Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Salmagundi of English Anecdotes

Knowing of my interest in tracking down the provenance of certain volumes in my collection, a fellow book-collector has invited me to discover what I can about a special copy of this week’s book. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m interested in issues of bibliographic proximity -- whether that term applies to anthologies or collected editions (the proximity of texts to each other) or to book collections (the proximity of particular books to each other). Apparently this week’s book shared some close proximity with a collection of four of the rarest and most valuable (monetarily and textually) books in English literary history -- provoking me to reflect on the vast network of the “book web”, or the interconnectedness of the many volumes sitting on our shelves that at one time or another in their lives shared space with a volume now possibly miles or even continents away.

The title is A Book for a Rainy Day: Or, Recollections of the Events of the Last Sixty-Six Years by John Thomas Smith (1766-1833; shown here). The first edition, published by Richard Bentley of New Burlington Street in London, appeared in 1845 and was quickly followed by a second edition in the same year; ironically, the first edition is far more common than the limited second edition. This copy is of the second edition. The printer for both was Schulze & Company of 13 Poland Street in London. Bentley and Schulze are perhaps best known for being the publisher-printer team behind the first book publication of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Subsequent editions followed in 1861, 1900, and 1905 (edited by Wilfred Whitten). In 1846, the book was adapted into Charles Mackay’s two-volume An Antiquarian Ramble in the Streets of London, with Anecdotes of Their More Celebrated Residents.

Smith -- a character on the London social scene for much of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century -- had been since 1816 the “keeper” of the British Museum’s prints and drawings collection, was an accomplished artist (mostly of portraits) and the author of several other works, most notably a study of London street life and crime titled Vagabondia and a biography of the sculptor Nollekens and His Times -- a book that was, according to the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. 14, “unmatched for malicious candour and vivid detail”.

As for his Book for a Rainy Day, the Cambridge History describes it as “one of the most entertaining and most trustworthy memorials of [Smith’s] period. Published twelve years after his death, it forms a valuable corrective to the flashy fictions of Egan and his life.” The book takes the form of a highly detailed, largely autobiographical diary of London society over the course of Smith’s life, ranging from theatre news to political scandal to high society gossip to literary anecdotes to the latest fashions to international news and even weather reports. Of the author himself, the Cambridge History reports that he “had a keen curiosity about things and people past and present, a retentive memory and a gift for gossip.”

The goal of the book seems to be one of eclectic variety organized around the years of the author’s life. As Smith puts it in his preface:

Some may object to my vanity, in expecting the reader of the following pages to be pleased with so heterogeneous a dish. It is, I own, what ought to be called salmagundi; or, it may be likened to various suits of clothes, made up of remnants of all colours. One promise I can make, that as my pieces are mostly of new cloth, they will last the longer. Dr. Johnson has said: “All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know, than not.”

The book is bound in wonderfully sturdy feather-marbled boards with deep brown leather spine and corners. There are six compartments with raised bands down the spine with decorative tooling and a black leather title band with gold lettering. The edges of the pages, the inside of the front and back covers, and the recto of the front flyleaf and verso of the back flyleaf all share the same colorful marbling pattern.

The pages measure 12cm x 19.5cm and are quite healthy, with very little foxing and no tears or damage (except for the front fly, which is coming loose at the top). There are no watermarks or chain-lines; the paper was, as with almost all non-specialized printing paper after 1805 in England, wove-made on a machine. The book’s pagination runs [i]-iv, [1]-311 (the first edition may be distinguished from the second in its pagination; it runs up to 306). Its collational formula seems to be 8o: [#] [A2] B12-O11: $1, 2, 3 [5]. Thus, it seems to be an “octavo in twelves” (a full sheet folded in eight with a half-sheet folded in four).

On the verso of the front fly, and inserted after the fly (on a slip of stationery from Botleys Park Hospital Management Committee of Chertsey in Surrey) are an assortment of owners’ marks. Those written on the fly are cryptic and are combination of various pencils and a purple stamped “N6L”; the pencil marks include the notation "Finneron, Woking. Nov | 54".

Pasted on the slip of stationery, in the same hand as the “Finneron, Woking. Nov | 54” notation (though annotated in black and blue inks, not pencil) are slips of paper cut from advertisements for various editions of the book. The slip advertising the 1905 edition is annotated with “Myer, London. Jan | 57”; the first slip advertising the 1845 edition (first) is not annotated; the second slip advertising the 1845 first edition is annotated “Beaucham<> London. 1960”; the final slip advertises Mackay’s 1846 adaptation and is annotated “Hammond, B’haus. Oct | 56”. Whomever bough the book was apparently fastidious about recording its values in various editions when they came up for sale; if the inscription on the fly is the mark of when and where it was first purchased by this owner, it seems that he or she bought the book from E. J. Finneron, a bookseller in the English town of Woking since at least 1935.

There are two bookplates, and these bring me back to the topic of tracking down interesting provenances and the larger conceptual idea of the interconnectedness of our books through their past proximity to one another.

One bookplate shows a hunter’s horn, tied and apparently hanging from a bowed ribbon, on top of a barrel that is lying on its side. The cryptic initials JFTD encircle the horn in a clockwise direction. The second bookplate, pasted on the inside of the front cover, is more clear: a ribbon reading “Sub Tegmine Fagi” (“Concealed Beneath the Beech Tree”) crowns a beech tree that rises from a particolored band. Below this crest is the owner’s name: Henry B. H. Beaufoy, F.R.S. (“F.R.S.” stands for Fellow of the The Royal Society).

Beaufoy (shown below) was likely the book’s first owner. From roughly 1784 through 1843, Beaufoy was one of Europe’s most celebrated and prestigious hot air ballonists; his numerous ascents contributed unprecedented support to the nascent discipline of aeronautics, as well as providing new information to cartographers, meteorologists, and physicists in England and on the continent. Beaufoy was also a great collector of both coins (he wrote a well-regarded book on early English “tokens”) and, more importantly for my purposes, books. Beaufoy collected across a range of topics and genres. Most famously, however, was his assembling together in one library a copy of the first (1623), second (1632), third (1663), and fourth (1685) folios of the plays of William Shakespeare (his library was dispersed at auction by Christie’s in July 1909 and the four folios were eventually split up at auction in July 1912). To put it briefly, then -- and to return to this post’s initial premise -- holding Beaufoy’s copy of A Book for a Rainy Day is likely to be as close as I’ll ever come to all four of the seventeenth century Shakespeare folio collections at once.

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