Wednesday, December 14, 2022

593. A Vale Press Collector: Robert Leighton

The bookbinder and antiquarian bookseller Walter James Leighton whose collection I discussed last week is probably not (directly) related to Robert Leighton, the collector who is the subject this week.

Robert Leighton was born in Lambeth (15 June 1884) and died in Ealing, Middlesex (24 July 1959). In 1918, he married 
Married Janet Wotherspoon.

Binding ticket of Leighton Straker
(posted by Edmund King on Pinterest)

In the 1911 census, Leighton was listed as Managing Director of a wholesale bookbinding factory. Later he was Chairman and Managing Director of Leighton Straker Bookbinding Co. LtdThe firm was an exhibitor at the 1929 British Industrial Fair, and according to their presentation, the company's work included bookbindings in cloth and leather, trade catalogue bindings, book covers for export, loose leaf binders, guard books, and portfolios. Leighton's brother Douglas (1886-1948) was also mentioned as a managing director. The British Library website includes images of some of their bindings (see The British Library, Database of Bookbindings). In the 1930s the firm issued an advertisement leaflet that pointed out their strengths, To Give You Binding Quality at a Thoroughly Economic Price.

Binding by Leighton Straker Bookbinding Co
for James Joyce, Ulysses (1936)

Examples of their work include the binding of James Joyce's Ulysses  (John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1936), featuring a Homeric bow designed by Eric Gill. The limited edition was executed in full vellum, and nine hundred copies were bound in green cloth.

Leighton also acted as a director of The Nonesuch Library Ltd, and from 1952 became responsible for a new limited editions programme. Earlier, Leighton-Straker had been one of the larger stakeholders of The Nonesuch Press (see John Dreyfus, A History of the Nonesuch Press, 1981). Another function Leighton performed was chairman of the Master Binders’ Association.

The Catalogue of Leighton's Collection

As with Walter James Leighton, his collection could be largely made up of exceptional bookbindings, but for the Vale Press editions in his collection, this is only very partially the case.

His book collection was described (as we know, not always adequately and in detail) in the auction catalogue Catalogue of the Valuable and Extensive Library. The Property of the late Sir Robert Leighton [Sold by Order of the Executors]. The First Portion: Private Press Books, Bibliography and Other Modern Books. Including […] Vale Press […] The books are notable for their fine condition […]. London, Sotheby & Co., 9-11 May 1960. The second portion was sold on 18 October 1960.

Leighton possessed 
French and Italian Renaissance and English Restoration bindings, including bindings by or for Farnese, Wynkyn de Worde, Aldine, Elzevir and Baskerville, as well as continental embroidered bindings, examples of the work of  Edwards of Halifax, and a presentation binding for Louis XVIII. 

Leighton also collected specially bound books from the Ashendene Press, Gregynog Press, and Kelmscott Press (including vellum copies and proof pages), but also Bremer Presse, Cranach Presse, Cuala Press, Daniel Press, Doves Press (including vellum or inscribed copies, for example to Annie Cobden-Sanderson), Essex House Press, Golden Cockerell Press, and Lee Priory Press (including a corrected office copy). 

According to a description by Robin Halwas, the top price (£380) was paid by Douglas for a binding by Katherine Adams (on Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, 1913), and a collection of about 250 designs for details of bindings by Cobden-Sanderson was bought by Maggs (lot 210, £260); another of Cobden-Sanderson designs for complete bindings was bought by Quaritch (lot 211, £320).

Leighton's collection of the first hundred Nonesuch books and some later ones was sold by Christie’s (Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, 9 July 2022, lot 61).

Catalogue of the Valuable and Extensive Library.
The Property of the late Sir Robert Leighton
(Sotheby & Co., 1960)
[Collection KB, national library, The Hague]

Robert Leighton's Vale Press Collection

The 1960 catalogue included several books by Ricketts (such as Beyond the Threshold) and also a complete set of The Dial magazine. However, the Vale Press publications officially issued by Hacon & Ricketts between 1896 and 1904 occupied a separate section: 'Vale Press Books', lots 688 to 706.

Was Robert Leighton in possession of a complete set of all official Vale Press editions? It is difficult to establish. If we add up all the books in these lots we arrive at one hundred and three volumes, while a complete set consists of ninety volumes.

Some descriptions of lots include three book titles and then the agonisingly vague statement 'and five others'. Lot 706 contains first 'three others by the same' (Michael Field) alongside three described editions and at the end it says: 'and six others'. 75% of the lot is not specified. Of the 103 volumes of Vale Press books in this auction, a quarter are unidentified.

Since Robert Leighton did have a complete Vale Shakespeare in his bookcase, I assume he owned a complete collection. After all, the titles that were described do not show that certain authors or genres or literary periods are conspicuously missing.

Besides, of some publications he owned multiple copies such as William Blake's Poetical Sketches. His collection also included copies printed on vellum. Of these, he owned Shelley's Lyrical Poems, Rossetti's Hand and Soul, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Lyric Poems, Cellini's autobiography in two volumes, The Parables from the Gospels, and Michael Field's Julia Domna. It is likely that he also had paper copies of these books.

Of some books, he had copies bound by Sarah Prideaux (Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1899), Douglas Cockerell (Michael Field's The Race of Leaves, and Sangorski & Sutcliffe (Thomas Browne's Religio Medici).

Unlike his namesake Walter James, this collection was not one of an antiquarian bookseller, but rather of a collector and bibliophile, whose collection incidentally disintegrated during the auction and cannot be traced: Robert Leighton did not paste a bookplate in his books.