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

Victorian Detective Fiction

The role of Victorian detective fiction in the evolution of the crime literature genre is sometimes underappreciated these days, in part perhaps knocked into the shade by the bright, startling and oft lurid dust-jacket artwork that began to dominate in the 1920s (of which I confess to being a huge fan), and the global recognition of the big names from the Golden Age of detective fiction. However, the foundation stones for most of the tropes, plots, clichés and even forensic methods that we have come to expect from detective fiction today can be found in the stories of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Although there had been other dalliances with the genre before, detective fiction really came of age with Edgar Allan Poe's Tales, published in book-form in New York in 1845. This volume combined three stories featuring Poe's amateur sleuth and master of 'ratiocination', C. Auguste Dupin. The first of these, and the most famous, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', is widely considered the first modern detective fiction title: 'Here was no trifling advance over the blunderings of the past, no mere pioneering or experimental effort. Here was the detective story, stepping boldly out of its  eggshell, "fully grown and armed to the teeth"' ('Ellery Queen', Queen's Quorum, p.10).

"Here was the detective story, stepping boldly out of its eggshell, 'fully grown and armed to the teeth'" - Ellery Queen

Waters, Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer by “Waters”, 1856
An early example of 'recollections'.

Despite Poe's sterling efforts (he wrote three more stories subsequently), the emerging genre took some time to ignite interest and gain traction, especially in America. Early works from this period are decidedly uncommon, especially in original condition. In Britain things took off a little quicker, aided in part by none other than that stalwart of Victorian literature, Charles Dickens, writing about friends' experiences as plainclothes detectives in a series of articles in 1850. This is where Victorian detective fiction really begins. These tales sparked a series of similar works, with diminishing foundation in fact but increasing investment in imagination, often featuring the words 'recollections', 'reminiscences' or 'experiences' in the titles. Within these lurk what are sometimes known as the 'Cities Mysteries', tales specific to a particular metropolis, i.e. Paris, Berlin, New York, London - a sub-sub-genre of Victorian detective fiction, if you will.

Such titles proved immensely popular, exciting the public imagination. Some are definitely better than others, but they were, appropriately, often somewhat procedural in their approach. The next cornerstone of modern detective fiction to be born from the Victorian era would have to be Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), an epistolary tale revolving around a purloined jewel, considered by G.K. Chesterton as 'probably the best detective tale in the world', and 'probably the very finest detective story ever written' by Dorothy L. Sayers.

"probably the very finest detective story ever written" - Dorothy L Sayers, re The Moonstone

Graham Greene, Dorothy Glover, Victorian Detective Fiction, Catalogue, 1966
Greene 's Victorian Detective Fiction catalogue

Collins had already had success, and fun, with the crime fiction genre, introducing a female detective in 1856 ('Diary of Anne Rodway'), and even introducing comedy into his 1858 story 'The Biter Bit'. With The Moonstone, he put in place elements that can be seen threading throughout the subsequent development of detective fiction: country house robbery, incompetent coppers, red herrings and plot twists, for example.

Graham Greene was so inspired by The Moonstone that he would go on to publish his own catalogue, Victorian Detective Fiction: A Catalogue of the Collection... (1966), a useful guide to the range of works published before and after Collins.

Female detectives come further to the fore from the 1860s onwards, though mostly (as far as we know anyway, given the application of anonymity or pseudonyms) written by male authors initially.

Early examples of such works include The Experiences of a Lady Detective (aka The Revelations of a Lady Detective), which first appeared we think in 1864, featuring the perspicacious Mrs. Paschal, one of the very first female detectives. Andrew Forrester’s Miss Gladden (or 'G') also appeared in print around this time.

George Sims, Dorcas Dene, Detective. Her Adventures, 2 vols, first editions
Victorian female detectives in action!
William Stephens Hayward, The Experiences of a Lady Detective, 1884
Revelations, Experiences, or a ghost story?

Somewhat later, but still considered important within the evolution of Victorian detective fiction, came Dorcas Dene, created by George R. Sims.

Sims was intrigued by the psychology of crime; Dorcas Dene, and her ‘Council of Four’ (comprising her mother, her blind artist husband, their dog Toddlekins[!] and herself) solved numerous crimes and mysteries, much to the delight of the burgeoning crime fiction buying public.

Grant Allen, famously author of the at-the-time scandalous The Woman Who Did (1895), created two female detectives for the popular market, Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley, but in the context of detective fiction he is best known for An African Millionaire. Episodes in the Life of the illustrious Colonel Clay, a classic of 'rogue fiction', popularising elements such as the use of disguises and international jet-setting.

Allen Grant, An African Millionaire, first edition, 1897
Grant Allen's African Millionaire
Anna Katharine Green, Filigree Ball, first edition, 1903
One of Anna Katharine Green's later titles

To offset this literary cross-dressing to some degree, the first Victorian detective fiction novel was written by a woman, and an American to boot; The Leavenworth Case (1878), by Anna Katharine Green. This author, sometimes known as 'the mother of the detective story', wrote well plotted, legally accurate stories which distinguished her writing from her contemporaries, and on many levels defined the shape of detective fiction to come, notably influencing Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and even perhaps 'Carolyn Keene'.

Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously not a name that can be mentioned solely in passing here... Sherlock Holmes without question ranks as one of the defining characters of the Victorian period, numbered among the most beloved characters of English literature, and for many represents the preeminent detective of criminality and mystery. Appearing in serialised form in The Strand Magazine, beginning with 'A Scandal in Bohemia' in 1891, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes would go on to become a global phenomenon.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [With] The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventures & Memoirs, first separate editions

All the first editions of Arthur Conan Doyle's books from the 19th century are highly collectable, but to find first editions in book form of the earliest Sherlock Holmes works in anything approximating original condition is challenging; Holmes' first appearance, A Study in Scarlet (1887), either in book form or in Beeton's Christmas Annual for the same year, is notoriously scarce.

Hound of the Baskervilles, first edition
Hound of the Baskervilles, first edition

The wonderful first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), with its excellent decorative binding and plates by Sidney Paget, continues to go up in value with each year it seems. What one would have to pay now for a copy in the original dust-jacket almost defies imagination...a six figure objet d'art...

Fergus W. Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, second edition, 1887
Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1887

Victorian detective fiction is also great for the emergence of the 'sensation novel', popular works often cheaply produced for mass consumption, sometimes as 'Penny Dreadfuls' or 'Yellowbacks', often with eye-catching wrappers or covers. This is a popular area of collecting in its own right. One of the most famous of these was Australian author Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab, originally published in Australia in 1886, then in the UK and USA in 1887. Hume's work is seen by many as a bridge between sensational fiction and detective fiction, and played an important role in globally establishing the latter genre more firmly.

