Iraq, The Land Where Writing Began by Julian MacKenzie

As book lovers we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Sumerians, the early inhabitants of the land now called Iraq, who invented writing 5000 years ago.

A true cradle of civilization, the land was successively occupied by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, Romans, and others, until it settled into the embrace of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, where it was to remain a sleepy backwater, the province of archaeologists and historians.

Iraq’s recent history has been tumultuous and tragic, but the seeds for this upheaval were sown a hundred years before when the British wrested control of Mesopotamia (as it then was) from the Turks at the end of World War I, established the territory of modern day Iraq, before the country gained its independence in 1932. Boundaries rarely taking into account religious and tribal loyalties.

From the earliest days of the British in Baghdad, we have a superb photographic record, namely Iraq in War Time (1919), by the great Arabian explorer, Harry St. John Philby.   Philby served with the British administration in Baghdad from 1915 to 1917 where he reformed the administration's finances. In November 1917, he was sent as head of a mission to Ibn Sa'ud, ruler of the Nejd in central Arabia, He travelled with a small party by camel from the coast of the Persian Gulf to Riyadh. The book includes a fine photographic record of Central Arabia.

Six years later another fine photographic record is provided by Camera Studies in Iraq. This was the outcome of the work of a local photographer, Kerim, and published locally by the Hasso Brothers. This gives us a snapshot of Iraq between the establishment of its modern borders in 1920 and its full independence from Britain in 1932.



Philby was to convert to Islam in 1930. By instinct he was against the British Government and it is perhaps this that led him to publish a history of the great eighth century caliph of Iraq, Haru Al Rashid, in 1933, as a sort of celebration of independence.

Along with Freya Stark, the greatest British traveller in the region in the mid-twentieth century was Wilfred Thesiger. A book collector himself, books from his library have a certain magic. We are fortunate to have his copy of James Baillie Fraser’s Travels in Koordistan, Mesopotamia, etc., 1840. This recounts a tour from Persia to Shahrizor, Kifri, Baghdad, the Euphrates and back. It is one of the most important books on the region and would be desirable even without the Thesiger association.

Qur’ans by Roxana Kashani

Where collecting is concerned, the Qur’an is a multi-faceted text that has taken many forms since its arrival in the Muslim world over a millennia ago. Unlike other holy scriptures that are accepted as divinely inspired, the Qur’an is believed to be the literal word of God (as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad) and the scripture and physical properties of the inscribed codex therefore carry a certain spiritual significance that sets it apart from all other texts. The culmination of this belief and the development of book production through the ages have resulted in a vast array of magnificent manuscript Qur’ans, and today we'd like to share a few examples from our shelves.

We begin with a leaf from an Abbasid Qur’an copied in a fine scribal Kufic script, produced in the Abbasid territories of North Africa or the Near East in the early 10th century AD.

Early manuscript Qur’ans are commonly copied on vellum using the early forms of calligraphy, such as the Kufic script displayed here, that are bold and angular in nature.  The elegant highly stylised scripts from this period were designed to reflect the beauty of the unadorned written word.

The Qur’an is often divided into sections to facilitate study and the learning of the text by heart. One of the most common divisions is into 30 equal parts for the ease of reading of the entire text in one calendar month (particularly during Ramadan); each of these sections is called a Juz’.

Our next highlight is a group of 5 Qur’anic Juz’ from the Qajar period in Persia. Each of these volumes opens with a magnificent illuminated head-piece adorned in gold and polychrome decorations, features indicating production for a wealthy and high ranking individual in the courts of Qajar Persia.

When dealing with a single-volume Qur’an, the opening two surah (chapters) are typically illuminated in gold as a symbol of opulence, wealth and grandeur whilst providing a gateway into the holy text.

However, there are some branches of Islam that consider the use of gold in the Qur’an taboo (haram); this is a characteristic mostly associated with tribes from the Arabian peninsula and lower Levant and Qur’ans produced for patrons from these regions are typically void of gilt and polychrome decorations. We have one such example, whereby the opening frontispiece illumination has been carried out in copper instead of gold.

