Wednesday, August 9, 2023

627. An Unopened Copy of A House of Pomegranates

A number of years after the first private presses were established - concentrating on William Morris's Kelmscott Press and the first generation after that - a peculiar craze arose around rarity of these books. This was the fashion of the untouched book, the book as it came from the bindery to the collector who did not cut open the sections, but left them unopened, untouched and thus unread. It was a kind of tribute to the ideal book, where the object had become more important than the text. 

Copies of private press books were subsequently promoted in the trade as 'unopened' and examples are rare, but sufficiently well known. The curious thing is that less rare books also sometimes turn up in unopened condition, giving them a unique appeal.

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891)
Cover, designed by Charles Ricketts

Last month, an unopened copy of Oscar Wilde's A House of Pomegranates was sold by Sotheby's in New York, hammer price $4,500, a substantial price for a not uncommon book that, dependent on the state and provenance, can be priced from around £500 to £2,500.

The Sotheby copy was in an excellent state: 'Original green linen backed cream boards stamped in pale red and gilt with designs by Ricketts, including a peacock, fountain, and a basket of pomegranates, spine gilt-lettered with a few small pomegranate designs, decorated endpapers; slight browning to edges, some minor spotting to lower board. Housed in custom case and folding chemise'. Moreover, this copy was 'Unopened'.

Unopened copies of this book are rare. There is one in the Norman Colbeck Collection at The University of British Columbia. Unopened copies were sold by Sotheby's in July 1925 and Hodgsons (1926) (both acquired by Quaritch), again, 'a slightly worn' copy by Sotheby's (1979) (acquired by Warrack & Perkins, obviously not this copy). There might be three or four unopened copies in all.

Originally said to be a children's book, but marketed as a luxury item, the publishers  had a thousand copies of the book printed, each priced at 21s. 

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891)
Copies of the first binding (left) and second binding (right)

There are two binding states of the book and the Sotheby copy belongs to the original binding state. It has a pale yellowish green spine and the boards are covered with greyish yellow cloth. The second binding state has a darker greyish green spine and light brown cloth boards. The plates by Charles Shannon have been pasted on white linen guards in the first binding state copies. For the second binding states paper guards were used for this. There are some more differences, but these suffice to identify copies.

The Sotheby copy not only displays the colour scheme of the first binding state, but also shows the insertion of the plates as called for in the first binding state.

This implies that an early buyer of the book, during Wilde's life time, and even during Wilde's pre-prison years, acquired a copy of the book, kept it closed, and never used a knife to cut open the folded sections. For a book like this, it is astonishing, and then to have survived in this condition for more than a hundred years. Unopened, commercially produced books - this is an under-researched book historical branch.