Wednesday, March 8, 2023

605. A Vale Press Collector: Constance Astley (5)

At the end of the year 1941, Chas J. Sawyer in Grafton Street, London, sold Constance Astley's collection - without mentioning her name - via catalogue No. 166. Some Vale Press items were listed on pages 8, 9 and 10, but most were described in a separate section 'Vale Press' on pages 55 to 59. The catalogue does not contain all special copies from the collection and it describes books that were apparently not yet part of her collection in 1928. 

The Book Beautiful.
Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Books not listed in the sales catalogue

Duplicate copies on paper are not mentioned. This is easily explained: the description of one copy was sufficient and if several customers came for it, several copies happened to be available. This is not exceptional.

Only one of the two paper copies of Apuleius' Latin edition is therefore listed, and the same applies, for example, to the three-volume Shelley edition.

What may be surprising is that thirteen copies on vellum are not included in this catalogue. Surely inclusion could have made the Christmas catalogue much more attractive. A reason for the omission is anyone's guess. It is most likely that Sawyer already had buyers in mind, or, that collectors had already scooped up a few prizes. 

However, because of this, both vellum copies of Blake's Poetical Sketches are missing, and exactly the same goes for Ricketts's Defence of the Revival of Printing and Michael Field's The Race of Leaves. The impression of Astley's collection is thus a lot poorer, simpler, less complete than it actually was.

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166, page 55
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Books not listed in Astley's library catalogue

Conversely, Sawyer's catalogue includes some Vale Press books not catalogued in 1928; Constance Astley probably acquired these between 1928 and her death in 1940.

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166, page 9
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Maurice Guérin's The Centaur. The Bacchante is described in Astley's catalogue as an ordinary copy, and it is described in Sawyer's catalogue on page 57 (no. 163): 'With woodcuts, 8vo, buckram'. But on page 9 - in a section for 'Superb Modern Bindings' - a second copy is listed:

Niger morocco extra, broad gilt line borders enclosing blind tooling on sides, title of book stamped in blind on upper cover, gilt edges by Florence Paget with her initials and date 1902 on inside lower cover.

This - see previous blogs - is another book binding designed and executed by a female binder.

Although I noted earlier that, in 1928, Astley did not own any book bindings specially designed by Ricketts, she apparently acquired one later. Sawyer describes a special copy of Constable's Poems and Sonnets (not in the special section for bookbindings, but in the Vale Press section):

white pigskin, gilt and blind tooled to a design by C. Ricketts

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941, catalogue No. 166, page 56
[The Grolier Club, New York]

One copy of this book in such a binding is known to exist, and it is now part of Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Cambridge.

Present locations of books from Astley's collection

The above copy of Constable's Poems and Sonnets in Harvard may once have been Constance Astley's - unless several copies (unknown to me) feature this Ricketts-designed pigskin binding.

The two volumes of Tennyson's poems, bound by Sarah T. Prideaux, either ended up in the British Library or in Duke University Library (where, incidentally, only one of the two volumes is found).

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941, catalogue No. 166, page 10
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Beyond these two items, it cannot be determined at all in which libraries her Vale Press books ended up. (Some other private presses numbered all copies and, with a lot of patience,  these can be traced back to her collection.) 

This lavish private collection, which led a semi-secret existence during the collector's lifetime, ended up in an untraceable collection after her death. A journey from invisibility to obscurity.

Thanks are due to Scott Elwood, The Grolier Club, New York, for providing scans of the Sawyer catalogue.