The distinction between Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction is blurred, not least as authors such as Conan Doyle had works published in both eras. New authors brought new approaches to the genre to an ever-ready and blossoming readership; R. Austin Freeman's forensic Dr Thorndyke for example, or Chesterton's empathic Father Brown. New sub-genres also sprouted, such as 'railway murder', and other new experiments with the locked room paradigm.

Collecting Victorian Detective Fiction

With works ranging from the 1840s to early 1900s, there is a usefully broad array of entry-points for those looking to collect Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction, allowing for a range of price-points. Many works have excellent original covers, from the more lurid pulps through to the fine pictorial cloth bindings that grace first editions of authors such as M.M. Bodkin and Louis Tracy. Very early works can be difficult to date correctly, and some books have tricky issue points that may require speaking to a specialist about.

Check out the British Library for more information on crime and crime fiction.

Interview | Neil Gaiman

'So this is Neil Gaiman out on the Island of Skye and you may be able to hear a little howling wind in the background...'

Our Digital Content Manager, Oliver Bayliss, recently had the pleasure of interviewing legendary author Neil Gaiman from his home on the windswept Isle of Skye (the howling wind in the background makes for a particularly evocative experience).

Discussing our online exhibition of works by renowned artist, Lorna May Wadsworth, her portraits of Neil Gaiman and her artist’s residency on set of the acclaimed dramatisation of Good Omens, the answers give a fascinating insight into not only one of our greatest living authors, but also the fine art of portraiture.

OB: How did Lorna May's artist residency come about for Good Omens and what was it like having her on set?

NG: It came about because I had met Lorna May initially at a comic relief event where she was sketching, and she sketched me. We hit it off and as Good Omens started, I thought it would be really nice to have an artist around to record some of the madness. Some of the big, strange things that were happening and I contacted Lorna May and she mentioned that she had actually already been once an on set artist and knew how to keep out of everybody's way and knew how to make friends amongst the crew, so I invited her along.

It was amazing just watching what she did with charcoal, with paints, with newspapers, with pencils, with paper and then these lightning sketches, these studies, and then, because she is Lorna May, she got both David Tennant and Michael Sheen to agree to let her do their portraits in lunchtimes and nobody had time, but you can't really say no to Lorna May, so they happened and both Michael and David loved what she did.

OB: When you and Terry Pratchett were working on Good Omens, did either of you imagine that it would take on such a life of its own, especially such cult like devotion around the characters of Aziraphale and Crowley?

NG: No! When Terry and I were working on Good Omens, all we wondered about, all we thought about, all we... our only question apart from what was going to happen next in Good Omens, which was always the big one, was would anybody, apart from us care, about this? Would anybody, apart from us, want to buy the book when we finished it? We didn't know. We could only hope. And of course people did! The glorious and wonderful afterlife of Good Omens is a magical, magical bonus.

OB: As we're rare book dealers, we have to ask, why was Aziraphale a dealer himself? I rather like the irony that his portrait is now in a rare book shop - a homecoming of sorts!

NG: So do I! I think it's because both Terry and I have spent too much of our lives in book shops and too much of our lives in second hand book shops and too much of our lives marveling at the different kinds of bookshop there are out there, the different kinds of rare book dealers out there, the ones who want to sell you a book and the ones who don't! The bookshops filled with strange angles and books piled up everywhere, that you're never going to be able to find the books; where the person looking after the bookshop knows where several thousand books are in ways that are impossible for any other human being defined and the ones in which they discourage you.

Um, all of those things we thought, plus of course we knew that The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, a rare book was going to come into this and we wanted our Angel to know what it was and to recognize it.

OB: Looking at Lorna May's portraits: firstly, do you feel she's captured the personalities of the central characters, and secondly, do you feel she captured your personality?

NG: What I love most, I think about Lorna May's portraits of David Tennant and Michael Sheen it's they don't look to me like Crowley and Aziraphale, they look to me like David and Michael, when their hair was like that to play the characters, they feel to me somehow much more like glorious portraits of the actors than they do as portraits of Crowley, portraits of Aziraphale.

I feel like she's definitely captured something in her portraits of me, I find it astonishing, I look at them and I think, do I look like? Is that me? It seems to be me. Lots of people draw me, but most of the drawings don't feel like me. They feel like the kind of images that you'd get when as a child, you'd sit in one of those photo booths and a bunch of four photos would chunk out and you'd stare at yourself and you'd think, do I look like that? Maybe I look like that.... sort of, maybe, maybe my face was wrong, maybe I'm, but you know that you couldn't actually afford to have another four photos taken, so you just sort of put up with it.

Um, Lorna May's portraits of me don't feel like that. They feel like me, I feel slightly melancholy, um, very distracted and like I'm probably thinking about something along way away, which of course when she was painting I probably was.

OB: Continuing on the theme of Good Omens, how do you think both Aziraphale and Crowley would have handled lockdown in 2020?

NG: I think that Crowley would have handled it very, very badly because Crowley likes experiences and one of the things that 2020 has told us is that experiences, going places and doing things, watching things, seeing shows, going to bars because that's where the people are, all of those things can be taken away.

Whereas I think, honestly, Aziraphale would love it. He gets to sit in his shop, gets to read all the books that he wants. He's not really bothered by customers, gets to catch up on his baking.

I think the only thing that Crowley would really like is watching human nature take its course. You know, we've gone... here we are in month eight or nine of all of this (at the time of interview), and we're at the point now where huge groups of people have decided to abandon the germ theory of disease as inconvenient and I think probably that Crowley, whatever part of him is still a demon, would love that...

Good Icons: An Online Exhibition was originally installed in both the Bookshop and our Gallery and features portraits of the iconic author Neil Gaiman, as well as works inspired by the adaptation of both his and Terry Pratchett’s book, Good Omens.

From a life-size rendering of the author’s head suspended in layers of sun-bleached wax, crafted upon a piece of prehistoric bog oak, to portraits of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, the exhibition is a must for art and book lovers alike.

The exhibition also features a limited edition print signed by Gaiman and Wadsworth, alongside a signed illustrated 125 page retrospective catalogue.

Why Collect Rare Books?

Why Collect Rare Books

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book lover, in possession of an enquiring mind, must be in want of a collection’ (to paraphrase Jane Austen).

For the non-collector among us (are there really people who don’t collect books?), the idea that collectors spend their hours fawning over dust jackets, variant bindings, issue points and even deckled edges is such an alien one that people often ask why - usually with a look etched across their faces that suggests we might be mad. The same look takes on an all-together more bewildered guise for our non-collector friends, when they find out the value of a first edition by an author such Jane Austen …. (the answer? Well, click here).

