints would have been lost to future generations. The collection was acquired after his untimely death during a trip to London by Edward Cox, a local business man, and donated to the city. Alexander Crawford Lamb (1843–1897) was the son of Thomas Lamb, the owner of a temperance hotel in Dundee’s Murraygate. A second hotel was opened in 1867 in Reform Street, for which A.C. Lamb became responsible after his father’s death in 1869.
A. C. Lamb became aware that in 1871 old buildings were disappearing due to the implementation of the Improvement Act. He therefore sought to record their existence by collecting views of anything which illustrated Dundee's trade, commerce and the activities of its citizens. Apart from being a collector of artefacts, A. C. Lamb also spent many years producing a piece of work illustrating the history of Dundee, called “Dundee: Its Quaint and Historic Buildings'”.
Lamb formed large and valuable collections of modern oil paintings and water-colour drawings; a representative and very large collection of engravings and etchings from the very beginning of these Arts; of coins, medals and camei; of rare porcelain; of pre-historic flint implements; and of works in English literature, distinguished for their rarity or unique bindings, and specially strong in early or sumptuously printed editions of Shakespeare, Scott, and Burns.
Lamb’s Collection was known throughout the city. It formed the basis of the celebrated “Old Dundee” Exhibition (1892–3). Lamb himself wrote several articles and books, the most famous of which was his monumental study Dundee: Its quaint and historic buildings, published in 1895 by the local printer, George Petrie. It was reviewed in The Spectator on 19th October that year: “Mr Lamb deserves high praise for his painstaking and interesting work, which must have cost many years of self-denying labour. It is too large and costly to pass into the hands of the general public, though a judicious selection might easily be made for their use; but many in Dundee can well afford to purchase it, and they ought not to miss the opportunity of possessing themselves of a splendid memorial of their ancient city”.
The reviewer concludes: “A word of praise must be given to the illustrations which adorn Mr Lamb’s sumptuous volume”. A Prospectus, which was printed in 1893, announces a limited edition of 350 copies, each with 50 plates, printed on specially-manufactured paper (in two varieties – one for the illustrations, the other for the letterpress), at a cost of five guineas (£5.25).
Lamb’s activities were not restricted to collecting and documenting Dundee’s past. As well as running a busy city centre hotel, he was a member of various associations and clubs (particularly those interested in artistic pursuits), and a keen participant in politics.
Mr Alexander Crawford Lamb was born in Dundee on 21st February 1843, the son of the late Mr Thomas Lamb, founder of Lamb’s Temperance Hotel. He was educated at the High School, and then apprenticed to the baking and confectionery trade. After completing his apprenticeship he went to Liverpool, Manchester, and to Edinburgh to gain experience in hotel management. The experience gained in these cities stood him in good stead. He assumed responsibility in Lamb’s Hotel for the baking and confectionery side of the business.
The Murraygate hotel was first acquired and run on temperance principles about 1828, alongside the other Lamb family hotel in Reform Street. Eventually the Murraygate Hotel was given up and the family concentrated on developing the Reform Street business with a new and prestigious building. After his father’s death in 1869 Alexander became responsible for running the family business, ably assisted by his mother, sister and younger brother. The hotel business became very successful and well-known throughout the country and as both caterer and purveyor, Alexander occupied a unique position in the trade. He handled the catering for up to a dozen ‘soirees’ and ‘conversaziones’ in the winter as well as picnics in the summer. However Alexander still managed to find the time to devote to literary and antiquarian pursuits and his lasting reputation is as a collector of both paintings, literary works and memorabilia.
As well as collecting modern works of art he was interested in the appreciation of rare literary works, and as a persistent hunter and purchaser of these his name was known far and wide among bibliophiles of the time. The walls of his house were adorned by numerous valuable paintings, while his private library contained several unique quarto and folio works of Shakespeare, a complete copy of the first Kilmarnock edition of Burns’ poems, and many first prints of the works of Scott, Dickens, and Ruskin. Other volumes which represented the best of British and foreign literature found their way into Mr Lamb’s possession. He didn’t however keep these possessions to himself, but contributed regularly to exhibitions both locally and throughout the country.
