Wednesday, September 11, 2013

111. Special bindings for a Vale Press collector

Not much is known about contemporary collectors of Vale Press books. A large collection was owned by the architect and surveyor John Morgan (of Rubislaw House, Aberdeen), for whom Ricketts designed a bookplate in 1899. He ordered books from Ricketts, and his collection was auctioned in 1908. The American collector Emilie Grigsby sold her collection in 1912, Max Kirdorf's collection was sold in 1929, Thomas Bird Mosher's collection was for sale in 1948, but it is doubtful whether any of them bought their copies directly from Hacon and Ricketts in London.

There is one exception, Laurence Hodson (1863-1933), the West Midlands brewery owner, collector and philanthropist. See my earlier blog on The Laurence Hodson Sale. A batch of letters written by Ricketts, Shannon, and C.J. Holmes, manager of the Vale Press, emerged from his collection, containing details on acquisitions, and discussing copies printed on vellum.

As soon as Ricketts announced he was to design special bindings in pigskin and morocco, Hodson must have placed an order. This followed the decision to publish, apart from paper copies, a small number of copies on vellum. The first book of which vellum copies were printed was the English edition of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche (November 1897), but there were only two vellum copies. Of E.B. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese eight copies were printed on vellum, and later vellum editions were usually limited to ten copies. 

E.B. Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese (Vale Press, 1897) [vellum copy, binding for Laurence Hodson, dated '1889', read: 1898 or 1899]
In a letter of 28 October 1901, Holmes wrote that Hodson had been 'our first subscriber' to vellum copies, which must have been in 1897, as the earliest letter to have survived seems to be a letter by Holmes to Hodson from 1897.

A letter from Charles Ricketts to Laurence Hodson
The first letter written by Ricketts to Hodson is postmarked 1 September 1898. I can quote and illustrate it in full, thanks to Bromer Booksellers who now offer this letter for sale. It was written by Ricketts, not at home or at the printer's, but from Hacon & Ricketts's shop, 'At the Sign of the Dial':

Charles Ricketts, Letter to Laurence Hodson, 1 September 1898, p. [1]  [image provided by Bromer Booksellers]
52 Warwick Street
Regent Street

My dear Hodson
Your vellum copies will reach you in a few days, they have been finished this week past, but there are one or two delicate amendments to be made by the good binder, and on Holmes' return they will reach you with the ever persistent account.
I find the dictionary lacking in beautiful words to express my admiration and astonishment over these new designs of mine and Time only "that great colourist" could improve them, by that tender warming of the red of which he has the secret.

Charles Ricketts, Letter to Laurence Hodson, 1 September 1898, p. [2-3]  [image provided by Bromer Booksellers]
With regard to your very own extra special design I am hesitating about: the future use of plate blocks and in the light of recent investigations we may leave the good Rivière for the gooder Leighton who used to bind for Morris (he has lost all his hair) he has the use of the Kelmscott founts for Kelmscott bindings (we have just cast a Vale set of punches) a great advantage this for the binding of our beautiful books.
I have been binding some Morris books in rose gardens, forests, and cathedral front doors for the good Downing of Birmingham I feel after all this exercise of design and gold stamps that the books should belong to me and not leave Warwick Street, or rather Richmond.
I find that Reuter the illuminator has left England for the continent, not on a visit, but for good, that he may live on a small income of his and yet illuminate.
Shannon & I are for the bloody sea-side, on our return I hope we shall see you again in Richmond.
I fancy that Shannon will not have finished against the Autumn much else besides my portrait, but it is a big thing and only wants a little varnish to be ready for the National Gallery.
Do remember me to Mrs Hodson
and believe me
ever yours
CS Ricketts

[Downing was a bookseller from Birmingham; Shannon's portrait of Ricketts is now in the National Portrait Gallery.]

Charles Ricketts, Letter to Laurence Hodson, envelope postmarked 1 September 1898 [image provided by Bromer Booksellers]
The earlier books were all bound in paper covers, for which the paper title labels were printed at the Ballantyne Press (the one exception being the first book, Milton's Early Poems, which had a leather title label on some copies, while others had the title printed in gold on the buckram spine). For the lettering of his special leather bindings, the binder needed to have Vale type, and, as Ricketts mentioned, he had given orders to cast punches for that purpose.

Vellum copies
It seems that Ricketts left the binder Rivière for Leighton, Son, and Hodge around this time, although he also had business with Zaehnsdorf, but the bindings are not signed. They are marked with the Hacon & Ricketts initials, sometimes accompanied by those of the collector. Not only vellum copies were bound in specially designed bindings, some collectors also wanted the earlier paper copies to match their sets. Lord Rosebery, for example, ordered such bindings for several early Vale Press books.

The vellum for the Vale Press books was manufactured by Henry Band and Co in Brentford. Printing vellum copies, which happened after the paper copies had been printed, proved to be difficult, and at one point there was a 'virtual strike over their vellum books' at the Ballantyne Press, as Paul Delaney recorded. Ricketts made a note of that in his diary for 13 August 1901. The costs involved were high, and that is why Ricketts decided not to print vellum copies for the collected edition of Shakespeare that appeared between 1900 and 1903. C.J. Holmes explained this in a letter to Hodson (28 October 1901): 'the cost would be so great, at least £180 apiece, that they might prove only a splendid species of white elephant'.

The Cellini Binding 
Binding vellum copies was quite a challenge. For the two volumes of The Life of Benvenuto Cellini (302x205 mm) Hodson had ordered a special binding, and Holmes wrote him on 28 October 1901, almost a year after its publication: 'Your vellum Cellini is at last finished & has been sent off to you today. It has been rather a large undertaking - over 2000 toolings in all! but I trust you will think the result justifies the trouble. We haven't printed any vellum copies of our recent books as the supply of vellum lately has been uneven in quality & in consequence, we have found it difficult to ensure having out as good work as we want to do. This doesn't of course apply to your books, as you being our first subscriber get first pick of the lot'. 

The trouble over the binding can be deduced from Holmes remarks: 'it apparently takes a good deal to destroy good morocco & a book like the vellum Cellini is not likely to be dropped in a pond or left on a roof by accident for a few months'. Indeed, in April 2013, the Hodson copy sold for £8500. The design had 'twenty-nine rows of alternating LH monogram and bird and spray of leaves tool interspersed with small dots' (see the catalogue description). The bird and leaves motif was based on the Hodson family crest. 

Earlier, on 22 August 1901, Ricketts had written to Hodson that he had decided not to use clasps for the bindings, 'as my working jeweller has gone on strike, no, not on strike, he has refused point blank to work any more for me, for ever and ever!' Printers, binders, jewellers, all were exposed to Ricketts's fits of temper if in his eyes their work did not come close to perfection. However, Ricketts wrote to Hodson: 'The vellum Cellinis are a great success, but in the face of the difficulties of binding vellum, there is a chance of our dropping vellum altogether, all the big London binders being either on my black books or on the outer edge of strike, revolt, retaliation & revenge.'

The letters are for sale at Bromer Booksellers.