As these are questions that we hear, as booksellers and collectors, on a regular basis, in our working lives, at countless dinner parties, after-work drinks and school reunions (the latter a particularly fertile breeding ground), we thought it might be a good idea to jot down a few thoughts on why exactly people collect rare books.

For some it’s their hobby and others their art form. Some say it’s their obsession, with the writer and collector Nicholas A. Basbanes once calling it ‘a gentle form of madness’! Some put their faith in books, whilst others invest in them, speculators you might call those collectors.  Yet more people squirrel away their fortunes ready for the day when they find the great treasure they’ve been hunting for, sometimes for decades.

However, if you were to boil it down, many a collector might say simply, what an unbridled joy it is to own the first edition of their favourite book, be that by Fleming, Piranesi or Livingstone. For them there is nothing else quite like it. While contemporary readers will often queue outside a bookshop overnight with a flask of cold coffee and a ham sandwich so that they can be the first to own the new literary sensation, collectors of rare antiquarian books and first editions will also stop at nothing (well perhaps murder) to get our hands on the earliest copy of the books we love, be that manuscripts, uncorrected proofs, or signed limited editions. Bibliophiles are bibliophiles at the end of the day, and we are all collecting something.

Now that we’ve shone a light on why we collect rare books, why not let our specialists advise you on starting your own collection, based on your individual tastes and of course finances.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Writers and Spies

Upon discovering at the impressionable age of seven that my home in sleepy Hampshire was once the childhood home of the charming spy Guy Burgess, I embarked on a rather unhealthy fascination with the none too salubrious world of spooks, spies, and spy writers - I mean, it's pretty normal to pretend to be a KGB spy infiltrating your school at 7 isn't it? A fascination that continues to this very day.

Decoding the world around them, breaking through the surface to get to the truth beneath, the worlds of Writers and Spies are all too alike. Both study characters and types, they observe and record; a turn of phrase here means something else there, and of course the creation of narrative (or throwing people off the scent of a narrative) is above all the name of the game for both.

Below I look at writers and spies from the 20th century, 19th century players in The Great Game, as well as some truly classic spy stories.

If you have any questions about any of the works, or if there is a particular work not featured here which you would like use to source, please do get in touch.

Twain’s adage ‘write what you know’ could have been written for the authors whose works follow below. Having all worked for British Intelligence, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham were inspired by their time in the shadows, putting pen to paper and coming up with some of the greatest spy stories of the 20th century.

The last author in this Writers and Spies section came as an absolute blindside, but on reflection it's actually rather indicative of the character of the hard drinking, fight-loving man, throwing himself into everything (good and bad) that the world offered up.

Ian Fleming. Casino Royale. 1953. £32,000.

No spy write-up could ever be complete without the incomparable Ian Fleming and of course his creation James Bond.

As the tale goes, the inspiration for Bond came from Fleming’s time in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Whilst playing a baccarat game in Lisbon, the author is alleged to have whispered to his friend ‘just suppose these fellows were German agents—what a coup it would be if we cleaned them out entirely!’

The end of the war saw Fleming demobbed and working in a dreary job for a newspaper in London. Holidaying every winter at his beloved home of Goldeneye in Jamaica, it is here that he wrote all of the Bond stories, starting with Casino Royale in 1952. Fleming later claimed that he wrote the novel to distract himself from his forthcoming wedding, and called the work his ‘dreadful oafish opus’!

For the main character, in many ways an alter ego to the author, he sought to choose a name as boring and nondescript as possible.

Looking around his library, the author’s eyes alighted on a book entitled Birds of the West Indies by an ornithologist named James Bond…

Ian Fleming. Dr. No. 1958. £1,900.

As a lovely bit of trivia, the publishers Jonathan Cape were highly unenthusiastic about Casino Royale, with even Fleming’s friend, the writer and literary editor William Polmer remarking ‘so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent’! Fourteen books and 24 films later, Fleming definitely had the last laugh!

Already an established writer by the time British Intelligence came calling at the outbreak of the First World War, Maugham had the perfect cover for espionage. Dispatched both to Switzerland and to Russia, which was in the early throes of Revolution, Maugham passed largely unnoticed under the guise of finishing a play and doing some book research.

W. Somerset Maugham. Ashenden. 1928. £3,800.

It is this Russian trip that has elicited the most fascination, with the true nature of the mission a mystery even a hundred years later. Rumours have abounded that he was there to assassinate Lenin, with the author even going so far as to state he was there ‘to devise a scheme that would keep Russia in the war and prevent the Bolsheviks, supported by the Central Powers, from seizing power’.

Ashenden or, The British Agent is in large part based on the author’s own undercover experiences. Initially there were 31 stories but as the story goes, 14 had to be destroyed on Churchill’s orders as they were in breach of the Official Secrets Act (perhaps Maugham’s mysterious Russian mission was revealed?).

Both his established career as a writer, and his penchant for travel, made Graham Greene the perfect candidate for MI6. Recruited in 1941, he monitored the Vichy forces in Sierra Leone, searching ships for smuggled diamonds and documents.  Under the ruse of book research, he travelled widely across China and the USSR, observing and reporting.  Later he worked under the famous Soviet mole Kim Philby, the two becoming friends even after Philby’s unmasking as a traitor.

Graham Greene. England Made Me. 1935. £16,500.

The Philby connection also gave Greene a rather dubious honour: whilst spying for MI6, he was himself the subject of investigation by the FBI due to his links with the Cambridge Spy Ring. With wonderful irony, whilst the author was under investigation by the Bureau, the CIA were helping to turn one of his novels into a film.....

Ernest Hemingway. In Our Time. 1925. £15,750.

An unexpected addition to this list, all the more surprising since Hemingway signed up as a spook not for his native America, but shockingly for the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB!

Code named Agent Argo by the Russians, apparently he was an absolutely god-awful spy and was dropped rather quickly after failing to 'give any political information' and was never 'verified in practical work' - more a spy in name than action.

Theories have been circulated as to why Hemingway would have worked with them, one is that he was merely a pseudo-spook, possibly seeing his clandestine dealings as potential literary material.

The steppes and mountains of Central Asia were a hotbed of espionage in the 19th century as John Bull (the British Empire – think of a stout red-faced farmer in a top hat and high boots) and the Russian Bear (the clue is in the name there) faced off in a shadowy political confrontation over Afghanistan, central and South Asia and the ‘jewel in the Crown’, India.

Immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in 'Kim', The Great Game, as it came to be known, began early in the 19th century, with both sides suspecting the other of looking to expand their control in the region.  The Russians believed that the British intended to move northwards through Afghanistan (a correct guess on their part), whilst the British feared that India was threatened by Russia (an incorrect guess by the Brits). At the start of The Great Game, the frontiers of the two imperial powers were separated by two thousand miles; by the end, only 20 miles kept them apart.

