Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 23, Vol. 3. Autumnal Equinox 2012

Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, Elias Ashmole. William Kiesel, ed. Ouroboros Press, Seattle, WA, 2011.

Edition Specifications: Stout Octavo, 6 x 9 inches. 528 pages. Primary Typeface: Williams Caslon Text. Rubricated title page in red and black ink. Illustrated with alchemical engravings, ornamental grotesques, dragons, trees, and fleurons. Includes an 11 x 14 folding plate titled; George Ripley’s Wheel.

 Trade Cloth Edition: Gilt-stamped cloth over boards in letterpress printed dust jacket. Over thirty alchemical texts in 528 pages. Illustrated, bibliography & table of obscure words. $88.00

Deluxe Leather Edition: Full tanned goat with gilt-stamped spine bands and central ‘grotesque’ ornament to boards. Ebony and gilt leather spine label, silk bookmark and hand-marbled endpapers. Limited to 200 copies only. $208.00

Vellum Edition: Full imperial vellum with gilt-stamped spine bands and central ‘grotesque’ ornament to boards. Scarlet leather spine label, silk bookmark, hand-marbled endpapers and silk closure ties. Limited to 35 copies only. $278.00  (SOLD OUT)

review by Teresa Burns

Pro Magnum Opus!

Elias Ashmole’s 1652 Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, the first, greatest, largest, and most famous collection of English alchemical verse encapsulating the quest and production of the philosopher’s stone, has gone through many editions in the intervening centuries, but it has never been re-typeset using Ashmole’s own corrections until now.  Even the copy often used by scholars, that edited by Allen G. Debus in 1967 as part of the Sources of Science reprint series, is just that: a reprint of the uncorrected original, complete with smudges and errata, but with a new introduction.  Others, such as the reprints once offered by Kessinger publishers, don’t even bother with that.

Perhaps because of this, the masterwork of English alchemy remains comparatively unstudied and hard to read, because ALL later editions simply reproduce the same version as the one Ashmole originally put out.  It was complicated, carefully annotated, illustrated, had pages of notes… and perhaps because of all these things, has been constantly reprinted rather that recreated. 

Yet as many readers know, the TCB brought to seventeenth century readers the poetry of men whose names now sound like the “Who’s Who” of British alchemy:  Thomas Norton, George Ripley, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Daston, Thomas Charnock, William Bloomefield, Edward Kelley, John Dee, Thomas Robinson, John Gower and John Lydgate among them.  Individual anonymous titles like “Hermes’s Bird” or “The Hermit’s Tale” have been anthologized in literary, magical, and alchemical collections as well as the “named” poems such as Abraham Andrew’s “Hunting of the Greene Lyon” or (more famous works like) Ripley’s Compounde of Alchemie and Chaucer’s Chanon’s Yeoman’s Tale. While Elias Ashmole is most famous today as the founder of the British Royal Society and a collector of old texts, he was himself a student of the Great Work and claimed to have had the secret of the philosopher’s stone revealed to him by his Rosicrucian father, William Backhouse (whose works also are among those anthologized).

This superlative new edition by Ouroboros Press is without question the most carefully and beautifully produced, and most accurate, version of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum ever produced.

Publishing director William Kiesel notes that this edition is “the most ambitious publishing project we have worked on to date.”  The editorial team led by Kiesel and Joseph Uccello took on massive production duties which included re-keying 500+ pages of text (a nd adding in the 7th chapter of Charnock's Breviary of Natural Philosophy); coordinating research activities between multiple institutions, archives, and individual scholars; design considerations such as how to typographically render a 17th century text into a more readable format without totally modernizing it; translating into English the Latin portions of a beautiful folding plate originally drawn by John Goddard to accompany George Ripley’s Compound of Alchemie; and reproducing that revised drawing and several engraved plates by Robert Vaughn.  The reproductions of these plates by Goddard and Vaughn are exceedingly well done: if one compares the Vaughn plates to those in any earlier version, they’re of markedly sharper resolution.  Kiesel reports they were made from Sir Isaac Newton's copy which resides in the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

In his introduction, Kiesel points out that the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is a “significant cultural phenomenon” that embraces disciplines ranging from “poetry, early science, philosophy, esotericism, literary criticism, Middle English Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, art history, English history, history of the book, typological studies, bookbinding, and antiquarian studies.” Ashmole’s original version was carefully annotated and in his opening he displays a deep pride in his nation’s literary and alchemical heritage.  In Ashmole’s diary, he records that he gave the first copy to none other the Earl of Pembroke Philip Herbert, son of one of the “incomparable pair of brethren” to whom William Shakespeare’s First Folio was dedicated.  But perhaps because of the odd place the TCB stands in history (well past the heyday of alchemy and Rosicrucianism and scarcely a generation before alchemy became popularly considered a pseudo-science), the verses, artwork, and research so painstakingly collected and preserved by Ashmole in the TCB have never until now been treated as the work of art they indeed were and are.

In a separate group of reviews this issue, I’ve mused about the problem many of us writing about old manuscripts have in keeping up with the accelerating unveiling of “new” old texts and deciding how to place them in context with others in their age and, when they’re copies of still older copies, how to establish what the context was in which they were been originally created.  This Magnum Opus has no such problem.  Ashmole’s 1652 introduction was a masterpiece of introducing to the initiate works written generations before, and concluded with pages of notes, many of them showing he had access to still other records now lost.  The editorial team of this new edition, led by Kiesel and Uccello, have exerted a care and precision rarely shown in modern book production and added their own brief, clear introduction and set of concise references.  May the care shown by producers of this edition fire the Athanor of Wisdom contained in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum’s alchemical verse.