Searching for a famous book

First wood-engraving by Burne-Jones

We are the authors of The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census, published by Oak Knoll Press in April 2011. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, issued by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896, is probably the most famous of all private press books, set in types, ornaments, and initials designed by Morris and lavishly illustrated by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. There were 425 copies printed on paper and 15 on vellum. Our Census is an attempt to trace as many as possible of those copies, to describe them thoroughly (including bindings), and to summarize the history of ownership of each. In our book we succeeded in locating approximately two-thirds of the pressrun of the Chaucer, but we know that many copies have eluded us. The Kelmscott Chaucer continues to appear from time to time in auction rooms and in dealers’ catalogues, and we have no doubt that the publication of our Census will have the effect of bringing even more out into the open. We decided that we needed some medium to record this new information as it came to light; this blog, therefore, is an effort to keep our book up to date. We envision several kinds of posts. When we locate new copies of the Chaucer, we will eventually describe them in the same format we used in the Census; but in the meantime, before all the information is available, we will offer brief “preliminary notes” about what we know so far. In other cases, when we learn about copies being offered for sale, we will write short posts about them; later, when more details emerge (such as the price realized or the name of the purchaser), we will report those facts as well. It is possible also that occasionally we may write posts not related to specific copies of the Chaucer but rather based on some experiences or reflections that grew out of our pursuit of this celebrated book. We welcome additions and corrections to our Census; please write us at swholton2@cs.com. (And keep in mind that we also have another website devoted to the library of William Morris.)

— William S. Peterson & Sylvia Holton Peterson    

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Talk by Dominic Riley

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Dominic Riley, bookbinder and artist, will give a talk entitled “A Kelmscott Chaucer for Our Times: Celebrating a New Binding” at the Book Club of California on 10 July 2017. The Club has furnished the following summary:

When it was produced in 1896, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press was hailed as the greatest book of its age. Designed by Morris and lavishly illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones, 425 copies were printed (one of which resides at the Book Club of California). Some are still in their original bindings, and others are in extremely fine bindings done since, leaving a few in poor bindings in need of a new cover. In 2012, Dominic Riley was commissioned to rebind such a copy, with a view to create a contemporary fine binding for it. This talk is a record of that project.

The task set before him was daunting: this is a very famous, very big, and very valuable book. And, needless to say, the opportunity to create a new binding for one does not come along very often. In addition to this, the collector expressed a wish that the binding, when finished, should be something that “Bernard Middleton would be proud that Dominic had executed, and that William Morris would appreciate.” He also stated that he would like the binding design to be both “traditional and contemporary.” Dominic spent four years thinking about the book, allowing Morris’s art and aesthetics to percolate (he doesn’t do preliminary sketches). During 2016 he designed and bound the book, taking inspiration from Morris’s ornaments to create a bold and typographic motif, which is a blaze of gold tooling.

In this lecture, Dominic will talk about the genesis of the design, from rough ideas to final execution, and the laborious process of building the binding for this iconic book, which is being donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As William Morris said “the best thing you can do is build is a house. The second best thing you can do is build is a book.” And, as Bernard Middleton says “there is nothing more pleasing than the play of light on leather and gold.”

Dominic Riley is one the most renowned bookbinders working today. His design bindings are in collections worldwide, including the British Library, the St Bride Library, the Rylands in Manchester, the National Library of Wales, the Grolier Club, and the San Francisco Public Library. He has created over seventy design bindings to date, and when he is not making contemporary artistic bindings he restores antiquarian books and teaches.

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Complete set of Kelmscott books for sale

Bruce Marshall Rare Books (Cheltenham, England) has issued a catalogue entitled A Complete Collection of the Kelmscott Press. The Chaucer is a quarter-linen binding, with no evidence (in the catalogue, at least) of previous owners.

The collection is evidently meant to be sold as a single entity, but there is no price listed in the catalogue. The books are all housed in matching half-vellum boxes, and the collection includes a few ephemera and Burne-Jones drawings and revised proofs.

(Thanks to Mark Samuels Lasner for giving us a copy of the catalogue.)

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Terry–Cohn copy to be sold

A copy of the Chaucer that crops up several times in our Census has resurfaced and is scheduled to sold by Sotheby (New York) on 13 June 2017. The Sotheby catalogue offers this description: “Original linen-backed blue-gray boards, printed spine label. Front inner hinge cracked, inscription in pencil on lower free endpaper, extremities darkened, spine somewhat worn, spine label chipped. Red morocco slipcase, spine gilt.”

