Wednesday, December 7, 2022

592. A Vale Press Collector: Walter James Leighton

Among the renowned Leighton family of bookbinders was Walter James Leighton (1850-1917), a bookseller and bookbinder, who came to work for the firm of his father and uncle who signed their works with James & Walter James Leighton, later J. & J. Leighton. At Walter James Leighton's death, Frank Karslake wrote an obituary for Book-Auctions Records: 'Mr. Leighton, who was in his sixty-eighth year, carried on the business of Messrs. J. and J. Leighton, at 40, Brewer Street, Golden Square, which was founded there by his grandfather, John Leighton, (a Scotsman from Glasgow), in 1798, and conducted subsequently by his father and his uncle. Indeed, little is known of the origin of his family, except that it was Scottish [...]'. 

Karslake also remarked that Leighton was not merely a dealer in rare books: 'Early printed books and early manuscripts were the rare things he specialised on, and — himself an important collector — he was the medium through which notable examples of these were gathered into many famous Libraries.' Also, he was an able dancer and actor in private performances.

Walter James Leighton
(detail of a wood-engraving,
The Graphic, 26 May 1888)

There were a few distinct firms with the name Leighton active in the bookbinding business. For example, the Leighton firm that was responsible for bindings designed by Charles Ricketts for The Bodley Head of John Lane and Elkin Mathews was called Leighton, Son & Hodge. 

Nevertheless, the auction catalogues of Walter James Leighton's collection included works designed by Ricketts and executed by Leighton, Son & Hodge, and other books designed by Ricketts. Where they collected by Leighton the collector or by the Leighton the dealer?

Auctions of  'The Famous Stock'

Seven auctions of his collection took place. The 'second portion' and the 'third portion' were auctioned at Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge in 1919 and in the catalogues we find some of Ricketts's most extraordinary books.

The 'second portion' (May 1919) contains an exceptional copy of Michael Field's The World at Auction (Vale Press, 1898) bound in 'niger morocco gilt, tooled design on sides and back, t. e. g.' (lot no. 906). Lot 1810 concerned a copy of the limited edition of Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Goal, 'one of 99 copies with the author's autograph signature, green crushed morocco extra, sides gilt with interlaced leafy stems bearing 28 flowers on each side, inlaid in dark red leather, broad inside borders also with inlaid flowers, t. e. g. uncut, enclosed in lined lettered case, by the Hampstead Bindery'. The original binding, with a design by Ricketts — his only contribution to this book — was lost in the re-binding of this copy.

The third portion, sold by auction in October 1919, contained a large-paper copy of John Gray's Silverpoints, one of 25 on hand-made paper, bound in full vellum with a Ricketts design on both covers. This edition was bound by Leighton, Son & Hodge.

The fifth portion, auctioned in 1921, contained another Vale Press book, one of the last volumes issued by Hacon & Ricketts, Thomas Sturge Moore's Danaë (1903). Its provenance was the collection of George Dunn, who died in 1912. This copy was sold in 1915 and acquired by Leighton for six shillings. It was a recent acquisition, and probably intended to be sold.

The sixth portion (1922) contained books issued by the Eragny Press (one volume) and the Kelmscott Press (twenty volumes), and a first edition of Thomas Hardy's Tess (1891), designed by Ricketts. Of this book Leighton owned a copy from a circulation library ('label removed from covers') and an 'ex-library copy'. One Vale Press item was listed in this catalogue: a copy of the pre-Vale edition of Hero and Leander (1894).

Walter James Leighton owned a deluxe copy of one of Ricketts's iconic books (Silverpoints) and a rebound Wilde edition, probably as examples of their binders. There were some commercial books designed by Ricketts. In all likelihood, he owned these books not for literary reasons, but as examples of book art and bookbinding. 

But it was the fourth portion of the auctions that gave away the depth of his Vale Press collection, or, rather, from the stock of his antiquarian bookshop. 

Walter James Leighton
[from: Book-Auction Records,
ed. Frank Karslake (1918)]

Lot number 3809 through lot 3824 contain a total of 49 volumes of Vale Press editions. It is not a complete collection. The Vale Shakespeare is missing in its entirety and Leighton did not have copies of some of the other works either: John Gray's Spiritual Poems (1896) was lacking, as were the editions of Drayton, Arnold, Constable, Browning (Sonnets), Sidney, Shelley (Lyrical Poems), Keats, Rossetti (both titles), Coleridge, Guérin, Cellini, Omar Khayyam, Ricketts (Shannon's lithographs, A Bibliography), Ecclesiastes, and The Kingis Quair.

The list of missing works provides enough evidence that not one genre was completely present: not the typographical manifests, not the illustrated volumes, not the editions of English poets of the nineteenth century, nor the texts of writers from the Renaissance. This makes it plausible that while Leighton had much of the Vale press in the store, he did not strive for a complete collection at home, as a true collector would. 

This is confirmed by the occurrence of multiple copies. Of thirteen volumes he owned two copies (including copies in the other auctions). Of Michael Field's The World at Auction, five copies were auctioned (four of them in the fourth portion) and of John Milton's Early Poems — now a rather rare book — he also had five copies in stock. It is unclear whether these included binding variants (for example, copies in the flame binding, designed for the surviving books after the 1899 fire at the printer's, The Ballantyne Press).

However, the catalogue does show that he did not stock a single copy on vellum, nor copies in bindings designed by Ricketts himself, proof pages, or books bound by contemporary binders.  He sold only the ordinary copies, or, put another way, those ordinary copies had not yet found a buyer.

Catalogue of the Fourth Portion of the Famous Stock of the Late Mr. W. J. Leighton [...].
London, Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 1920, detail of page 536

Walter James Leighton's collection excelled in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, early printed books with woodcuts, fine bindings from several centuries including the modern era. He also collected books from other private presses such as the Ashendene Press and the Doves Press. 

He certainly had gathered a lot of Vale Press books, although we are unaware of his personal predilections, or his reasons to buy some of the Vale Press books in such abundance. The most likely reason for multiple copies of single books will have been his trading spirit rather than his collector's enthusiasm or bibliographic purposes. For then he would also have obtained copies on vellum, or in specially designed bindings. The conclusion must be that he was not a Vale Press collector but a dealer who saw a profit in Vale Press publications.