James West 1703-1772

From Book Owners Online

James WEST 1703-1772

Biographical Note

Born in London, son of Richard West of Prior's Marston, Warwickshire and Mary Russell. BA Balliol College, Oxford 1723, MA 1726; he was admitted at the Inner Temple in 1721 (barrister, 1728), and became a bencher there in 1761. His wealth was enhanced through marriage to Sarah Steavens, heiress of a timber merchant. He was MP for St Albans 1741-68, and recorder and high steward there. He held several government positions between the 1740s and 1760s. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1726 (treasurer, 1736-68), of the Society of Antiquaries in the same year.


West was a keen antiquary and assembled extensive collections of books, prints, coins, medals and pictures. Some of these were destroyed in a fire at the Inner Temple in 1737, but he continued accumulating material to the end of his life. He acquired various important materials en bloc, including over 100 historical and topographical manuscripts from the library of White Kennett, historical and genealogical items from that of Peter Le Neve, ca.120 volumes of papers of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, from the library of John Strype, and books from Martin Folkes. He was closely involved with Edward Harley, and bought Harleian books both before and after his death; he helped complete the sale of the Harley manuscripts to the British Museum in 1753.

West is noted as a leading figure in developing the fashion for collecting Caxtons and other early English books in the middle decades of the 18th century. His books were stored partly at his town house in Covent Garden, and partly at his country seat at Alscott, Gloucestershire. All his collections were auctioned in London after his death, in a sale of prints and drawings (19.1.1773), of the "museum of curiosities" (including manuscripts) (27.2.1773, and the library (29.3.1773, postponed from February). The latter included ca.8000 volumes in over 4650 lots. Prices were generally high and the collections were eagerly bought by late 18th-century antiquaries. Examples: British Library C.19.e.14; Bodleian Library Arch G.e.1; Cambridge University Library Inc.3.J.1.1[3515]; Glasgow University Library Bg.1.1, Bv.2.7, Bv.2.13.

Characteristic Markings

West's books are often identifiable from the purchase notes of people who bought them at the 1773 sales; he seems not to have been a regular, more an occasional, inscriber of his books. He had many early books rebound and there is evidence from some of his incunabula in Glasgow University Library, and elsewhere, that he used (among others) a London bindery which also undertook much work for George III.


  • Alston, R. C. Inventory of sale catalogues ... 1676-1800, St Philip, 2010.
  • Bibliotheca Westiana, London, 1773, ESTC t3188.
  • Courtney, W., & Woodland, P. West, James (1703–1772), politician and antiquary. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • De Ricci, S, English collectors of books and manuscripts, Cambridge, 1930, 51-57.
  • Lucas, R. C., Book-collecting in the eighteenth century: the library of James West, The Library 5th ser 3 (1949), 265-77.
  • McKitterick, David, The invention of rare books, Cambridge, 2018, 187, 255.
  • James West in Material Evidence in Incunabula.