Rare book anecdotes from J. H. Slater’s Book Collecting

In Book Collecting ( 1892) J. H. Slater, that doyen of the rare book trade in late nineteenth century England, provides some wonderful anecdotes, the best of which  concerns a certain Mr Day, ‘ a well-known book hunter of the earlier part of the present century’:

‘One day, upon removing some books at the chambers of Sir William Jones, a large spider dropped upon the floor, upon Sir William with some warmth said “ Kill that spider, Day! Kill that spider!”  “ No”, said Mr Day, with that coolness for which he was so conspicuous, “I will not kill that spider, Jones: I do not know if I have a right to do so. Suppose, when you are going into your carriage to Westminster Hall, a superior being, who perhaps may have as much power over you as you have over this insect, should say to his companion, ‘ Kill that lawyer!’ Kill that lawyer!’ How should you like that? I am sure to most people a lawyer is a more noxious insect than a spider.” 

Slater evidently did not suffer fools gladly, and believe me back then, as now, there was a good deal of nonsense talked (and written) by so called bibliophiles. is chock full of Slater’s withering observations on his fellow dealers and collectors, of which one of the most withering can be found in his chapter on the venerable Elzevir Press.

 It seems to be an almost universal belief that all the works issued from the Elzevir press are small in bulk, and various terms, more or less foolish, have been invented by careless or incompetent persons to give expression to this idea. One of them, and perhaps the most hideous of them all, is “ dumpy” twelves. In the first place, works issued from the Elzevir press in 12mo are perfectly symmetrical in shape, and not at all dumpy; and, secondly, many books are in 4to and some even in folio…The amateur must avoid being misled by the poetical effusions which from time to time make their appearance, and which for the most part are written by persons who know nothing whatever of the subject…’

In the days before photocopiers collectors and dealers were obliged to supply missing text in t event of pages in a book being missing or damaged by copying out the missing material from an identical text and inserting it into the correct place in the defective book. The copied material necessarily stands out like a sore thumb and there also may be problems if the copier is inaccurate. Slater prints a fascinating anecdote told by certain Henry Stevens concerning a bet of £4 he had with another American collector named Lenox in which a solution to this crude process was demonstrated:

I had acquired a fair copy of that gem of rare books, the quarto edition of Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of that New Found Land of Virginea ( London: Feb 1588), wanting four leaves in the body of the book. These I had very skilfully traced by Harris, transferred to stone , printed off on old paper of a perfect match, the book and these leaves sized and coloured alike, and bound in morocco by Bedford. The volume was then sent to Mr Lenox to be examined by him de visu, the price to be £25; but f he could detect the four fac-simile leaves, and would point them out to me  without error , the price was to be reduced to £21. By the first post, after the book was received, he remitted me the 20 guineas, with a list of the fac-similes, but on my informing him that two of his fac-similes were originals, he immediately remitted the four pounds, and acknowledge his defeat. ‘

Nowadays, of course, the bet would be on whether the wrapper on a copy of a modern first edition was original or reproduced by means of a laser jet colour printer!

Incidentally, this aforementioned Harris, in the words of Slater, ‘ was probably the greatest adept at this species of imitation who ever lived, and many important but defective works, now in the British Museum , left his hands, to all appearance, in first-rate order and condition.’ More of this amazing Mr John Harris in a future Jot.

Another Slater anecdote concerns the discovery by a lucky collector  of autographs ‘ at a fishmonger’s shop in Hungerford Market some fifty years ago ‘.

“ Autograph signatures of Godolphin, Sunderland, Ashley, Lauderdale, Ministers of James II, accounts of the Exchequer Office signed by Henry VII and Henry VIII, wardrobe accounts of Queen Anne, secret service accounts marked with the ‘E.G.’ of Nell Gwyn, a treatise on the Eucharist in the boyish hand of Edward VI, and a disquisition on the Order of the Garter, in the scholarly writing of Elizabeth “, all of which , as Mr Rogers Rees narrates, had been included in waste-paper cleared out of Somerset House at £7 a ton.

R. M. Healey

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