Wednesday, February 15, 2023

602. A Vale Press Collector: Constance Astley (2)

Following Constance Astley's death in 1940 - with her personal property valued at £58,151 - several auctions of household goods and books took place, including a two-day auction organised in 1944 by Russell, Baldwin and Bright held at Brinsop Court.

'Brinsop Court Sale'
(Kingston Times, 25 November 1944)

English and Italian furniture and Chinese pottery changed hands, but so did 'books', according to the Kingston Times (25 November 1944):

Two hundred lots of books on offer made considerably more than current list prices, top price being £40 for a history of Oriental carpets.

In 1947, her son, Colonel P.R. Astley, sold more antiques, including silver, glass, pictures and prints. (Kingston Times, 8 February 1947).

However, her collection of special editions of English private presses had left Brinsop Court earlier, shortly after her death. The entire collection was sold, without a preface about the collector, anonymously, in London by the antiquarian firm of Chas. J. Sawyer Ltd. in Grafton Street. The catalogue, dated 1941 and numbered 166, was entitled "The Book Beautiful" and the subtitle described the collection roughly as:

(Many Printed on Vellum)
Richly Decorated Bindings
Modern Illuminated Manuscripts
forming a part of a 
interspersed with
Books of General Interest
eminently suitable for
Christmas and New Year Gifts

Constance Astley apparently never had a bookplate made - I have not found one example - not for her private press books or her ornithological books, nor for the general library at Brinsop Court. (An earlier occupant, Dearman Edwards, did paste one in his books.) Curiously, her young son from her first marriage apparently did have a bookplate. When he was ten years old, in 1901, they lived at Benham Valence Manor, and from his boarding school he wrote to her: 'Mr. Hansel the master in this form has got a collection of book plates, and wants me to give him one of mine, so please send me one for him when you get back to Benham' (Richard Vincent Sutton, A Record of his Life together with Extracts from his Private Papers, 1922, p. 11). This son later shared her habit or reading. During the Great War she sent him books; on 6 September 1918, he received The Mikado's Empire and a novel, and read the former 'which is interesting'. (p. 181, 184).

The absence of a bookplate makes it almost impossible to find out where her books went after her death and Sawyer's sale, with a few exceptions. (More on that in a following blog).

Catalogue of the Library
of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court,

Her own catalogue of the collection, Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley at Brinsop Court, Herefordshire (1928) contains a preface in which Constance Astley says something but disappointingly little about her passion. For instance, we do not know when she started her collection of modern private press books.

The correct function of a preface of this sort is, I believe, by hints and suggestions to act as a guide to beginners in the fascinating pursuit of book collecting; but alas! I am incapable of this, as I have followed no system and had no arrière pensée as to future values - but merely followed my own personal likings. Many of the book bought in my youth, and even at a later date, are worthless from a monetary point of view. I well remember my excitement when for the first time in my life a present of money (£1, to be exact) was given to me, and how it was promptly spent on books! and ever since that day any available cash has always gone the same way.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court, Herefordshire 

She describes how collecting books for their content slowly turned into collecting books for their outward form.

From my childhood onwards I have been an omnivorous reader (I remember on one occasion getting through three books - not novels - on a journey to Italy), and I began by buying just the  books I wanted to read, with complete indifference as to print and format. Then I began to think of nice bindings to make my book-shelves decorative - after which I developed a taste for books well produced and pleasant to read and handle, and last of all came the love of fine printing, a passion which still holds me in its grip. 

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court, Herefordshire 

That section of private press editions dominates the 1928 catalogue and occupies the first thirty-seven pages. With her catalogue, she also, in a way, commemorates her (second) husband's hobby:

The ornithological section of my library owes its inception to my husband, Hubert Astley, whose knowledge and love of birds was well-known.

He probably never collected books, although he was said to be 'a finished linguist, artist, and connoisseur of many forms of art' (Richard Vincent Sutton, A Record of his Life together with Extracts from his Private Papers, 1922, p. 16). Constance Astley merely took her second husband's hobby as the starting point for a new nucleus in a growing book collection. While he was busy outside with his bird collection, she was studying inside the library.

At the end of her preface, she explains that she loved dogs and hunting immensely, but that her age now made such outdoor hobbies more difficult to pursue and that she was therefore all the more grateful to be able to read about these subjects in her library. She also hoped her legacy would inspire her son (from her second marriage):

... when he has out-grown his taste for the works of Edgar Wallace!

Apparently not. After her death, the shelves were soon emptied and the books left for London to be dispersed to all corners of the world.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court, Herefordshire 

Sawyer knew that there was plenty of interest among passionate collectors of private press books. However modestly she spoke of the collection, she had collected almost all books from the important private presses. She denied it, but surely she had a 'system'! Her collection stood lonely at the top, containing almost all deluxe editions of the Ashendene Press, Daniel Press, Doves Press, Eragny Press, Essex House Press, Kelmscott Press, and Vale Press.

Thanks are due to Scott Ellwood of the Grolier Club in New York who kindly provided scans of the 1941 Sawyer catalogue.