With the belief that a confrontation would take place in Afghanistan, both sides dispatched explorers, writers, spies and diplomats. These men crossed vast deserts and almost impassable mountain ranges, surveying , mapping and monitoring the approaches to the Jewel in the Crown.

Below are some of the most fascinating books to have been written about The Great Game.

At only 26, Alexander Burns was one of the first agents to be sent to Afghanistan by British Intelligence. Labelled both ‘the master of The Great Game’ and more recently the ‘Victorian James Bond’, double-crossing deals, secret mapping, intercepting Russian documents and espionage were the name of the game for Burnes.

Sir Alexander Burnes. Cabool. 1842. £1,850.

Amongst his many exploits, he surveyed the route through Kabul to Bukhara (earning the nickname ‘Bukhara Burnes’), produced the first detailed accounts of Afghan politics, travelled over a thousand miles up the Indus River (to prepare the way for a future assault on the Sindh), and produced the bestselling book Travels into Bokhara (1834).

Sir Alexander Burnes. Travels into Bokhara. 1834. £1,850.

Charles Masson

The first British man to explore Afghanistan on foot, and the father of Afghan archaeology, Charles Masson is an incredibly colourful character. Previously known as James Lewis, he deserted from the East India Company artillery, changed his name and tried to pass himself off as an American all the while living in Afghanistan.

Charles Masson
Charles Masson. Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan. 1842. £5,000.

After his former masters discovered his true identity, he was blackmailed into becoming a secret agent for the East India Company, spying in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan.

Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan
Charles Masson. Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan. 1842. £5,000.

During his time on the run he excavated over 50 Buddhist sites around Kabul and Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan, building up an extraordinary collection of artefacts which are now housed in the British Museum.

Muravev’s arrival on the playing field of The Great Game was the earliest significant move to come from the Russian side.

The young spy was sent to Western Uzbekistan with the aim of establishing contact with Muhammed Rakhim, the Khan of Khiva. After a century of no communication with Russia, his mission was to persuade the Khan to redirect caravan routes towards the Russian port at Krasnovodsk, as well as to gather intelligence on the Khan’s military capacity.

Nikolay Nikolaevich Muravev. Путешествие в Туркмению и Хиву в 1819 и 1820 годах. 1822. £8,000.

He also attempted to negotiate the release of as many as 3,000 Russian slaves of the Khanate. The Khan was hostile to Muravev’s arrival, yet surprisingly he returned alive. Received by the Tsar on returning, he published Journey to Khiva through the Turkoman Country, the only work published in his lifetime and a bestseller in Russia.

We couldn't wax lyrical about the exploits of the players in The Great Game, without including the book that arguably popularised the term.

Rudyard Kipling. Kim. 1930. £9,500.

Rudyard Kipling was never involved in spying, yet Kim, the author’s greatest novel and a key element in his winning the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature is set amongst the political pressures and derring-do of The Great Game

Introducing the theme of great power, rivalry and intrigue, the titular character is very much a player, stealing secrets from two agents of the Russian Empire in the mountains of Asia.

Kipling romanticised the idea of The Great Game in the minds of a Victorian public hungry for tales of adventure -  even the term invokes images of rugby on the playing fields of English public schools.

Inspiring, thrilling and best of all fun, we couldn't explore Writers and Spies without looking into a number of classics from the genre alongside a rather curious work (secret agents infiltrating a communist devil-worshiping cult.... Dennis Wheatley, I'm looking at you!)

Whilst the following writers can't be said to have been spies themselves, their impact and contribution to the Spy Fiction genre definitely earns them a seat at this table.

For those that like their Spy Fiction peppered with a healthy dash of satanic ritual and occultism, look no further than Dennis Wheatley!

Secret agents infiltrating communist devil-worshiping cults, businessmen making deals with a satanic clergymen, a daughter baptised into Satan's church, and a character that was one of the main inspirations for Fleming's James Bond stories, Wheatley is 'the Prince of Thriller Writers'.

Dennis Wheatley. The Satanist. 1960. £275.
John Buchan. The Thirty-Nine Steps. 1937. £220.

The archetypal English Spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps has gripped and enthralled readers since its publication - often earning a place in critics greatest lists.

With the stark landscape of Scotland serving as a backdrop, the narrative sees a man on the run accused of murder, all the while trying to uncover and stop an assassination plot. Ironically, with a plot dealing in an awful lot of running, Buchan penned the book from bed whilst recovering from a duodenal ulcer.

Set in the 1920s and based on an actual event, Liam O'Flaherty's The Assassin provides a snapshot of Dublin life in a way that no other fiction writer has succeeded in doing. Michael McDara, the assassin, together with fanatical revolutionary Kitty Mellett, and Fetch, a brutal thug with a conscience, plan an execution and a daring escape.

Stemming from O’Flaherty’s own political-activist experiences, this novel is an investigation of the mind and motives of a political murderer.

Liam O'Flaherty. The Assassin. 1928. £975.

An Interview With Quentin Blake

Ahead of Quentin Blake’s exhibition of new works here at Shapero HQ, our Digital Content Manager, Oliver Bayliss was lucky enough to interview the legendary illustrator.

Discussing a life in art, the postures that readers get into and of course Roald Dahl, Sir Quentin's answers to Oli's questions are as wonderful and thoughtful as the drawings themselves (OB. I especially love the description of his artistic style!).

Affectionately caricaturing people who love books, An Anthology of Readers features sixty original pen, ink & watercolour drawings.

An Interview with Quentin Blake

OB. What is it about reading and the act of reading that inspired you to create the works for this show?

QB. Reading is interesting to me and as it happens it is the only thing in which I have a qualification; a Cambridge degree.  But of course what is really interesting are the postures that readers get into when they have a book in their hand.

OB. Absolutely!  Some of us become almost cat-like when we have a book in hand, but what was it that attracted you to literary illustrations?

QB. I started off as an illustrator working for magazines like Punch and The Spectator, but what I really wanted was to get a sequence of my own illustrations between two covers and to be able to follow a narrative through.  I am still fascinated by the task which goes on offering such a variety of opportunities with David Walliams The Boy in the Dress on the one hand, and Voltaire and La Fontaine on the other.

OB. That seems like a very eclectic mix. From your vast back catalogue, do you have a favourite illustration of yours? Or possibly a favourite character that you’ve brought to life?

QB. I particularly enjoyed illustrating Clown. He is a toy invested with independent life and in fact a miniature version of a white faced mime like the one played by Jean Louise Barreau in Les Enfants du Paradis.