He also became aware of the need to preserve items which formed part of Dundee’s past – municipal and burgh records which would have been irretrievably lost if it hadn’t been for his meticulous record-keeping and collecting. Learning the use of the camera, he began with his usual enthusiasm to photograph some of the older structures which were about to be demolished, and to collect from every available source drawings of buildings already laid low. In this way he started what turned out to be a collection of local antiquities of great importance. Views of old buildings, examples of early and recent typography, consecutive specimens of Dundee journalism, coins, medals, and tokens, and relics of almost every conceivable kind which illustrated the evolution of the city’s trade and commerce, were obtained, carefully stored, and zealously guarded. This in due time led Mr Lamb to entertain the project of holding an exhibition of “Old Dundee” curiosities.
When he suggested this to the local populace, the idea was seized upon with great enthusiasm and articles were forwarded to him from all over, which represented the history of Dundee in times past. Mr Lamb himself arranged and catalogued vast quantities of local memorabilia. His own collection of rarities was also made part of this exhibition, which remained open for public inspection for four months and proved a decided success. As an acknowledgement of his hard work and interest Mr Lamb was given an album containing a series of photographs of the exhibition from various points of view, along with an address.
The terms of the address were as follows: “Presented to Alexander C. Lamb, Esq., by the Hon. the Lord Provost, on behalf of the citizens of Dundee, in grateful acknowledgement of the successful projection and organisation in 1892-93 of the “Old Dundee” Exhibition, and also invaluable service, involving much patient labour, rendered during a period of upwards of 20 years in the elucidation of the ancient history of Dundee, and the acquisition at great personal expense of a marvellous collection – pictorial, typographical, and industrial – illustrating its history, which in all probability would otherwise have been lost, and which, with much public-spiritedness, he has always readily placed at the service of his fellow-citizens”.
No sooner was this event past than another and greater event happened – the climax of Mr Lamb’s life-long collecting .This was the publication of “Dundee: Its Quaint and Historic Buildings” – which he had worked on for many years and had cost him a great deal of money. The book consists of numerous plates of antique and picturesque buildings, drawn by Mr William Gibb, the well-known Edinburgh artist; early maps, dating from the thirteenth century to the present day, in which Dundee is named; and plans of the burgh in olden time. Extended letterpress descriptions, which formed a valuable condensed history of the progress of the town, were also given. When the monumental work saw the light of day it was hailed with unqualified terms of praise, not only locally, but all over the country.
Eulogistic reviews of it appeared in the principal newspapers, and Her Majesty the Queen, to whom the work was dedicated, and who accepted a specially-prepared copy, showed a personal interest which must have been as gratifying to the author as it was a source of pride to the community. The book was readily subscribed for, and the limited number of copies issued were soon taken up. The Town Council recorded in their minutes their appreciation of Mr Lamb’s services on this occasion. Sir James Low, the then Lord Provost, voiced the feeling of his colleagues and the citizens generally when, in words of warm eulogy, he said Mr Lamb had by his labours placed his native city under a deep debt of gratitude to him.
In 1878, Mr Lamb was elected a member of the Society of Antiquaries, and when Dundee was raised to the dignity of a county he was made a Justice of the Peace. As a member of the Fine Art Committee, of the Graphic Arts Association, of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, and kindred Societies, he always displayed a warm and practical interest in art, and counted among his personal friends some of the most distinguished painters of the day. He was associated with several of the literary organisations in the town, and acted as Treasurer of the recently formed Burns Society.
Mr Lamb’s personal character earned him lots of contacts and friends. He died very suddenly at the age of 54 while on a trip to London in 1897. His vast collection of over 450 boxes of ephemera, including maps, photographs, books and prints was acquired by Edward Cox, another notable Dundee figure who subsequently donated it to Dundee Public Library. Lamb’s contribution to the history of ordinary life in Dundee has proved an invaluable tool for social historians and collectors alike and is still housed in the Local History department in Central Library.
The text on these page is reproduced from the obituary that was published in the 1897 Dundee Yearbook. 1897 also marked the 100th anniversary of The Battle of Camperdown, whose victory was masterminded by Admiral Adam Duncan, who was born in Dundee on 31st July 1731.
To illustrate the exhibition, no fewer than ten items from A. C. Lamb’s collection (including two large oil paintings which survive) were reproduced in the Yearbook.
The death of this esteemed and widely known citizen of Dundee, which occurred in London on Thursday, April 29th 1897, will be learned with surprise and genuine regret. Mr. Lamb had not been in good health for several weeks, and he thought that a literary holiday in London might enable him to shake off the depression under which he suffered. He left Dundee on Friday night and arrived in London on Saturday morning. During the day he visited some of his friends in the metropolis, and was in excellent spirits on that evening.