Historically, scribes following Islamic manuscript traditions were awarded a much higher social ranking than their Western counterparts, due to the divine nature of the Qur’anic scripts they were copying. Islamic scribes elevated the genre of calligraphy into an art form that has continuously been elevated and enhanced through the centuries, with many styles of calligraphy emerging from different regions across the Islamic world.

Our final highlight is a panel of Qur’anic calligraphy copied by a living Iranian artist in the Persian calligraphic style of nasta’liq.

The Natural History Books Of Edward Donovan

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the publication of some of the most beautiful natural history books ever printed. The publication of Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum in 1753 launched a revolution in the systematic organization of the natural world and established a common nomenclature. This gave fresh impetus to the study of the world around us. At the same time great voyages of exploration were setting forth, often with scientists and artists amongst the officers. They brought back seeds, skins, and specimens in abundance which whetted the appetite of the educated classes throughout Europe to see and know more. Of course the printing of these books was very time consuming and expensive.  Copper, aquatint, or etched plates had to be made, then the resulting impressions coloured by hand to an exacting and uniform standard.

One of the most important of these naturalist publishers was Edward Donovan (1768-1837), An Anglo-Irish collector, who although he did not travel, amassed a vast collection which he displayed at his London Museum and Institute of Natural History.



His grandest work is his Natural History of British Insects (1796-1813), which established his reputation. A 16-volume work, bound as usual in 8 volumes, with 576 hand-coloured plates, this set really looks the part in its contemporary green morocco bindings. A particularly handsome work, this is as nice a set as you will find.

Following on from this, between 1799 and 1803, Donovan published The Natural History of British Shells. A very beautiful work with 180 hand-coloured plates, it is one of the finest of all British shell books.

In 1820 he published The Natural history of British Quadrupeds, well balanced between domesticated and wild animals. The present set has a very distinguished provenance, bearing the Dumbarton Oaks bookplate of Mildred Bliss. She, along with her husband Robert, established a superb garden in Washington D.C. which they bequeathed to Harvard University.


Donovan’s final work was The Naturalist’s Repository (1834), again with 180 exquisite hand-coloured plates. This provides a superb survey of the natural world and is a fitting finale to Donovan’s publications.

The Barbary Coast by Julian Mackenzie

Thinking of the British and Africa, I suppose the things that comes to mind are the Quest for the Source of the Nile, Brits in East Africa and South Africa, and the exploration of the Niger. Before most of these however, there was English relations with the Barbary States, in particular Morocco.

The English Barbary Company (EBC) was established in 1585 to promote trade with the region. Traditionally in the sphere of influence of Portugal, Spain, and Genoa, England was keen to obtain sugar, saltpetre, and other goods in exchange for timber and firearms (the English trade in weaponry started early). There was also a huge rivalry between the Great Powers of England and Spain, with England keen to put Spain’s nose out of joint.

During the hundred years that followed the establishment of the EBC, England, Morocco and Spain were in a constant state of shifting alliances and war. England gained the important city of Tangier in 1661 and ruled it for the next twenty-five years.


From this era, we offer The Present State of Tangier (1676), by George Philips, secretary to the Governor, George O’Brien. This scarce work is really a piece of propaganda, emphasising the plentiful supplies of the city during a time of Spanish embargo. A charming unpressed copy in a simple contemporary binding.

Diplomatic relations between Britain and Morocco were not established until the Windus Embassy of 1720, which resulted in the freeing of almost 300 British slaves. This Embassy was one of the most important events in British-Moroccan history and we have a first-hand account in the form of A Journey to Mequinez (1726), by John Windus.

An ever-present force in the region were the Barbary Pirates who preyed on Mediterranean traffic that came too close to shore. The great Nile explorer, James Bruce, began his career abroad as British Consul in Algiers in 1763. He had a personal interest in exploring the region but his official duties took up his time.