OB. I never knew of the connection between Clown and Les Enfants du Paradis, how fascinating!  Outside of 1940s French Cinema, were there any artists or illustrators who inspired you when you were starting off?

QB. I think my main hero was the 19th-century artist, Honoré Daumier who showed that you could do strong and interesting work, even on the pages of a weekly paper.  I was also inspired by André François; he showed me that you did not have to be well behaved when you were drawing and that was very liberating.

Honoré Daumier
Andre François

OB. François' style was wonderfully satirical - I can certainly see the influence on your work in his illustrations for Crocodile Tears! Are there any artists and/or illustrators working today whose work you admire, or are perhaps influenced by?

QB. John Burningham who is sadly no longer with us.  He tells stories but his pictures are also complex improvisations and full of atmosphere.

OB. Did you always want to be an artist?

QB. I have always wanted to be an artist.  But after Cambridge I actually trained to be an English teacher; I think some sort of education informs a lot of what I do.

OB. Yes, I can imagine that would be the case, especially in your illustrations for children.   I've noticed that birds seem to crop up a lot in your work, especially in your upcoming exhibition with us (particular favourites of mine being the mighty orange bird leaping out of a book, and the reader in the rain beneath a tree of squawking birds!) - what is it that attracts you to birds?

QB. I am not really quite sure why I am so enthusiastic about birds.  It must be partly, because they are like us, on two legs and can look round, but it is also a great advantage that they can fly so they can be separated from their background and can appear anywhere on the page that suits you.

OB. The work you did with Roald Dahl is a feature of many people's childhoods and I'm always struck by your vivid illustrations, especially on the dust-jackets – do you have a favourite book of his that you worked on together?

QB. It is hard to have one favourite although the BFG is very sympathetic and I think it may have been Roald’s favourite book but of course it is also a pleasure to draw people as dirty and spiky as The TwitsDanny the Champion of the World offers a much more naturalistic atmosphere so that the pictures have to look almost as if they were drawn from life.

The Twits first edition

OB. Ah The Twits! A personal childhood favourite of mine - they were hilariously cantankerous! So how did you and Dahl meet, and what was working with him like?

QB. We were put together by our editor, Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape for The Enormous Crocodile.  Our first meetings were at the publishers and relatively formal.  But when we got on to the BFG I started going down to Great Missenden and having dinner with the family when I would probably show some of my ideas about the characters and get Roald’s comments.

OB. Yet another childhood favourite. Going back to you, how would you describe your artistic style and has it changed at all over the years?

QB. I stood up to draw for forty years. Now I sit down.

OB. A suitably brilliant answer! Is there any advice you would give to budding young artists and illustrators?

QB. Draw all the time.

OB. Finally, as I work in books, I have to ask - do you have a favourite book or author?

QB. Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Cyrano de Bergerac.  When you mention his name people tend to think of the play by Edmund Rostand, but Cyrano is a fascinating writer.  The Voyages anticipates Gulliver’s Travels:  not merely satirical but questioning ideas and assumptions of all kinds.

Quentin Blake Illustrated Books

Alongside the Quentin Blake exhibition the bookshop will also be showcasing a selection of first edition books illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Beloved by children and adults alike, the first editions of his works are now considered to be highly collectable and as such are always a feature on the shelves at 32 Saint George Street.

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Banned Books: The Freedom to Read

‘A dangerous book will always be in danger from those it threatens with the demand that they question their assumptions. They’d rather hang on to the assumptions and ban the book.’

Ursula K. Le Guin

Celebrating the freedom to read, Banned Books Week has become a focal point in the literary year here at Shapero Rare Books.

Over the years we’ve had some truly iconic works on the shelves at 32 Saint George Street that have, at one time or another, fallen foul of governments, schools, the public and the odd dictator. Radical, rebellious, subversive and sensationalist, these are the books who refused to be silenced; these are the books that changed the world one word at a time; these 'are books that show the world its own shame’ (Oscar Wilde).

Here we look at first editions of some of the most important books that have ever been banned, burned, censored or abridged.

Please get in touch if you have any questions about any of the books below, or if you would like us to source ones not currently in stock.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

'Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.'

A novel that haunts as well as moves, Walker's epistolary tale is a literary classic. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, Alice Walker became the first black woman to do so in the Prize's history. Not without controversy The Color Purple has been banned by school boards across the United States since its publication due to the vivid depictions of violence, particularly rape; offensive language; sexual content, with scenes of lesbian love; and perceived racism.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

'I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin'.⁠ ⁠

Huxley's dystopian masterpiece was first banned in Ireland upon publication and has gone on to be one of the most challenged and contested books of all time. Still making waves nearly 90 years later, this savage satire falls foul of schools in America.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

'I care not if I live but a day and a night, so long as my deeds live after me.'

One of the most famous of all banned books, Joyce's modernist classic is sometimes better known for its banning and the subsequent obscenity trial, rather than the content of the actual book itself.  A shame as the meandering epic is truly brilliant.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

'What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.'

Taking aim at what Salinger saw as a superficial society, The Catcher in the Rye is an iconic classic of 20th-century literature. Exploring teenage angst, alienation in society and the human need for connection, it's a wise (and at times witty) look at the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind. One of the most censored books in America, it continues to make it onto lists in schools and libraries.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

'Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes it'll on'y be one.'

One of the greatest works in the canon of American literature, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the Nobel Prize committee's main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Prize for Literature in 1962. Despite this and a Pulitzer Prize to boot, the book has ruffled a few feathers since publication. Steinbeck was labelled a communist in America but ironically the book was banned in the Soviet Union by Stalin... Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place!

'Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.'

Isaac Asimov

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

'They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.'

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was originally a commercial flop yet went on to be one of Twain's best-loved works with the character of Tom Sawyer being one of literature's greats. Satirising the moral rigidity of society and adult hypocrisy, as well as the racist mores of the time, it is a true masterpiece, yet that hasn't stopped the odd banning here and there. Libraries in New York and Colorado banned the book soon after it came out, claiming Sawyer was a protagonist of 'questionable character' (to be honest, I think Tom would probably approve of the controversy).

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

'Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.'

Another unusual example of a book being banned in the United States for being 'pro-communist', to then ironically finding itself both banned and burned in Soviet Russia for its anti-communist views....

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

'I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don't really exist if you don't.'

Unsurprisingly Nabokov's shocking, controversial yet dizzying masterpiece about a sexual relationship between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl, after he becomes her stepfather has consistently found itself banned since its publication.  Considered by many to be the greatest book of the 20th century, Lolita has been banned in France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (1924-28)

'I'm not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.'

A rather surprising addition to any banned books list featuring dystopian novels, sexual controversies and more. The whimsical Winnie-the Pooh has strangely found itself in hot water over in China where the current president has banned the book and the films. Why you ask? Because of a rather strong similarity in likeness between the two...

