In the winter of 1794–5 Hendrik Fagel the Younger, ‘Greffier’ or Chief Minister to the States General of the Netherlands, was stranded in England when French revolutionary forces invaded his country. Eventually he was able to arrange for his library to be shipped to London, where, because of his reduced financial circumstances, he determined to sell it. However, the auction, for which Christie’s had produced an elaborate catalogue (two volumes, containing almost 10,000 lots), did not take place, because in February/March 1802 the governors of the Erasmus Smith Schools in Dublin put in a successful bid for the entire collection on behalf of Trinity College. In May of that year it began to arrive in Dublin: most of the books were systematically, if slowly, installed in the East Pavilion adjoining the Long Room of the Old Library (where half of the collection can still be seen), and from March 1809 they were accessible to readers.
In the course of five generations of public service to the States General and Holland, beginning with the appointment of Gaspar as Greffier to the States General in 1670, the Fagel family had built up one of the most important private libraries in early modern Europe. The holdings in history, politics and law were particularly substantial, but virtually every other area of human endeavour was represented too: belles lettres, philosophy and theology, geography and travels, natural history, the visual arts and much more. As such, the Fagels’ collections of books and maps can be compared to, say, their collection of plants: at once a practical resource and a treasure house of aesthetic pleasure. The collection of books has been described as ‘not the eighteenth-century grand library of men of letters’, but ‘a library of use’.
Through the acquisition of this collection the existing library of the College was transformed. Quantitatively, it is estimated that the total holdings were increased by some 40 per cent: at a time when these consisted of roughly 50,000 volumes, a further 20,000 were added – and one must realize that a ‘volume’ can consist of thirty or forty pamphlets bound together, in the same way that twenty-five portfolio boxes contain nearly 3000 sheet maps. Qualitatively, despite the presence of some 1800 lots of religious publications, the volume of other material was such that a university resource that had hitherto been dominated by theological interests became irreversibly secular in orientation. For the intervening two centuries, however, this immense cultural and scholarly storehouse has remained unknown to all but a small number of specialists within Trinity College and elsewhere.