Henry Spencer Ashbee  

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"Nature has produced some strange abortions, both physical and moral, but probably never a greater mental monstrosity than Sade. Sprung from a stock which was most pure and honorable, reared and educated with the greatest care and simplicity, this mental monster burst forth suddenly, as it were without apparent cause, and became at once the most depraved libertine, the cruellest debauchee, the lewdest writer, and the most persistent propagator of immorality the world ever saw."--Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) by Ashbee

"Better were it that such literature [erotic literature] did not exist. I consider it pernicious and hurtful to the immature but at the same time I hold that, in certain circumstances, its study is necessary, if not beneficial." -- Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885) by Ashbee

ASHBEE, HENRY SPENCER (1834–1900), bibliographer, the son of Robert and Frances Ashbee (born Spencer), born in London on 21 April 1834, was apprenticed in youth to the large firm of Copestake's, Manchester warehousemen, in Bow Churchyard and Star Court, for whom he travelled for many years. Subsequently he founded and became senior partner in the London firm of Charles Lavy & Co., of Coleman Street, merchants, the parent house of which was in Hamburg. At Hamburg he married Miss Lavy, and about 1868 organised an important branch of the business at Paris (Rue des Jeuneurs), where he thenceforth spent much time. Having amassed a handsome fortune he devoted his leisure to travel, bibliography, and book collecting. He compiled the finest Cervantic library out of Spain, and perhaps the finest private library of the kind anywhere, if that of Señor Bonsoms at Barcelona be excepted. He indulged in extra-illustrated books, the gem of his collection being a Nichols's 'Literary Anecdotes,' extended from nine to forty-two volumes by the addition of some five thousand extra plates; he possessed an extraordinary series of books illustrated by Daniel Chodowiecki, the German Cruikshank; and he formed an unrivalled assortment of Kruptadia. Of these he issued privately and under the pseudonym of 'Pisanus Fraxi,' between 1877 and 1885, a very scarce and recondite catalogue — 'Notes on Curious and Uncommon Books' — in three volumes, entitled respectively 'Index Librorum Prohibitorum' (London, 1877, 4to), 'Centuria Librorum Absconditorum' (1879), and 'Catena Librorum Tacendorum' (1885). Introductory remarks and an index accompany each volume. Nearly all the books described are of the rarest possible occurrence. Not only is the work the first of its kind in England, but as a guide to the arcana of the subject it far excels the better known 'Bibliographie des principaux ouvrages relatifs a l'amour' (Brussels, 1864, 6 vols.) of Jules Gay. The bulk of Ashbee's Cervantic literature, early editions of Moliere and Le Sage, and other rare books to the number of 8,764 (in 15,299 volumes) were bequeathed upon his death to the British Museum, where they will be marked by a distinctive bookplate.