'If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.'

Haruki Murikami

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

'Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be … when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.'

Banned across schools in America due to 'profanity', Death of a Salesman won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. A scathing indictment of the ultimate failure of the American dream, it is a harrowing work of brilliance that chastises the empty pursuit of wealth and success.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936

'Until you've lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.'

Whilst bed-ridden with a broken ankle in 1926, a young Atlanta journalist by the name of Margaret Mitchell started writing a novel that would go on to become Gone With the Wind (a book that would earn her the Pulitzer Prize). A story about war, starvation, rape, murder, heartbreak and slavery, yet above all it is a story of hope, with the character of Scarlett O’Hara unrelenting in her optimism and determination. Not without controversy, the book has been banned at various points and has been accused of whitewashing slavery.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

'Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a Mockingbird.'

To Kill a Mockingbird is the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its main character, Atticus Finch, remains the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism. With a long history with censorship, the book has been challenged for its depiction of violence, offensive language, and racism.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)

'A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.'

A watershed moment in the history of publishing, Penguin Books was the subject of a landmark obscenity trial under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 when they attempted to publish the full unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s. Penguin went on to win the case (and then sold 3 million copies....) resulting in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing in the United Kingdom. Prior to this the only copies available in England were heavily censored and abridged.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

'Don't let the bastards grind you down.'

Both heavily challenged and heavily celebrated, The Handmaid's Tale has been banned and restricted in schools across America. With a title inspired by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Atwood's terrifying dystopian nightmare is a powerful exploration of female oppression.

'If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.'

Benjamin Franklin

On the origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

'One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.'

Science is no stranger to book banning, especially when it refutes the biblical history of man and man's creation. Arguably the most influential banned book, On the Origin of Species was removed from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Darwin had been a student and then across States and schools in the US.  In 1925 Tennessee passed a law stating that it couldn't be taught in classrooms.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988)

'Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.'

In 1989 the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa instructing muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. Numerous attempts on his life were made and Rushdie had to go into hiding with 24-hour armed guards. Alongside this there were a number of bookshop bombings in America. The book has been banned in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan and of course Iran. The controversy stems in part from the book being inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with many Muslims accusing Rushdie of blasphemy.

The English writer Hanif Kureishi called the fatwa 'one of the most significant events in postwar literary history'.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

'The thing is - fear can't hurt you any more than a dream.'

A brutal portrait of the savagery of humanity, The Lord of the Flies still ignites as much debate as when it was first published. Banned from numerous American schools over the years, according to the American Library Association, it is the eighth most frequently banned and challenged book in the States.

Salome by Oscar Wilde (1894)

'It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors.'

After the play was banned from the London stage on the basis that it was illegal to depict characters from the Bible, Wilde’s Biblical tragedy Salome was originally published in France in 1893. The following year it was published in English, with Aubrey Beardsley’s striking illustrations.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1954)

'The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.'

A book about banning and burning books also found itself the subject of banning - meta banning you could say! It was banned in one school in America because one of the books that eventually gets banned and burned is the Bible. Alongside this it was banned in some schools for depictions of violence and bad language.

'What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.' 

Salman Rushdie

Can You Guess the Rare Books in Emoji?

All of these Rare Books in emoji can currently be found on the shelves at here at Shapero HQ, and whilst some emojis may literally spell out the Rare Book title, others are a little more abstract to keep you on your toes…

Click on the images to reveal the books - good luck!

Ralph Steadman – a brush with surrealism

Ralph Steadman was born this month in 1936; here we republish in full for the first time his interview with RM Healey from 2004, from the Rare Book Review magazine. 

RM Healey illuminates the life, work, and curious book collection of Ralph Steadman

I left London to interview Ralph Steadman with few preconceptions. I knew him as a caricaturist who, for more than two decades had, pushed and pulled at the features of politicians. I didn’t know that disillusion had made him resolve never to caricature another politician. He now draws only their legs. I was aware that he had illustrated Lewis Carroll and worked with Hunter S Thompson, but had no idea of his involvement with the film Withnail and I or that he had written an opera. Neither did I know that he wrote and illustrated children’s books or that he had written, directed and performed in a film with the wonderful title of The Hanging Garden Centres of Kent.

Ralph Steadman
White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland by Ralph Steadman
White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland by Ralph Steadman

I knew nothing of his study of Freud or that he wrote poems and short stories. I was aware that he possessed a book once owned by George Cruikshank and collected books on human anatomy and medical instruments (because he had warned me of this), but had no idea that his last book, Doodah was a partly autobiographical trilogy of a fictional family of toilet manufacturers. Ralph Steadman is a man full of surprises.

I found his home easily enough. Steadman lives in a grand Georgian house in Kent, with an overgrown garden where strange metal sculptures formed of scrap metal and bits of machines betray his love of machinery, Picasso, Dada and surrealism. And I soon discovered that he is much more at home with whirring wheels and cogs than he is with solid-state electronics and cathode tubes. He was battling with a recalcitrant computer as I entered the door of his studio and was also wondering how he could meet his deadline for some illustrations to accompany a series by his friend Will Self for The Independent entitled PsychoGeography.

I got the impression that Steadman doesn’t really see himself as an artist, but as a sort of literary Dadaist who found he had a subversive talent for illustration. Inspired by his hero, Marcel Duchamp, he uses printed ready-mades from his working library, which he then photocopies, enlarging or reducing to suit his purpose. Thus the exposed muscles and tendons from a textbook on human anatomy are drawn over to create a head, while intestines are recruited to represent the features of a face. He says that people have accused him of ‘cheating’, but of course he is working within a tradition that began with Picasso and was carried on by the surrealists.

Aphrodite at Last, by Ralph Steadman
Aphrodite at Last, by Ralph Steadman

I ask him about his earliest influences and discover that as a child in North Wales he had a fascination for model aeroplanes and was later captivated by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. The first set of books he ever acquired was an edition of the sketchbooks that he bought from the bargain book table in the Rhyl branch of W.H.Smiths for five shillings. However, neither books nor art played much of a part in the Steadman household. The only book he recalls his parents having is Kingsley’s Water Babies, with its illustrations by Heath Robinson.

Lizard by Ralph Steadman
Lizard by Ralph Steadman

After leaving school at 16, Steadman worked as an apprentice in an aircraft company before becoming a stockroom boy at Woolworth’s. He laughs in recalling these early struggles, but there is a note of genuine resentment in his voice as he speaks of the way misfits are treated by society. He calls Leonardo a “divine loser”and points out that while he had to scratch around to make a living, Michelangelo, with all his rich patrons, prospered.