We have a letter dated June 1st 1763, from Bruce detailing the steps he was taking to prevent attacks on British property by the Pirates. This offers a rare opportunity to obtain a significant autograph letter by Bruce.

Travels to the Roof of the World by Julian Mackenzie

The Tibetan plateau, situated at some 15,000 feet (4500 metres), surrounded by great mountain ranges which include the two tallest mountains in the world, Everest and K2, was one of the last areas of the globe to be explored by Western travellers. The mixture of Tibetan Buddhism, presided over by a spiritual leader chosen as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, alongside popular tales of the Yeti, or ‘abominable snowman’, combined with its remoteness, has given this vast area more than a whiff of exoticism. This, however, is not the whole story.

The plateau forms borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. As such it was part of ancient trade routes and from the seventh century onwards was fought over by Mongol, Chinese, Nepalese and British forces. In addition its glaciers and snow-fed highlands feed Asia’s great rivers, the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze, Indus, Yellow and Salween, giving it great strategic importance.

The Indian pundit, Sarat Chandra Das, made two journeys to Tibet in the 1880’s, reaching Lhasa. He was reputed to have been a spy for the British and his observations would have provided vital information for the British invasion of Tibet in 1903, one the last and most infamous events played out in the Great Game between Britain and Russia, with Britain determined to defend its British Indian territories against possible invasion from the north. His account was first published in 1902 as Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet.

Henry Savage Landor was an eccentric English explorer, who scorned special equipment (like ropes for mountaineering), and whether in the jungle of the mountains, dressed as if he was in Bond Street (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He travelled in Western Tibet in 1897, and in attempting to reach Lhasa (closed to non-Bhuddhists), was captured and tortured by the Tibetans. His account, In the Forbidden Land, 1899, is an incredibly handsome 2-volume work, profusely illustrated.

The first great scientific expedition to Tibet was by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin. He was notable for using local scientists and assistants to aid him and located the sources of the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej Rivers. An essential work in the exploration of the plateau is Trans-Himalaya discoveries and adventures in Tibet, 1909-1913.



In 1938, John Hanbury-Tracy published Black River of Tibet. This was an account of the exploration of South-east Tibet in 1935. The author claims to have seen the footprint of the abominable snowman. We offer a fine copy in dust-wrapper.


Finally, a book on Tibetan Buddhism. Sir Charles Bell spent eighteen years in Tibet, including a year in Lhasa. In The Religion of Tibet, 1931, he tells how Buddhism came to Tibet, and its influence on the country. We offer an attractive first edition in dust-wrapper.

View more antique maps and vintage travel books available at Shapero.

St Petersburg by Eleanor Moore

On the boggy delta of the Neva, Peter the Great founded his ‘window to the West’ in 1703. Through sheer determination and at the cost of thousands of lives, European architecture was imported to this marshland and Russia had a new capital. Undeniably beautiful, I could wander for days along the canals and through the museums. From endless white nights in summer, to hours of bitterly cold darkness in winter, it has an atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else.

The conception of Russia’s very own Venice can be attributed to Peter the Great’s iron will to modernise the Empire in every field of national life. His reforms were not always popular but did undoubtedly change the course of history forever. Word of his feats quickly reached England and John Mottley’s expansive work on the Emperor’s life was printed in London in 1739.


What seemed like a distant dream a century before had largely been achieved by the end of the 18th century. With palaces, formal gardens, opera houses and a dominance of the French language, St Petersburg had successfully imitated its Western counterparts. This was largely due to Catherine the Great, who carried on the city’s cultural and political legacy. The inner workings of her court and the aristocracy are detailed Secret Memoirs of the Court of St Petersburga fascinating account by Charles Masson, a Frenchman who spent ten years living there.