On Sunday morning, while walking along Holborn, he was suddenly seized with a spasm in the chest, which was so severe that he had to rest for a short time in the street. The pain soon passed away, but as there was a cold east wind blowing he was advised to return to his hotel and keep indoors. He did so, and there was no renewal of the trouble during that day.
On Monday morning he was bright and cheerful as ever, but by the advice of one of his friends he consulted Dr Swift, Gordon Square, London. The report he received was reassuring, and he went into the City to make a few calls.
While in Ludgate Hill he had a recurrence of the spasm, and took a cab back to the hotel, where he confined himself to his bedroom. Under Dr Swift’s directions means were taken to relieve the pain, which was very acute while it lasted, and he obtained some needful rest. On Tuesday afternoon a medical consultation was held between Dr Swift and Dr Montague Murray, of Charing Cross Hospital, and by skilful treatment the severe pain was allayed.
The patient’s reserve of strength was not great, and by Tuesday evening he was so very weak that Dr Swift deemed it advisable to telegraph to Dundee for Mrs Lamb, as the case then seemed critical. Throughout the night he was tended by a professional nurse and one of his own friends, and seemed to take a turn for the better.
On Wednesday he was still improving, though very weak, and there was reason to hope that, as the spasms had ceased almost entirely, he would soon be able to return home. The arrival of Mrs Lamb and Miss lamb in the evening still further encouraged this hope, had he passed a fairly good night. In the early hours of Thursday morning he was apparently not any worse, and complained only of weakness.
He conversed intelligently with his friend on his condition, and expected that he would soon be back in Dundee. Within three or four minutes after his friend left him he was seized with a sudden spasm, gave a deep sigh, and expired. His death took place at half-past eight on Thursday morning. The disease which carried him off was angina pectoris, and his system had run so far down that speedy collapse ensued after the second attack.
Of a genial disposition, ever ready to oblige and further any laudable object, he was of the type of citizen whose loss to the community it would be impossible to over-estimate. Mr Lamb, who was 54 years of age, leaves a widow and a family of two sons and four daughters.
The name of A. C. Lamb was well known in both artistic and literary circles as that of a collector of more than average discretion. Many years ago he devoted his attention to works of art, and he formed a cabinet of rare and excellent examples of modern pictures. He was catholic in his artistic tastes, and did not make the collecting of pictures by one artist the ‘fad’ which it has become with many collectors.
He had amongst his most valued pictorial possessions works by artists so widely apart as Edouard Frewe and H. Stacey Marks, and he had as fine a selection of pencil-sketches and pictures by Sam Bough as could readily be found in Scotland.
The collecting of rare old engravings was also one of his delights. Though not a practical artist he had keen artistic instincts, and could pick out the beauties and the blemishes in picture, sketch, or engraving with ease and certainty. In the course of years of patient collecting he brought together a vast number of engravings of the last century – line engravings, Bartolozzi prints, and mezzotints, many of which are of great rarity and value.
A short time ago he made an exhibition of these in the Victoria Art Galleries, and had such a display been made in London the metropolitan press would have been loud in its praise. The interest which Mr Lamb took in this department of art naturally led him to direct his notice to art books. He thus became known to the principal London dealers in antique books with rare illustrations. There was recently shown in Dundee his “Graingerised” edition of Sir Walter Scott’s works with thousands of interpolated pictures – a series that is quite unique and of considerable value.
Many illustrated works of equal rarity were collected by him from numerous sources. First editions of such works were, of course, least readily obtainable, but the very existence of this difficulty only made it an additional incentive to secure the prize. Thus he was gradually brought to look for rare first editions of printed books, even without illustrations. He took up the subject of Burns, for instance, and by patience and discretion he brought together one of the finest Burns collections in the possession of any private person in Scotland.
Amongst the special editions of Burns which he had there was a unique copy of the first Kilmarnock edition, in the original binding, and in perfect condition, some of the leaves having been unopened, thus proving its rarity and perfect state. The gathering together of rare editions of Shakespeare arose out of his devotion to Burns.
The numerous visitors to the Burns-Shakespeare-Scott exhibition, recently held by Mr Lamb in Dundee, have only to look at the printed catalogue of that exhibition to find how valuable were the works exhibited. The folio editions of Shakespeare in the collection included copies of some of the very rarest, apart from the extremely rare first folio. Another department of antique art and letters which Mr lamb cultivated was that of illuminated missals of the fifteenth sixteenth centuries, and not a few valuable specimens are in the collection.