Shortly after leaving Woolworth’s Steadman enrolled on an art course. The student cartoonist did well and Percy V. Bradshaw took an active interest in him. He was even invited to his home in Forest Hill. This turned out to be a memorable experience.“His house was full of stuffed crocodiles and other mementos of colonial life. I wish I could go back and see the place as it was then. It must have had an effect on me.

I suppose it had something to do with the antiquarian thing – the sense of objects captured and kept. This is why I love looking at illustrations of old-fashioned things – at old photographs that capture a moment in time, or at plates of old machines and catalogues of scientific and medical instruments.”

I asked him about his collecting habits. The books he has assembled for me suggest an eclectic taste and a bizarre, if not pathological, interest in the human body. I notice a number of technical handbooks on human anatomy and a two sets of encyclopaedias. He laughs at this motley collection.

Lewis Carroll

“I have bought and still buy from second-hand bookshops, but I’ve never been that interested in firsts as such. Unless they’re signed by someone like Samuel Beckett, whom I admire, or Ray Bradbury, who signed my copy of Fahrenheit 451, they don’t interest me much. When I found George Cruikshank’s own copy of Tomlinson’s Encyclopaedia of the Useful Arts in Scotland six years ago I knew I had to have it.  The man was a genius. There is something radical about him. That series he did on the drunkard is astonishing. I also have some of his Comic Almanacs. And of course, I have always been a great admirer of Gillray. He was a cartoonist of the type that I wanted to be. Most cartoonists look and behave like insurance salesmen, but he took risks as I hope I do. In a way I have tried to drag the art of cartooning kicking and screaming back into the 18th century.”

We then turned to his Catalogue of Surgical Instruments and appliances with appendix, dated 1892. This had a dull cover, but turned out to be an astonishing window onto the world of late 19th century surgery.  Moreover it is hard to think of another book which could have provoked such hoots of laughter from Steadman, who had marked the pages that interested him with ‘Post-It’ notes. “I love these urinals! Urinals for females too. And here’s a bowel clamp. And these enema and injection syringes are fascinating. I paid quite a lot for this catalogue in a bookshop.”

Lizard Lounge by Ralph Steadman
Lizard Lounge by Ralph Steadman

Steadman seemed equally excited by an ever duller-looking tome entitled A Guide on How to Dissect a Dog (he confessed that he used to hate dogs) and another entitled The Diseases of Cattle, which contained photographs of spotty and scabby cows. But one book drew sighs of real appreciation. This was Steam Pipe Installation, a 1930s American technical handbook limited to 2208 copies. This was a real candidate for inclusion in Bizarre Books. “It sounded such a dull book that I thought I must have it. In fact, it turned out to be fascinating and its illustrations reminded me of the paintings of Francis Picabia. They’re wonderful examples of their kind.”

We then inspected a plan chest containing some of his drawings. As he drew each one out I began to appreciate how reliant he was on his working library. A recent project had been Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary which had an illustration of a borer from the Encyclopaedia of Useful Arts that Steadman had placed over a skull. This was to represent the way in which religion suppresses the logical workings of the brain.

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first edition, 1971

What other writers had inspired him? “Well, of living ones Hunter Thompson, undoubtedly, because I was living the whole horrible experience with him when I collaborated on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Of dead writers, Rabelais is one. I have a copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel with Dore illustrations. And of course Lewis Carroll. When I illustrated his Alice in Wonderland back in 1967 I saw the characters as figures to be transported 100 years forward. For instance, the White Rabbit was a commuter, the Duchess was based on the actress Dandy Nichols, and the Mad Hatter had to be some awful quiz-show presenter. The book was very much a springboard for my own self-expression. I’m not interested in faithfully depicting certain episodes from a narrative. After all, something that is adequately explained in the text is superfluous in a picture. As I see it, the illustration adds another dimension to the text.”

exerted on his art, and he has created a modest shrine to them in a glass cabinet on a wall. Two of his greatest heroes are Marcel Duchamp and Picasso. The Private World of Pablo Picasso, which Gerald Scarfe gave him, lay next to a reprint of the 1932 surrealist issue of This Quarter. I asked him about these movements.

“Well, This Quarter means a lot to me. There’s a cold, clinical feel about the articles in it; they’re like a bare foot walking over concrete. There’s a dryness about the style, which is like a good dry white wine. There’s nothing seductive or sexy about what these surrealists write about. I love this book on Picasso too and as for Duchamp, he is a hero of mine because he thought so freshly, and he hated being part of a group. It was Duchamp who famously said: ‘There is no solution because there isn’t a problem.’ That appealed to me because it releases you from convention and leaves you to do what you want to do. An artist is, in a sense, an irresponsible individual being fired by impulse.”

Cosway Bindings – Search for a Star

Reprinted in full from the March 2008 Rare Book Review magazine article

More than 100 years after their invention, Cosway Bindings are just as desirable but harder to track down. Stephen Ratcliffe leads the hunt for these 20th century masterpieces

Cosway Binding - Longfellow

Cosway Bindings were invented by John Stonehouse, the energetic manager of London’s oldest established booksellers Henry Sotheran & Co, in about 1903. They are books bound in full morocco leather with a portrait miniature (sometimes more than one), painted on ivory and inset into the binding and protected by a thin sheet of glass. Although in some ways not a totally original concept – there are a number of bindings with painted miniatures on mica, on vellum and occasionally on ivory, particularly on French 18th century almanacs and the like – but Stonehouse came up with a quite superior notion. He decided on the subject, the number and the placement of the miniatures – some of the finest had a large number.

Cosway Binding

He then commissioned Riviere & Son, one of the very finest English binders of the day, to design and create the elaborate gold tooling that surrounds the miniatures and to carry out the actual binding. Riviere’s best craftsmen were virtuosos in executing this. But the miniatures themselves – created by Miss CB Currie under exclusive contract – were outstanding in their delicacy and fine detail. It was never claimed that Miss Currie was creating original works of art but she was a copyist of the finest quality whose work in a long career was superb. She was particularly suited to 18th century portraits and to the rustic scenes of George Morland but had a range beyond these. Her lightness of touch is outstanding.

Izaak Walton, Cosway Binding

THE RIVIERE TOUCH

To give its accepted definition, a Cosway binding – with miniature or minatures on the front cover – is one signed by Riviere, invariably in full levant morocco with watered silk doublures and endleaves, sometimes, but only sometimes, signed ‘miniatures by Miss CB Currie’ on the rear doublure. A ‘certified’ Cosway has, in addition, an inserted leaf at the front of the book giving a number and the signatures of John Stonehouse and Miss Currie. I believe only the later Cosway bindings were so certified.

