Wednesday, March 1, 2023

604. A Vale Press Collector: Constance Astley (4)

In the catalogue of Astley's collection, The Ashendene Press takes up five pages; The Daniel Press just over one, The Doves Press six; The Eragny Press five-and-a-half, The Essex House Press eight and The Kelmscott Press three-and-a-half. Ricketts's Vale Press also covers the maximum of almost eight pages (pp. 30-37).

Her general collection included other Ricketts-designed books, such as Thomas Hardy's Tess (1891), Wilde's De Profundis (1905) and Shaw's Saint Joan (1924), but his two main commercial designs from the 1890s were missing: Wilde's The Sphinx and John Gray's Silverpoints

On the other hand, she did own copies of the two celebrated predecessors of the Vale Press, the editions of Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894), and the five issues of The Dial (1899-1897).

The Vale Press

Astley's Vale Press collection was described in forty-seven entries. In this section, too, multi-volume works are included as one item. Thus, the thirty-eight-volume Vale Shakespeare is documented in one brief catalogue description.

The Vale Press, like the Doves Press, must have been among her favourites - the collection was entirely complete. Not one edition was missing. All ninety volumes were present.

Moreover, multiple copies were acquired in many cases, adding another thirty-four books to her Vale Press collection that comprised 124 volumes, five or six shelves at least.

The earliest editions of the press and the later Vale Shakespeare were only printed on paper, there were no vellum editions of those books. However, there were thirty-six volumes printed on vellum, and Astley's bookshelves carried no less than seventeen copies printed on vellum. Three of those were accompanied by a second copy on vellum: twenty in all. Not bad for a collector without a system, she owned almost half of all existing vellum Vale Press editions. By now we can establish that her system of collecting private press editions was simple: don't miss an opportunity, buy all the copies you come across.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court Herefordshire

Astley mostly left the books in their original condition. The vellum copy of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, for example, was 'One of 10 copies printed on vellum. Unbound.' We can hope that later owners left it that way, but I dread the worst: unbound copies of vellum editions are now extremely scarce.

Remarkably, Astley did not own a single copy in a unique book binding specially designed by Ricketts for a Vale Press book. However, there were a few Vale Press books in bindings by leading contemporary bookbinders, and, although few in number, all by women bookbinders.

Of Robert Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Astley owned a copy on vellum bound in blue morocco - probably not after a design by Ricketts, and also a paper copy in a binding by 'Miss T.C. Yeatman', as well as another copy on paper, probably in the original white cloth binding. The Yeatman binding was probably commissioned by Astley, as it contains an autograph letter from the binder (according to the Sawyer 1941 sale catalogue).

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam (Vale Press, 1900)
Binding (detail) by Sarah T. Prideaux
[Collection: British Library, London]

At the time the Vale Press was publishing a two-volume Tennyson edition, bookbinder Sarah Prideaux bought two copies which she bound. One set is now in the British Library, the In Memoriam volume of the other set ended up in Lisa Unger Baskin's collection and has since been transferred to Duke University Libraries in Durham, North Carolina. One of these must have been Astley's copies.

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam (Vale Press, 1900)
Binding by Sarah T. Prideaux
[Collection: Duke University, Durham:
from the collection of Lisa Unger Baskin]

Exceptional vellum copies

The books of which she managed to obtain two copies on vellum are:

William Blake, Poetical Sketches (1899): 'Two copies of 8 on vellum'.
Charles Ricketts, A Defence of the Revival of Printing (1899): 'Two copies of ten printed on vellum, one unbound';
Michael Field, The Race of Leaves (1901): 'Two copies of ten printed on vellum. One unbound'.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court Herefordshire

Exceptionally, Astley managed to secure a vellum copy of Michael Field's The World at Auction (1898) - there were only two printed like this. One was left by Charles Shannon and sold in 1937. This cannot have been Astley's copy, as her catalogue was printed in 1928. Copies were sold in 1946 and 1994, these may have been either Shannon's or Astley's copies. The location of one vellum copy is known (to me): Clark Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California. This copy is bound in green morocco. My guess is that this once was Shannon's copy (and, earlier, Ricketts's copy).

Constance Astley ranks among the absolute top Vale Press collectors of the twentieth century.