Wednesday, June 23, 2021

517. Milton's Early Poems in a Pigskin Binding

On 17 June, at Dominic Winter Auctions three lots of Vale Press books were sold, the last one being a copy of John Milton's Early Poems (1896), the first book of the Vale Press. The catalogue description states its condition: 'light toning to a couple of leaves, light spotting to endpapers, ink inscription to front endpaper, original cream blindstamped cloth gilt, gilding to spine rubbed in places'. The second part of the description incorrectly asserts that the copy was still in the original publisher's binding. I previously wrote about the variants of the publisher's binding for this book in blog 244, [more information including illustrations can be found in Binding Variants of the First Vale Press Book].

The picture in the catalogue Children’s & Illustrated Books, Private Press & Fine Bindings, Modern First Editions clearly shows a completely different binding.

John Milton, Early Poems (1896)

The provenance was based on an ink inscription: 'From the books of Arthur & Margaret Gillett, 21.4. 1962'. And, the catalogue continued: 'Probably Margaret Clark Gillett (1878-1962) botanist and social reformer, noted for advocating for women and children held in concentration camps after the Boer War.’ (Information taken from Wikipedia.)

Although her name does not appear in the index of Marianne Tidcombe's Women Bookbinders 1880-1920, it is nevertheless this essential reference work that can provide information on the name of the bookbinder.

Appendix 3 lists all Sybil Pye's bindings and the Vale Press Milton appears twice. Number 27 describes a bookbinding from 1918, made for G.E. Chatfield, and in style it is exactly what one imagines a Sybil Pye binding to be: 'White pigskin, inlaid with red and black pigskin, and gold-tooled'.

The Gillett binding has no inlays and is described as number 12. It is one of Pye's earliest commissions: 'White pigskin, blind- and gold-tooled. Bound 1909. A.B. Gillett.'

A.B. Gillett was Arthur Bevington Gillett (1875-1954), who married in 1909, the year he commissioned Pye to bind his copy of Early Poems. He married Margaret Clark (1878-1962), and they moved to North Oxford. His portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Had the auction house known that this binding was by Sybil Pye, even if it was an early one, the estimate of £200-£300 would probably have been higher. However, during the auction, the price quickly rose due to a battle between two bidders and when that seemed to have ended, a third bidder stepped forward and paid the final price of £1,700 (amount without premium).

Apparently, the Pye binding had caught the eye of several interested parties.

The binding is stamped in blind and in gold with ovals, squares and leaves. The shapes in the centre suggest a portal, with a semi-circle above containing the title. The inner circle has the year of publication (1896), and the initials C (left) and R (right), referring (probably) to Charles Ricketts.