By the second half of the 19th century, Petersburg was facing rapid development, industry was growing and merchants were becoming ever busier. In an effort to regulate the import and export of goods, an address book listing all the Russian and foreign merchants was published. This rare example from 1863 contains details of all the brokers dealing at the commodities exchange, as well as quality control inspectors at the port. Who knows if such transparency helped things become more ‘efficient’.

By 1905 calls for social reform were growing and in an effort to appease striking workers in the city, Nicholas II established a democratically-elected state parliament, or Duma. Grand Duke Mikhail Mikahilovich, the grandson of Nicholas I, owned this fine example of the document establishing the Duma, which is in an imperial portfolio.

The Duma was ultimately ineffective but the city played an important role in 1917 with the arrival of Lenin from Finland and the seizure of the Winter Palace by revolutionaries.

Did they really do that? by Julian Mackenzie

Did they really do that?

Some of the greatest feats of British exploration have occurred in my lifetime – Hilary’s ascent of Everest, Fuchs traversing the Antarctic, and Francis Chichester’s solo circumnavigation. The episode I remember most clearly however, was not a triumph but the bizarre and tragic story of the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who, taking part in a round-the-world yacht race that he realised he would not be able to finish, faked his log books and ultimately lost his life trying to perpetrate the pretence that he had in fact completed the voyage.

Later, as a bookseller I became aware of a great body of hoax and imaginary voyages. The daddy of them all is of course Utopia by Thomas More. In this More encounters a traveller who has just returned from voyaging with Amerigo Vespucci and who tells him of the island of Utopia where various ideals dear to More such as common ownership are espoused. The idea of a voyage to an imaginary land as a means of conveying complex philosophical ideas was to prove very popular. Early editions of Utopia, first published in 1516 in Latin and 1551 in English) are uncommon.


Inspired by More, Joseph Hall’s Mundus alter et idem, is not only the first Utopia set in Terra Australis, but its descriptions of strange lands in the South Seas, such as Crapulia and Moronia, populated by gluttons, nags, fools, and thieves, is widely regarded as a source for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Our copy is bound with two other Utopian works, Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis, and Thomas Campenela’s Civitas Solis. Bacon’s work, encompassing China, Japan, Mexico, and the Mediterranean, introduces us to the island of Bensalem, a place dedicated to scientific research. It is a very prophetic work that envisages electric cars amongst other future inventions (Ray Howgego, Imaginary Voyages). Campanela’s work is quite disturbing, dabbling with eugenics and summary justice. These three early editions from 1643 are attractively bound in contemporary vellum.

Andrew Ramsay’s The Travels of Cyrus, the second edition, 1727, is an example of a book of instruction in the form of a romance telling of the wanderings of the Cyrus, the King of Persia, who travels the ancient world meeting philosophers such as Zoroaster, as well as love story of Cyrus and Cassandra. This was an incredibly popular work which went through many editions. Ours is an attractive country house (Painswick House).


To return to where we came in, there is nothing like a good hoax and hoaxer-in-chief was the German, Christian Damberger. He was a specialist in hoax voyages and we have a copy of his third such works, Travels through the interior of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Morocco (1801).

This purports to be a traversal of Africa from south to North. A feat not achieved until Grogan and Sharpe’s epic venture almost a hundred years later. Carefully constructed from known accounts, this was immediately accepted as a true account. Ours is a beautiful copy in contemporary tree calf.

The Holy Land in the original cloth by Julian Mackenzie

The other day I received an e-mail offering me a copy of Brand’s History of Newcastle (1789). Or at least some of it, it was an odd volume lacking most plates and binding, quite stained, but as the seller put it: ‘in good condition considering its age’. I suppose it was an understandable statement because really there is no substitute for being able to visit a rare book shop or fair, and being able to see and handle the beautiful, sensual objects that books can be, in order to understand the age-condition conundrum.

The books I’ve chosen for my weekly selection need no apology where condition is concerned. The Holy Land, the cradle of three great religions, steeped in antiquity of an age that is difficult to fathom for those of us from more recent civilizations, has always attracted travellers and writers.