A Cosway style binding is one by Riviere’s competitors, Sangorski & Sutcliffe and Bayntun’s being the most notable. Sangorski’s almost invariably placed the miniature on the front doublure (I am convinced that this was at John Stonehouse’s insistence); Bayntun’s later bought out Riviere and became the leading vendor of these bindings, as they still are, and placed miniatures on the front cover. Many of their bindings after 1939 are signed ‘Bayntun-Riviere’.

These ornate bindings were obviously exactly to the taste of English – and more especially American – book collectors of the first decade of the 20th century. The renowned collection of Mrs Phoebe Boyle of Brooklyn included 23 Cosway bindings as early as April 1912. As demand grew, John Stonehouse quickly moved to ever more elaborate bindings with numerous miniatures.

The first Cosway bindings were apparently sold as soon as completed and never catalogued. I recently came across JA Manson, Sir Edwin Landseer RA published in 1902, at Christie’s 26/27 January sale in 2006. This book, bound by Riviere & Son, has nine miniatures on the front cover and one on the back. The miniatures are appropriate to the book’s subject and by my guess are not by Miss Currie. This book can be dated by the presentation inscription ‘Frederick von Eckstein from his wife Catherine Christmas 1904’.

Sotheran’s issued in 1909 an important catalogue with 14 Cosway bindings and, unusually for that date, all were illustrated. Miss Currie was not mentioned by name but the catalogue states ‘Messrs Sotherans have secured the services of a first rate Miniature Artist’. The term ‘Cosway’ already in use by that date refers to the celebrated British miniature artist Richard Cosway RA – two copies of a book about him were in this catalogue of 1909. The 14 bindings in that catalogue ranged in price from £85 for British Portrait Painters with 18 miniatures to Eikon Basilike by Charles I with one miniature at £6 16 6d. This item re-appeared at the Chevalier Sale in New York 1990.

Cosway Binding Portraits

Probably the finest items were Fyvie’s Tragedy Queens with nine miniatures priced at £22 10s and Gerning’s Tour of the Rhine with twelve miniatures – listed as ‘sold’ it re-appeared in 1911 at £100.
The Sotheran’s Coronation of King George V 1911 had 18 Cosway bindings given pride of place. Miss Currie was clearly named in the opening notes. This catalogue included the four volume set of Ireland’s Life of Napoleon which had no fewer than 72 miniatures – nine on each of the front and back covers. This set, priced at £285, passed to Mrs Boyle’s collection. Alas, at her auction sale in 1923 one volume was missing. However the 18 items included seven unsold from 1909 – perhaps Stonehouse was, as usual, overdoing the popularity of his creations. Apart from the Napoleon the most interesting items were the Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures with 21 miniatures on the front cover priced at £95 and Karoly’s book on Raphael’s ‘Madonnas’ with a single large miniature by Miss Currie of his Madonna dei Anseidei which was copied by her from the original in the National Gallery, London.

Napoleonic Cosway Binding

Possibly the most intriguing item was a copy of Foster’s True Portraiture of Mary Queen of Scots bound in red levant morocco with 13 miniatures on the front cover priced at £85. Mrs Boyle had an almost identical copy, again with 13 miniatures, but this had slightly differing gold tooling and green rather than red levant morocco. Maybe the first copy was sold before this catalogue reached Mrs Boyle in Brooklyn so a second version was created for her.

It was in the days before World War I that the vogue for these luxurious bindings was at its height (see box). But the outbreak of World War I brought an end to the Cosways’ glory days.

In 1916 Riviere’s had a ‘distress’ sale of unsold bindings including several Cosways at the Anderson Auction Galleries in New York. These must have been returned to Riviere’s by Sotheran’s – so I imagine the binder only got paid when the bookseller actually sold the book. Later Cosway bindings are much less elaborate.

Due to their unique nature Cosway bindings are very difficult to survey. They are widely dispersed in private collections in the USA and United Kingdom; very few being in public collections. It is obviously true that many were sold before being catalogued by Sotheran’s and unfortunate that their records were destroyed in World War II.

Of the 1,000 Cosway bindings claimed by Stonehouse, I have records, to date, of only about 180. I also have 62 Certified Cosway bindings, these latter I believe dating from 1929 onwards – an attempt to revive the market. The first one I located was No 791, Charles Dickens’ Nancy and Sykes. I have very intermittent records up to No 962, Whitman’s Print Collectors Handbook, plus some books which I know to be Certified but where the booksellers’ descriptions do not give a number.

Cosway style bindings, still being produced, mainly by Bayntun’s and the Chelsea Bindery, are too numerous to attempt any listing. There are some fine works available but Miss Currie’s work remains unequalled.

COSWAY GIANTS

While any colour illustrations of Cosway bindings are difficult to obtain – auction catalogues of recent years being almost the only source – I have particularly aimed to feature in this article items never before published. These are unknown, neglected masterpieces whose chief claim to fame is the artistry of Miss Currie supported by the faultless craftsmanship of Riviere’s best bookbinders. Never to be repeated.

  1. Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers 1837. A fine quality Cosway style binding in red morocco gilt by Bayntun (before 1939?) with one miniature (artist unknown) on the front cover. Now in the George Tidd collection
  2. Walton & Cotton. The Compleat Angler 1927. This binding by Riviere in red morocco gilt was offered by Sotheran’s in 1928 for £45; later in the Doheny collection; now in a private collection in the USA. One of Miss Currie’s masterpieces this binding is almost unique in featuring her name on the front cover
  3. Longfellow, HW. Evangeline. A unique vellum copy. Bound by Riviere in olive green morocco gilt with 14 miniatures by Miss Currie, eleven on the front cover and three on the back. This item, which was in the Boyle Collection before 1912, was in her 1923 sale and then in the Eli B Springs sale of 1934. Recently owned by JN Bartfield, New York
  4. Baily. JT. Napoleon 1908. This binding in red morocco gilt with coloured morocco inlays and a striking sunburst design, also in the George Tidd Collection, has 14 miniatures by Miss Currie, all on the front cover, another exceptional design by Riviere
  5. Worthington, WH. Portraits of the Sovereigns of England 1825.This binding can be dated to 1913 when it was offered by Sotheran’s for sale at £115. Later sold at auction in New York in February 1916, it is now in the George Tidd Collection at Tioga Point. Bound by Riviere in red levant morocco with exceptionally fine floral gilt tooling, it has 24 miniatures by Miss Currie – twelve on each cover
  6. Williamson, GC. Richard Cosway RA 1897. This is a Certified Cosway binding – number 889 – bound by Riviere in blue morocco with five miniatures by Miss Currie on the front cover and one on the back – an unusually large number for these late productions. This was sold in the Jordanstone House sale July 2004 for £15,000 + buyer’s commission
Cosway Binding
Cosway medallions
Cosway Binding Portraits