Ashbee was the joint author with Mr. Alexander Graham of 'Travels in Tunisia' (Times, 10 Aug. 1888), and in 1889 he brought out his 'Bibliography of the Barbary States — Tunisia,' a model, like all his bibliographical compilations, of thorough and conscientious work. In 1890, as a member of a small 'Sociéte des Amis des Livres,' he contributed 'The Distribution of Prospectuses' to 'Paris qui crie,' a sumptuous little volume, with coloured plates designed by Paul Vidal (Paris, 1890, 120 copies), and in the following year he contributed a paper on 'Marat en Angleterre' to 'Le Livre' of his friend Octave Uzanne (this was also printed separately). In 1895 was issued by the Bibliographical Society of London the fruit of Ashbee's labour of many years, 'An Iconography of Don Quixote, 1605-1895' (London, 8vo, with twenty-four very fine illustrative engravings; the first sketch of this had appeared in the 'Transactions of the Bibliographical Society' for 1893). Subsequent to this, as his dilettanteism grew more and more refined, he was contemplating a most elaborate bibliography of every fragment of printed matter written in the French language by Englishmen. Ashbee was a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Madrid, and an original member of the Bibliophiles Contemporains and of the Bibliographical Society of London. He contributed occasionally to 'Notes and Queries' from 1877 onwards, mainly on Cervantic matters; and as late as 28 April 1900) he addressed the Royal Society of British Artists upon his favourite subject of 'Don Quixote.' He divided most of his time between European travel (he was an excellent linguist) and his house in Bloomsbury (latterly in Bedford Square); he died, aged 60, on 29- July 1900 at his recently acquired country seat of Fowler's Park, Hawkhurst. His body was cremated and the ashes interred in the family vault at Kensal Green, He was survived by a widow, an only son, and three daughters. In addition to his bequest to the British Museum, he bequeathed to the South Kensington (Victoria and Albert) Museum a collection which comprises 204 works, mainly water-colour drawings, including early works by Turner, Bonington, Prout, Cattermole, De Wint, Cozens, David Cox, William Hunt, and John Varley. He bequeathed to the National Gallery a fine landscape ('River scene with ruins') by Richard Wilson [q. v.], and Mr. W. P, Frith's 'Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman.' A water-colour drawing by Sir James D. Linton of 'A Gentleman seated in his Library' was a portrait of Ashbee; it was sold at Christie's on 30 March 1901.

[Times, 1 Aug. 1900; Athenæum, 4 Aug. 1900; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. ix. 80, 159, 9th ser. vi. 122; Standard, 9 Nov. 1900; private information; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

--Dictionary of National Biography [1]

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Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900) was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer, notorious for his massive Notes on Curious and Uncommon Books (1877-1885), a clandestine three volume bibliography of erotic literature written under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi. He is also presumed to be the author of My Secret Life.



Ashbee was born in Southwark, London, and was married in Hamburg, Germany in 1862. He was by occupation a textile trader. He travelled extensively during his life, including Europe, Japan, and San Francisco, collaborating with Alexander Graham on Travels in Tunisia, published in 1887. He was an avid book collector, with perhaps the world's most extensive collections of Cervantes, and erotica.

Ashbee was a part of a loose intellectual fraternity of English gentlemen who discussed sexual matters with a freedom that was at odds with Victorian mores; this fraternity included Richard Francis Burton, Richard Monckton Milnes, Algernon Swinburne, Frederick Hankey and others. He also amassed thousands of volumes of pornography in several languages. He wrote on sex under the pseudonyms "Fraxinus" (Ash) and "Apis" (Bee), and sometimes combined them as "Pisanus Fraxi".

Ashbee's will left his entire collection to the British Museum, with the condition that the erotic works had to be accepted along with the conventional items. Because the trustees wanted the materials related to Cervantes, the decided to accept the bequest. The trustees exploited a loophole to destroy some of the erotica, although some of the works are in the British Museum, including a work by William Simpson Potter.

He was the father of the designer Charles Robert Ashbee.


Ashbee's most famous works were his three bibliographies of erotic works:

  • Catena Librorum Tacendorum: being Notes Bio- Icono- graphical and Critical, on Curious and Uncommon Books. London, privately printed, 1885

My Secret Life

Ashbee is also suspected to be "Walter", the author of My Secret Life, a lengthy sexual memoir of a Victorian gentleman. Gershon Legman was the first to link "Walter" and Ashbee in his introduction to the 1962 reprints of Ashbee's bibliographies; the 1966 Grove Press edition of My Secret Life included an expanded version of that essay.


A character based on him is central to Sarah Waters's award-winning novel Fingersmith: a man obsessively collecting and indexing pornography and works about human sexuality, in an atmosphere of oppressive Victorian hypocrisy.


  • The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee by Ian Gibson, Cambridge, MA: Da Capa, 2001 (ISBN 0-571-19619-5)
  • Henry Spencer Ashbee, also known as "Pisanus Fraxi", Index of Forbidden Books (written 1880s as Index Librorum Prohibitorum), London: Sphere, 1969.

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