Cloth became the dominant binding for books sometime in the early nineteenth century, and it was not long before very attractive examples in a wide variety of styles were being produced.

George Robinson’s Travels in Palestine and Syria, an elegant work from 1837, in pale blue fine ribbed cloth, with restrained blind-stamped decoration, is quite hard to find in any condition. Little is known of the author save that he was obviously a man of some means, able to travel for years on end without having to work. The present book gives an account of a visit to a friend in the Ionian Islands in 1829 and was tempted by the proximity of the Levant into making his present journey. He travelled via Egypt having spent a winter in Smyrna. From there he travelled to Jaffa visiting the whole of Syria and Palestine arriving at Constantinople at the end of 1831. It is a very perceptive account with interesting chapters on his time in Palestine.

Nowadays when thinking of the Church of England (C of E), we don’t normally think of fervour. In the not so distant past, however, the C of E was far more self-confident, and nothing quite displayed this like a tour of the Holy Land. For this reason, I’m always a bit wary of reverends in Holy Places. James Laird Patterson’s Journal of a Tour (1852), could easily have fallen into that category. I think, though, that he has managed to steer a middle course between enthusing about his beliefs and what he observed around him. The book itself is more elaborately bound than Robinson’s and shows the rapid sophistication of cloth bindings.

A little more to my personal taste is the account of the Frenchman, Louis de Saulcy. His Narrative of a Journey round the Dead Sea, 1854, was occasioned by his looking for something interesting ‘in a place fraught with danger’. De Saulcy made several important discoveries including the site of the city of Jericho. This second edition shows the continuing elaboration of cloth with pictorial blind-stamped camels to the covers.

Aubrey Beardsley Exhibition | ‘I have one aim – the grotesque. If I am not grotesque – I am nothing’

Aubrey Beardsley exhibition

An Aubrey Beardsley exhibition showcasing the illustrative skills and imagination of the renowned 1890s draughtsman & illustrator opens at Shapero Rare Books 105 New Bond Street Gallery on 13th May 2021.

Shapero will be offering for sale an important collection of the artist’s works, started by Rainforth Armitage Walker and continued by W.G. Good.  The collection comprises all the major works in the artist’s canon and is the most comprehensive collection of Beardsley’s printed works ever assembled.  Exploring the outlandish, the comical, the stylish and the erotic, Beardsley’s distinctive style is instantly recognisable.

This incredible collection also forms the basis for an Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, displaying Beardsley’s most important illustrated books, alongside earlier works, books from the artist’s own library, rare titles relating to the Decadent and Aesthetic movements, unexpurgated proofs, drawings and other collectable works.  Despite commencement of the collecting beginning over one hundred years ago, the books remain in exceptional condition.

Beardsley’s masterpiece of illustration Le Morte d’Arthur is one of the highlights of the collection (with almost a whole cabinet dedicated to it in the actual Aubrey Beardsley exhibition) and is present in several editions, including the first, special edition of 300 copies only.

Beardsley's rendering of the Arthurian legend reflects both the neoclassical tradition at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts & Crafts movements, and the emerging spirit of the Decadent movement to create a stunning visual and tactile work.

Also part of the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition will be an extremely rare first English edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, from W.G. Good’s library.  Wilde himself makes a cameo in several of Beardsley’s gorgeous illustrations, which met with the author’s approval.

The last great work undertaken by Beardsley was to be an illustrated edition of Ben Jonson’s 17th-century satirical work Volpone, or The Fox.  Initially intended to have 25 designs by the artist, only one full-page illustration was completed as Beardsley’s health deteriorated.  'Volpone Adoring his Treasure' was used as the frontispiece for the edition, and is widely considered one of the artist's greatest works.  Beardsley himself called it ‘one of the strongest things I have ever done’.

The creators of the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition

Rainforth Armitage Walker (born 1886) developed an interest in the then recently deceased artist Aubrey Beardsley.  He became a passionate collector of Beardsley’s works, studying them in detail order to expose the many forgeries that were appearing in the early 20th century.  Walker’s collection of the artist’s drawings formed the basis of the National Gallery’s 1923-24 Beardsley exhibition.

