Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson's Nights: Part One

Colvinian Preamble
In an essay found in his collection: Memories and Notes of Persons and Places 1852-1912 (London: Edward Arnold, 1921), Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), who had been Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and later, the Keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum, reflected upon the nature of the latter position which he held for many years:

For one thing, it is a chief part of his duty to win regard and confidence of private collectors, to help and stimulate them in their pursuits, putting his knowledge at their disposal but making them feel the while that their prime, their binding, duty is to acknowledge such help by destining their collections in the long run to enrich the institution which he serves. It is open to a collector to do one of three things with his treasures after his death: leave them intact to his heirs: leave them to be dispersed by auction, or leave them to enrich some public gallery or museum. . . .The third offers the reward of the permanent recognition which will await his name as that of an enlightened amateur and national or civic benefactor. It is the value and excellence of this last reward which those public guardians of such things whom he may count among his friends are bound with all their power to impress upon him. (p.205).

Colvin was referring to prints, etchings, paintings and other works of art, but it made me think about rare book librarians, books and their collectors. The three choices Colvin mentions are equally applicable to them, and this made me think of the rather interesting dynamic between the specialist—Museum Keeper, or Rare Books Librarian—the seller—Bookseller or Auction house—and the passionate collector. The specialist and the seller seem to have a symbiotic relationship for they benefit from each other in the moment, but they are also competing for the endgame, as they both may be hoping that the collector will think of them when the legal will is made and the decisions of what to do with a collection—whether books or art, or both—are ultimately made. I imagine auction houses win out a great deal of the time—cash flow, it seems, is always in demand, even for the wealthy—therefore keeping collectors and sellers—new and old—taking part in that particular cycle of life. Once a collection, or specific work of art or book, goes to a museum or special library collection, however, collectors and sellers must think that the stock of possibilities has decreased. This must be more truly felt in the world of art when a certain work is donated to a museum thereby diminishing the prospects for private hands.

The rarefied atmosphere at the top-end of art and book collecting is not one familiar to me at all, but it is interesting to read about on occasion. In looking into Robert Louis Stevenson's life, I returned to a memoir of a bookseller who did inhabit that rarefied air somewhat, Walter T. Spencer. His memoir, Forty Years in my Bookshop, edited with an introduction by Thomas Moult (London: Constable & Company, 1923), is an attractively printed and bound issue (Robert Maclehouse and Co., University Press, Glasgow) and somewhat resembles the issues from the publisher T. N. Foulis in its typography, paper and binding, the edges untrimmed and the top edge gilt. Walter T. Spencer's father ran a picture shop that sold prints, drawings and paintings and the son grew up working in the shop, which was a good grounding for opening his own business in the month of June 1883 at 27 New Oxford Street, London. Unlike many booksellers who had to move from location to location , he was fortunate or wise in his choice of location, for he writes: "But through all these changes and chances in this great city I am, I think, one of the few, among booksellers, at any rate, that have pitched an unmoved tent." He describes New Oxford Street as: "a sort of Mecca for the pilgrimage of bibliophiles and picture-hunters, autograph collectors and antiquaries. Here, for long absorbing hours, time has no meaning and the clock ticks in neglect."

I imagine New Oxford Street has changed a great deal over the years, and is not quite what it was, but there is the rather extraordinary James Smith & Sons, a firm which began in 1830 and has been at 53 New Oxford Street since 1857, a visual touchstone for the Victorian Age. One can imagine Sherlock Holmes and Watson rubbing shoulders with Prince Florizel and Col. Geraldine surrounded by sword sticks, dagger canes, Malacca canes, Irish Blackthorns, riding crops, umbrellas and walking sticks of all types. It is quite likely that Spencer being fairly close, purchased an item or two from the firm. Sidney Colvin, Robert Louis Stevenson were also likely customers, although I have to wonder if Louis ever did use an umbrella; certainly not a tightly rolled version so common with bowler hats. I rather imagine he just used a large brimmed bohemian hat and got wet.

Spencer dealt not only in books--mostly of contemporary writers, but of the upper-shelf variety--but also in letters, manuscripts, and personal items connected with authors, as well as prints, drawings and pictures, specifically of the artists who illustrated Charles Dickens. He comes across as keen as Col. Mustard in the library with a paper knife, for he was certainly one to seek out such items for sale. His memoir is no doubt a book well-known to English booksellers and is interesting for the bibliographic gleanings and period values and prices of various books, and it is enjoyable for its many anecdotes and stories of unusual customers and authors. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) dropped by his shop on one occasion in 1885, stereotypically dripping from the rain. His shoe, he told Spencer, had suffered a leak. The bookseller settled the author in a chair to dry out and provided brandy and water. Spencer relates this story of his visit:

I thought it would interest Mr. Stevenson to see a catalogue I had just issued, in which the first edition of his "New Arabian Nights" (two volumes, published in 1882) was listed at 8s 6d. in the original cloth. A moment earlier he had been depressed by the sight on my shelves of some sixty copies of the book, a library surplus which I had purchased from Mudies for a shilling a volume. I can see now the change on his face as he looked up from the catalogue.
"But, Mr. Spencer," he said wistfully, "no-one asks about first editions of my books, do they?"
Poor Stevenson's lack of self-confidence was never justified, for the book gradually increased in price, moving to four guineas, to six, to eight. At the sale of Colonel Prideaux's library I gave 47 pounds for a copy. But neither R. L. S. nor I, as we sat there talking on that rainy day, ever thought I should live to see the day when, knowing how limited is the edition, I had to bid 101 pounds, as I did in 1921, for a book which, thirty-seven years earlier, I had priced at 8s6d. A record experience, surely, in a bookseller's own lifetime.

