Wednesday, August 4, 2021

523. Owen Pritchard, an Elusive Vale Press Collector

A number of libraries contain complete collections of the Vale Press books, but they are fewer in number than one might think. Many university collections, for example, consist of a dozen or so Vale Press books, and even nearly complete collections are fairly rare. One such nearly complete collection is at Bangor University on the northern west coast of Wales. Founded in 1884, and originally known as the University College of North Wales, the university received an extensive collection of porcelain, pottery, and glass (558 items), as well as books from London-based physician Owen Pritchard. A year after the presentation in 1920, a catalogue was published, with illustrations of porcelain, pottery and glass, but unfortunately not of the books.

University College of North Wales, Bangor.
The Owen Pritchard Collection of Pottery, Glass and Books
illustration of Bristol earthenware

Dedication written by Owen Pritchard in a copy of University College of North Wales, Bangor.
The Owen Pritchard Collection of Pottery, Glass and Books 

Owen Pritchard (1854-1928) was one of those rare collectors who make donations during their lifetime. In 1920, the collection was valued at £2,000-£3,000, and a newspaper said that it would be housed 'in separate cases in the vestibule entrance to the great library at the college, over which a tablet suitably inscribed' would be placed.

Dr. Owen Pritchard
[Collection: Archives and Special Collections
Bangor University]

Pritchard's personal life is almost entirely hidden behind that collection - the catalogue does not reveal his origins or career. He was an Anglesey man (son of a local labourer) who had been a student at Bangor before he moved to London where he lived as a bachelor for the rest of his life. He was a prominent London Welshman, who, for instance, acted as host for the meetings of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. He became Doctor in Legibus on the ground of his generous support of higher education, especially in North Wales. At one time, he was a surgeon at St Saviour's Hospital for Cancer and Diseases of Women. He had his own medical practice at 37, Southwick Street, Hyde Park. 

When he died in a nursing home (after an operation), two addresses were mentioned: 41, Gloucester Square and 37, Southwick Street. He was cremated at Golder's Green and the funeral was attended by Sir Vincent Evans (who had catalogued his books), Lady Watson (wife of one of his favourite poets), and Mr. Allen Lane (nephew of the publisher John Lane). He left £36,387, of which £600 went to his 'old friend and chauffeur' Walter Whittle, £600 to his housekeeper Edna Graven, and another £600 to his 'old friend' and 'our greatest poet' Sir William Watson (1858-1935). £4,000 was destined to scholarships in the science department of North Wales University College (now Bangor), and the residue could be used for any purpose the college would determine.

Although he remained virtually unknown as a book collector, he had at least one friend who was at the centre of the publishing world in the 1990s: John Lane. 

John Lane

James Lewis May recorded:

Young Pritchard, having taken his M.D., came up to London—came, like John Lane, to try his luck. He brought with him some sound medical knowledge and the skill to use it, with a fund of indomitable courage, invincible tenacity, but with mighty little money. Looking about for a likely place to put up his plate, chance led him to a certain house in Southwick Street. It was already inhabited by a doctor, but it was in a deplorably dilapidated condition, and the practice was virtually non-existent. 

According to the British Medical Journal, this was the address of William Stewart, M.D.

Pritchard saw possibilities in the place. He took over the house, bought the goodwill of the 'practice' for a song, and then, with the few pounds remaining to him, started to face the future. He worked like a lion. [...] Little by little at first, afterwards by leaps and bounds, he went ahead, till at length he became one of the most successful and most popular practitioners in the district.

(J. Lewis May, John Lane and the Nineties. London 1936, page 29).

John Lane came to visit him in his practice, to advertise the home for the treatment of nervous and mental cases that his parents had started in Bristol. Pritchard heard that Lane was on the look-out for lodgings, and offered him a room. The food-bill was divided equally between them. Lane paid ten shillings a week for his room, and the rent was never raised. Frequently, Lane's letters were written on the back of Pritchard's bills.

[...] the two men became devoted friends. They had tastes in common, for the doctor, too, was a bibliophile and a great collector.
(J. Lewis May, John Lane and the Nineties. London 1936, page 30).

John Lane and Elkin Mathews established The Bodley Head in 1887, and became publishers to Oscar Wilde and many other decadent writers. After their break-up Lane continued the firm, publishing The Yellow Book with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Occasionally, he gave books to Pritchard. Recently, a copy of W. Carlton Dawe's Yellow and White, 1895, was offered for sale, bearing the dedication: 'Dr. Pritchard | from | J.L.' From this we may deduce that in 1920 not his entire collection of books moved to Bangor. John Lane even published a book written by Pritchard: On the Brink. A Play in One Act by a London Doctor. It was privately printed for the author in 1910. The 1921 catalogue was also published by John Lane, The Bodley Head, but probably distributed by the university.

What was his book collection like? 

In the catalogue, Vincent Evans characterises Pritchard as a collector without specialisation, but with 'a great admiration for beautiful craftmanship'. The library developed through subscription, purchase or presentation, and Pritchard maintained 'close friendships with many authors, and some publishers'. (However, he does not appear in their biographies, with the exception of Lane). The collection donated to Bangor consists of three parts: private presses, literature and miscellaneous publications.

The last section contains historical works, travelogues, dictionaries. The literature contains many works from the 1890s (Aubrey Beardsley, the Rhymer's Club, Oscar Wilde, but also Rossetti and Morris) and special sections with works by Lord Latymer, Richard Le Gallienne, Stephen Phillips and William Watson.

'Ballantyne Press' list in University College of North Wales, Bangor.
The Owen Pritchard Collection of Pottery, Glass and Books 

The private press section is representative of the times. Pritchard owned sixteen volumes issued by the Ashendene Press, of which two printed on vellum. The Doves Press is represented with seventeen books (including the five-volume Bible), the Eragny Press with six works, the Daniel Press with three books, and the Kelmscott Press with three books (although many more were incorrectly listed as Kelmscott Press books).

The Vale Press books are divided into two parts: one under the heading 'Ballantyne Press' (where they were printed) and one under the heading 'Vale Press' (the official name that is hardly ever mentioned in the books). (One book is listed under 'Various Authors'). There are forty-one works (in eighty-three volumes), including the thirty-nine-volume Shakespeare and, for example, the three-volume Shelley edition. (One of the works listed, Tennyson's Lyric Poems can not be traced in the online catalogue of Bangor University.) He also owned three (out of five) issues of The Dial.

Only six books (in seven volumes) are lacking:  The Passionate Pilgrim. Songs in Shakespeare's Plays (1896), E.B. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1897), Lyrical Poems of Shelley (1899), The Poems of John Keats (1898), D.G. Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel (1898), and A Bibliography of the Books Issued by Hacon & Ricketts (1904).

'Vale Press' list (detail)  in University College of North Wales, Bangor.
The Owen Pritchard Collection of Pottery, Glass and Books 

The collection does not include dedication copies, copies printed on parchment, or bound in a leather binding specially designed by Ricketts.

Nevertheless, it is an impressive collection, which must have occupied a special place in Pritchard's heart: why else would he have collected so many works from this press and comparatively so few from the other presses? 

Moreover, Pritchard also bought a number of books designed by Ricketts, such as Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx, Lord De Tabley's Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical, John Addington Symonds's In the Key of Blue, and Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. 

Intriguing is the copy of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance (1894). It has a handwritten dedication: 'Owen Pritchard, M.D., from a grateful patient'. But who was this patient? 

Not Oscar Wilde, but his publisher, John Lane.

[Thanks are due to Shan Robinson, Senior Special Collections Assistant, Archives and Special Collections, Bangor University.]