The collecting of modern firsts seems to have begun alongside the rise of the modern etching as an investment opportunity in the early years of the twentieth century. However, while the Wall Street Crash of 1929 succeeded in almost singly handedly destroying the market for etchings, the taste for modern firsts persisted for years afterwards and may even have benefited from investors turning to book collecting from etchings.
The Bookman, arguably the most wide-ranging and luxurious magazine available to a middlebrow literary readership at this time, regularly devoted several pages to all kinds of book collecting, including the vogue for modern firsts. It is revealing to discover just how tastes in modern firsts have changed over the past ninety years. Today, the best works of Modernist giants, such as Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Virginia Woolf and Lawrence are sought after. Back then, the emphasis seems to have been on contemporary fiction. In the Christmas edition for 1930, for instance, the writer discusses the merits of the many catalogues he has received from dealers. Among them is one from Bertram Rota ( ‘ very readable and educating it is in these days of lowish prices ‘) and from this some highlights are selected.
‘ I note a good collection of Brett Young’s works, including a copy of “ The Dark Tower “ for £3 10s., some seventeen items of Hugh Walpole’s works ( “ Maradick at Forty “, 25s.) and many works of J.B. Priestley…’
In another catalogue it is noted that J. M. Barrie’s “ Window in Thrums “ was priced at 16 guineas and A. E. Coppard’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me could be had for 6 guineas.
The writer also notes that another list contained ‘a number of original manuscripts of D. H. Lawrence and Mr Philpotts ‘. Note that Lawrence had died just a few months before, which raised his profile in the minds of collectors, and that ( unlike today ) the great Modernist is referred to by the name under which he had been published, whereas it is assumed that every reader knew the full name of ‘Mr Philpotts’, the popular novelist. It would be interesting to know whose manuscripts were priced the higher. My guess is that it was the latter.
On the investment side the writer quotes the famous collector Dr Rosenbach, who opines “Stocks are falling; books are rising “. What follows from this observation is interesting too. Our writer reflects on the popularity of books as guards against inflation with this prediction:‘ The market is rising …although it will not reach its rightful position again until the industrial depression lessens’. Of course, this depression did not lift for another few years, though books seem to have kept their value against other forms of investment, such as antiques and pictures, throughout the thirties, and perhaps may have done even better, for various reasons.
Other notable modern firsts are picked out from the array of catalogues our writer received, including a writer your Jotter had never heard of—Vavasour Powell—whose The Bird in the Cage was priced at a eye watering £25 !! It turns out that Mr Powell was a Puritan cleric whose rara avis appeared in 1651. Abebooks today does not feature this book, which would suggest that it is not very sought after .‘ Rare works ‘ by J. M. Barrie are mentioned in another list, which also contains Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale at an impressive £50 and Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Treeat £105. Needless to say, today only the Hardy would have kept its high value. Today Bennett’s Old Wives’ Taleis still collected, but a first would only set you back around £300.
If present day collectors might raise a smile at the prices charged for the totally forgotten Brett Young and the barely remembered Hugh Walpole, .the serious attention given to such very minor figures as Lascelles Abercrombie ( today, few of his works are priced at more than a tenner), Gerald Bullett ( ‘ worth collecting against the future ‘, but not in 2020, when his firsts can be had for £6 or less)), Richard Le Gallienne and Anthony Hope ( firsts at £1 feature in abebooks) , may make most collectors laugh out loud. Also rather hilarious is the reference to Herbert Read as a ‘fine thinker, with a true sense of literature in his style, whose works will surely be fashionably collected one of these days’. I prefer Geoffrey Grigson’s verdict on Read as ‘not much of a writer’ and someone who ‘never looked a painting in the face ‘.
In the end our writer does tip his cap to a major Modernist by suggesting that books by T. S. Eliot ‘ should be carefully sought for, and preserved for their literary, as well as for their economic value. Fame at last, eh, Mr Eliot!! [RR]