I imagine that Spencer's 'record experience' has no doubt been broken many times by modern booksellers. The present value of the two volume first edition does not seem to be too high considering a supposedly small print run. In reviewing the online sites, there was a recent listing for the Chatto & Windus first issue, first state for $2500. The New Arabian Nights was Robert Louis Stevenson's first collection of fiction, but not his first attempts in that area. Some of his stories from the early 1870s were destroyed, but a few survived such as the story, When the Devil Was Well which eventually found its way to a typographer in 1921 when The Bibliophile Society of Boston issued a limited edition with an introduction by William P. Trent. It seems to run in the $100 to $150 range. If possession is not a requirement, you can read it here.
Colvinian Serendipity
During the 1870s, Robert Louis Stevenson was still emotionally, psychologically, and financially tethered to his parents, and when his father heard of his son's confessed atheism, RLS was sent to stay with relatives in Suffolk. This minor rift led to the wonderful and important meeting with Sidney Colvin.

Mrs. Frances Sitwell--married, 34 years of age--was staying with the said relatives in Suffolk and was very impressed with RLS and so invited her good friend Sidney Colvin, then at Cambridge, to come and meet him. Colvin wrote of this first meeting, he was twenty-eight, and Louis was twenty-three:

I had landed from a Great-Eastern train at a little country station in Suffolk, and was met on the platform by a stripling in a velvet jacket and straw hat, who walked up with me to the country rectory where he was staying and where I had come to stay. I had lately been appointed Slade Professor at Cambridge; the rectory was that at Cockfield, near Bury St. Edmunds; the host was my much older colleague Professor Churchill Babington, of amiable and learned memory; the hostess was his wife, a grand-daughter of the Rev. Lewis Balfour of Colinton, Midlothian; the youth was her young first cousin by the mother's side, Louis Stevenson from Edinburgh. The first shyness over I realized in the course of that short walk how well I had done to follow the advice of a fellow-guest who had preceded me in the house--to wit Mrs. Sitwell, my wife as she came later to be. She had written to me about this youth, declaring that I should find him a real young genius and urging me to come if I could before he went away. I could not wonder at what I presently learnt--how within an hour of his first appearance at the rectory, knapsack on back, a few days earlier, he had captivated the whole house-hold. To his cousin the hostess, a woman of a fine sympathetic nature and quick, humorous intelligence, he was of course well know beforehand, though she had never seen him in so charming a light as now. With her husband the Professor, a clergyman of solid antiquarian and ecclesiastical knowledge and an almost Pickwickian simplicity of character corresponding to his lovable rotund visage and innocently beaming spectacles--with the Professor, "Stivvy," as he called his wife's young cousin, was already something of a favourite. (Memories and Notes, pp. 102-03).

There was a rapport between the two young men, so much so that a year later Colvin was backing Louis's membership in the Savile Club. Started in 1868 by Auberon Herbert, The Savile Club's initial principles were "(1) A thorough simplicity in all arrangements and (2) The mixture of men of different professions and opinions." (The Gentlemen's Clubs of London by Anthony LeJeune and Malcolm Lewis, Dorset Press: 1984; p. 260.) It was ideally suited to Louis's talent of conversation, storytelling, and conviviality for the long communal dining table provided an environment for robust and creative interaction while the members and guests lunched or dined on what was considered rather casual or simple fair, roast beef. Their cold apple tart might have interested Mycroft Holmes, but not the garrulous nature of the club. It was first known as the 'New Club" but upon moving to a house on Savile Row, they adopted the street name. It moved again in 1882 to a house in Piccadilly and then again in 1927 to Brook St. where the club resides today. Robert Louis Stevenson was familiar with the Savile Row and Piccadilly locations. Edmund Gosse who was introduced to RLS by Sidney Colvin recalled in an essay in his book Sihouettes (1925): "Sir Sidney Colvin, ever since 1871 an officer of the club, of which he is still a trustee, is undoubtedly its present father. Young members are sometimes persuaded to believe that he was its founder as well, the initials S. C. being confidently pointed to." (p. 378). The initials for 'social club' and 'soldalitas convivium' as Gosse pointed out at the beginning of his essay would have backed up that fanciful claim. Gosse recalls fond memories of his experiences at the club:

The conversations in the 'eighties in which the two Stevensons--R. L. S. and his wonderful cousin R. A. M. S.--took the predominant part, were not so vociferous nor so purely anecdotal. Day after day, these met at the luncheon-table with, to name only the dead, Andrew Lang, W. E. Henley, William Minto, H. J. Hood, sometimes Coventry Patmore and Austin Dobson. . . .The talk was not noisy when these men met in the absolute liberty of 15 Savile Row, but it was worthy of the finest traditions of eager, cultivated communication. (p. 380).
His dashing cousin Robert Allan, 'Bob', Stevenson, was a handsome, adventurous figure, an artist, a talented musician, attractive to women, and full of fantastic stories and concepts. He was instrumental in introducing RLS to the bohemian aspects of Paris and the south of France, and it was his idea which inspired the initial stories in RLS's New Arabian Nights. . . .

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