The provenance, as we are now able to reconstruct it, is as follows (with Census item numbers in brackets): Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry [3.189]. — Terry sale, Anderson Galleries (New York), 7 November 1934, lot 174 [4.305] (sold for $425). — Saul Cohn. — Cohn sale, Parke-Bernet, 18 October 1955, lot 594 (sold for $500) [4.502]. — Sotheby (New York), 12 December 1995, lot 99 (sold for $22,000) [4.708]. — Sotheby (New York), 13 June 2017, lot 41 (estimate $40,000–$50,000).

The Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry (1849–1933), a graduate of Yale, the Union Theological Seminary, and Princeton, was a Presbyterian minister who retired to Newport, R.I., where he became active in local philanthropic and cultural affairs. Terry’s books and manuscripts were sold after his death in three sales during 1934 and 1935. His son Roderick Terry, Jr., also left an autograph collection of figures prominent in colonial and early United States history to the Redwood Library and Museum in Newport.

Saul Cohn (1886–1954), of East Orange, N.J., was president of the City Stores Mercantile Company. His books, manuscripts, and drawings were dispersed in three sales by Parke-Bernet in 1955, and some of his correspondence is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (An obituary of Cohn appeared in the New York Times, 6 June 1954, p. 86.)

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The Hersholt copy again

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The copy of the Chaucer once owned by the Danish-born Hollywood film actor Jean Hersholt (1886–1956) (see our earlier post) has again surfaced — this time on the website of the Melbourne dealer Douglas Stewart Fine Books — with a price of $125,000 (AUD). Its provenance is as follows:

Jean Hersholt. — Hersholt sale, Parke-Bernet (New York), 23–24 March 1954, lot 541 [then in the standard quarter-linen binding] (sold for $375). — Heritage Auctions (New York), 7 April lot 2011, lot 36233 (sold for $44,812.50 including buyer’s premium). — Buddenbrooks (Boston), offered online in 2013 for $93,500. — Private collection, Australia. — Douglas Stewart Fine Books, 2017.

Thanks to Philip Bishop for calling our attention to this.

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Two copies find new homes

Two copies of the Chaucer that we previously described have now found new academic homes:

(1) The Ward–Watkins–Slocum–Edison copy (Census 2.194), sold at Christie’s on 7 December 2012 [see here], is now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, purchased from Peter Harrington.

(2) The Slater–Gribbel–Schimmel copy (Census 3.179), offered for sale by Heritage Bookshop in 2012 [see here], is now in the University of British Columbia Library, purchased for $202,000 after a two-year fund-raising effort.

We are grateful to Dr. Yuri Cowan for passing this information on to us.

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Three copies for sale in one month

[Originally posted 24 November 2015; most recent revision, 5 September 2016.]

By coincidence, three copies of the Chaucer are coming up for sale next month (December 2015).

(1) Swann, on 1 December (lot 140), will be offering a quarter-linen copy in a modern clamshell case, with an estimate of $45,000–$60,000. The spine label and the binding show some signs of wear. (For an earlier sale of the book, see this post.)

[Update, 5 December 2015.] The book sold for $62, 500 (including buyer’s premium). Here is a link to the online catalogue. And we apologize for the wrong date in our original post: the auction was on 24 November 2015, not 1 December.

(2) Christie’s (New York), in its 8 December auction (lot 226), will sell another copy, this in a blue morocco binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe with a cloth slipcase. The estimate is $4o,000–$60,000. (We listed this in our Census, 3.228, under unlocated copies.)

[Update, 9 December 2015.] This copy sold for $50,000.

(3) The most spectacular of the three copies is the one included in Sotheby’s (London) sale of 15 December, lot 82, inscribed by Morris “to R. Catterson Smith from William Morris July 7th 1896.” There are only a few copies of the Chaucer signed by Morris, who died a few months after its publication, and what lends importance to this particular inscription is that Robert Catterson-Smith was heavily involved in the production of the book: he revised Burne-Jones’s designs before they were handed over to the engraver. (On Catterson-Smith, see also this post and this one.) The pre-auction estimate is £100,000–£200,000. The binding is quarter-linen with a loose-fitting Morris fabric covering, reproduced below:

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[Update, 5 September 2016.] Our apologies for being so slow in recording the following information. This extremely interesting association copy failed to find a buyer at the auction, but afterwards it was purchased from the family by Mark Samuels Lasner, whose collection is at the University of Delaware Library. He also acquired at the sale a substantial body of correspondence and other documents that shed new light on Catterson-Smith’s role in creating the illustrations for the Chaucer.

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Copy for sale in Massachusetts

A quarter-linen copy (Census, 3.177, 4.710) is listed for sale by Buddenbooks, Inc., Newburyport, Mass., for $115,500. Provenance: Robert Heysham Sayre, George Abrams.

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