Whatever Mr Lamb undertook in this way was done thoroughly. When he took up a subject, he spared no pains to get the best that bore upon it. Thus when he began to collect portraits of Admiral Duncan, he gradually weeded out the commoner engravings which he first collected, and replaced them by rarer specimens. But it is in connection with the history of Dundee that Mr Lamb’s name deserves most to be held in remembrance.
Beginning with the gathering together of sketches of old quarters of the city that had been removed during the alterations carried out under the Improvement Act, he gradually extended his ideas regarding the subject. He began to collect documents bearing upon the history of the ancient buildings, and was very successful in forming a reference collection of these which has no parallel in Dundee.
Every department of municipal life came under his notice. Annual reports of Religious, Social, Literary, and Musical Associations that are long since extinct were acquired by him whenever they came in his way, and the result is that the veritable annals of these Societies may be easily made out from the systematic arrangement by which the reports are classified. It will be a grave misfortune for Dundee if this collection, the labour of many years, should be dispersed.
It is clearly the duty of the community to acquire these for public preservation, and this form of commemorating Mr Lamb’s name as a devoted citizen of Dundee commends itself as appropriate. The magnificent volume of “Dundee: Its Quaint and Historic Buildings,” will serve to keep his name in memory throughout the country for many years and it will still further realise the idea which he had preserving all that could be gathered bearing upon the past and present history of Dundee.
Few citizens there are who did not feel on hearing the sad news of Mr Lamb’s unexpected death that his loss was, in the fullest sense, a civic one, and one which has left Dundee a much poorer town than it was before. But, widespread as this feeling will be, it is only those who knew Mr Lamb most intimately who will be able to altogether realise the magnitude of the loss to Dundee. He was certainly her most enthusiastic and devoted son, and to justify – for he would have repudiated the word “glorify” – to justly vindicate her position among the cities of Scotland had long been the engrossing object of his existence.
To accomplish this he had devoted most of his life since the attainment of manhood, and for this object he grudged neither time nor money. Not that he was at all a man of one idea, for one of wider sympathies and greater public spirit did not exist. Few indeed were the public interests for which he did not care, or the philanthropic causes to which he did not open his purse; but still these, frequently recurring as they did, were but the incidents which interrupted for a moment, but did not divert, the main purpose of a life devoted to one ideal.
He frequently told the writer of the circumstances under which, when quite a young man, he made the first purchase of an object illustrative of the history of his native city, little realising at the time that this was the vital turning-point of his career, and that for a quarter of a century such purchases were to increase until they formed a gigantic and unrivalled collection.
To the formation of this he devoted the unwearied patience to which most things ultimately come, the most courteous and consummate tact, and an unerring instinct amounting to positive genius in discovering in places at once unlikely an obscure rare valuable example, for the acquisition of which his generosity of disposition never allowed expense to stand in the way.
Not that he could not estimate clearly the real money value of any article bargained for; a thorough business man, he could when occasion demanded negotiate such matters in a strictly business manner, but these coveted specimens were very largely in the possession of old Dundee persons and families, many of whom had fallen into rather necessitous circumstances, and in such cases he was generous to a fault. In this manner were acquired pictures, prints, coins, medals, manuscripts, books, and innumerable other publications printed in the city, with a wealth of antiquarian relics of all kinds throwing light on the development of Dundee.
When he began to purchase in early youth he had no special object in his mind beyond that of acquiring – for he was a born collector – but as the collection grew in size his ideas also enlarged, and for many years his definite object was to utilise his collection and the results of his researches in the production of a work illustrating the ancient history of Dundee. When this idea had clearly shaped itself in his mind he devoted himself to its accomplishment with characteristic vigour and self-sacrifice. His first special endeavour was to obtain reliable illustrations of the older and quainter portions of the city – then fast disappearing before the exertions of the sanitary reformer.
Although not a day too soon, in this he achieved great success, and whilst the greatness of the idea grew upon him, and the artistic merits of the first sketches made ceased to satisfy him, yet the main object had been accomplished, and reliable drawings from the veritable old streets and houses had been obtained before these were demolished. At very considerable expense, the genuine features of these original drawings, unaltered in any way, were rendered with greater artistic beauty by the British artists of highest distinction in this department of art, and the result may be seen in the Book.