As his health deteriorated in the 1950s, Walker passed custodial ownership of his Beardsley collection to his friend and fellow collector W. G. Good, who developed the collection further, with the expanded collection contributing to the V&A 1966 Beardsley exhibition.  The result of Walker and Good’s curatorial and bibliographical efforts is a collection of Beardsley’s art in print without equal.

"The Walker-Good collection provides an exceptional opportunity to experience the full scope of Aubrey Beardsley’s all-too-short career as an illustrator and artist, from his earliest works when he was still at school through to the final, unfinished works showcasing the evolution of an epic ambition and imagination." Bernard Shapero, CEO of Shapero Rare Books

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition opens its doors on Thursday 13th May

April 28, 1789: The Mutiny on the Bounty

The Mutiny on the Bounty

William Bligh (1754-1815) will forever be remembered for the mutiny, led by his second-in-command Fletcher Christian, which occurred on 28th April, 1789, shortly after leaving Tahiti where Bligh’s mission was to collect breadfruit. Posterity’s view of Bligh has been mixed, with some regarding him as a cruel taskmaster, and the mutinous crew as rather a romantic, hard-done-by bunch. The truth as usual is somewhere in between. Life on these early voyages was not for the faint-hearted, the accommodation for the crew extremely cramped and with no privacy. It took a certain sort of man to endure this, and another sort to keep order.

Bligh was cast from the ship with 14 loyal crewmen in the Bounty's launch (see image below) with only a week’s rations and a compass. A master navigator who had served on Cook’s third and final voyage, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor, the nearest European settlement, after a 47-day, 4000-mile voyage, with only one casualty. Not only that, he also mapped large parts of the north-east coast of Australia. It was the greatest feat of seamanship in the annals of British maritime endeavour.

There is a considerable body of literature associated with Bligh, notably A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty's Ship Bounty (1790), Bligh’s first-hand account, rushed through the press to give his side of events; and two years later, the official account, A Voyage to the south Sea undertaken by command of His Majesty, for the purpose of conveying the bread-fruit tree to the West Indies, in His Majesty’s ship the Bounty (1792), ostensibly by Bligh and based on his journals, but written by James Burney under the supervision of Joseph Banks. Both these works are very desirable, but only of medium rarity.

A book of extreme rarity however is the advance issue of the Breadfruit Voyage, which was issued with the sheets of the first edition of  A Narrative of the Mutiny.  No copy of this has appeared at auction since 1965.

A French edition of Bligh’s account first appeared in 1792, the same year as the Breadfruit Voyage.  Here you see a superb copy in the original wrappers.


What happened to the Mutineers? They ended up in two groups, with most staying in Tahiti. These were hunted down by the Royal Navy, and eventually, after surviving the infamous shipwreck of HMS Pandora, ten were brought back to England to face court martial. Four were acquitted, three found guilty but later pardoned, and three were hanged.

This sensational trial led to three pamphlets. The first, and most substantial, was Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court Martial (1794), written by Stephen Barney, the attorney for one of the mutineers. only a handful of copies were printed for distribution among the interested parties and the ministers of state at that time.  A legendary rarity, the remarkable copy found is stitched as issued.


A smaller group were led to Pitcairn Islands by Fletcher Christian, where they lived as free men for the rest of their lives, establishing a thriving settlement. The finest early views of this island paradise are provided by Conway Shipley, a young naval officer, in his Sketches in the Pacific (1851). Copies are rarely offered for sale. This example is particularly fine in the original decorative cloth binding.

The search for, and capture of some of the mutineers, is recorded in George Hamilton’s A Voyage round the World in His Majesty's Frigate Pandora (1793), a wonderful, immensely readable account of a disastrous voyage; and of course the three exceedingly rare court-martial pamphlets.