Then on the historical and literary side of the work more than a dozen years were spent in patient and exhaustive examination of national and municipal archives and private title deeds and papers. Even the ‘Old Dundee’ Exhibition, of the Sub-Committee of which Mr Lamb was Convenor, was practically an incident in the production of the Book. Large as Mr Lamb’s own collection was, it was understood that there were many interesting and valuable paintings, books, and other relics in the possession of old Dundee families, and these the Exhibition brought into the light of day.
Highly successful as an Exhibition, it showed, however, how valuable and full was Mr Lamb’s collection, and, although its financial non-success rather disappointed him, he consoled himself when it was found that even in the great metropolis of the West the “Old Glasgow” Exhibition which followed ours has a still worse experience, as had also the magnificent Glasgow Burns Exhibition of last year. The explanation seems to be that to such exhibitions one or more visits seem to suffice, whilst Fine Arts Exhibitions attract visitors again and again.
But the ‘Old Dundee’ Exhibition was valuable also in effectively displaying the richness of the material available for a proper history of Dundee, and so paved the way for the appearance 2 years later of Mr Lamb’s monumental work, “Dundee: its Quaint and Historic Buildings”. It is unnecessary to repeat here what has already been said in our columns illustrative of the magnificence of that book, alike in its literary, artistic, and typographical aspects.
Few citizens there are who have not seen the work and felt proud of it and of the ancient city of which it is the grandest monument. That such legitimate pride did not arise from mere natural civic partiality was proved by the cordial reception the book met with from the most exacting critics of the principal literary reviews in Great Britain, and from the great national libraries of this country and France.
This latter recognition was the only one which seemed to gratify Mr Lamb – he experienced the feeling which all skilled craftsmen realise when those competent to judge approve of their work. As for the work itself, he always spoke of it as a duty – he had done it all for the sake of dear old Dundee, and if her beauty and her dignified historic past were only generally recognised he felt more than repaid.
But, as we have already said, large as was the space which his Dundee work occupied in the life of Mr Lamb, it did not entirely occupy it to the exclusion of everything else. He was an all-round collector, with all the most typical characteristics of the race, and his fellow – citizens benefited from his exertions in other fields besides that of the antiquary. Two winters ago he covered the walls of one of the Victoria Galleries with a most beautiful collection of rare engravings and etchings, all from his own collection, and valuable not merely financially and artistically, but also exceedingly precious as constituting a pictorial history of that delightful art from its discovery nearly five centuries ago.
The same gallery was filled during the past winter with, if possible, a still more interesting Exhibition – a splendid collection of the works of Shakespeare, Burns, and Scott, with numerous portraits and illustrations of those giants of literature. Both these Exhibitions attracted troops of visitors, and the recent one proved so successful that it was arranged to reopen it during the summer months for the benefit of the large number of strangers who then visit the city. But even these large and valuable collections by no means exhausted the literary, artistic, and antiquarian repositories of Mr Lamb.
A member of the Victoria Galleries Fine Art Committee for 20 years, he was also personally a liberal and discriminating patron of Art – possessing a fine collection of paintings, in which may distinguished names are represented – his examples of the renowned painter Sam Bough being remarkably fine. He also possessed a large and valuable numismatic collection, had formed a charming one of rare china and porcelain, and had many fine ivories, rare flint implements, and other articles fancied by collation of literary treasures besides those relating to Dundee and to Shakespeare, Burns, and Scott.
All these he held – as genuine public-spirited collectors always do hold them – not to be jealously kept for his own exclusive gratification, but in trust for his less fortunate fellow-citizens. To them, and even to strangers, his rich and varied collections were always open, and much of his time was occupied in antiquarian and family searches on behalf of inquirers from all parts of the world. Yet, wide as was the range of his collections, and wider still as were his sympathies, it is as the unique Dundee collector and chronicler that he will be, as he desired to be, remembered, and that, we may safely assert, will be as long as Dundee survives as a city, or even as a name.
And now in the hour of his sudden removal from the wife and children to whom he was so tenderly attached, and from the citizens who so deeply valued and respected him, is it not possible to find one consolatory feature? – the consciousness that, although leaving us at so comparatively early an age, he had yet been spared to do his great work, to accomplish with a success acknowledged by all men the special work his hands had found to do.
This work had his unselfish devotion to a high ideal are our valuable possessions still – richly valuable in themselves, and still more in teaching to an age so much given to personal aims and aggrandisement the much-needed lesson of unselfish devotion to the public weal.
– Written by one who knew him