The Galsworthy Bubble and other Freaks of Fashion

The Galsworthy Bubble and other Freaks of Fashion
(The text of a talk given under the auspices of the London University Institute of English Studies and the Rare Book Society at Senate House in April 2015)

Forgive me please if I begin with a sort of autobiographical preface, for it was only after I had elected to talk about fashion in book collecting that it occurred to me that I am the very last person qualified to talk about fashion of any sort, and I owe you, by way of apology, an explanation. For a long time I have lived in rural north Cornwall, far from the fashionable hurly-burly. Thomas Hardy passed the top of our road in 1870 and in a poem described the place as a ‘moorland dim and dun / That travellers shun’, and in 1879 the exact same spot was characterised by Murray’s Handbook for Travellers as a ‘desolate waste’. Apart from the wind turbines, not very much has changed. So much for geography which, though perhaps not strictly relevant to book collecting, has certainly kept me to a large extent immune from – some might say ignorant of – the vagaries of current trends.

As a bookseller too I must own to have been dismally unfashionable. I early evinced a peculiar enthusiasm for the lesser known Victorian poets – the minor ones though not the utterly minimal – and though of course as a country bookseller I must deal with whatever books come my way, I have remained loyal to them. For a while this strange proclivity stood me in good stead. The bookseller Chris Kohler was then – we are talking about the mid-1970s – amassing a vast collection of nineteenth century poetry and, so long as it was in verse and published between 1800 and 1900, he would buy it. Happy days indeed. But mediocre verse, initially cheap and ubiquitous, became fashionable, prices climbed, and soon others were scrambling onto our bandwagon. Poetry that was undistinguished or just plain bad commanded for a while a ridiculous premium; but the interest I am glad to say gradually tailed off and I find myself pretty much marooned on my now distinctly unfashionable little island – a desolate waste if you like – accompanied only by the ghosts of departed poets and the few good folk who still share my interests. I suppose this in itself illustrates how a fashion may come about: a single bookseller with a single idea influenced the market in old poetry for decades thereafter. I will end this personal preamble by saying that the remarks that follow are concerned almost exclusively with the collecting of relatively modern English literature as it developed over a particular fifty-year period in Britain and America – from about 1880 to 1930.

Having said which – do any of you collect natural history? I don’t, and I have absolutely no specialist knowledge of the subject, though I suppose if I was confronted with a four-foot-high book full of hand-coloured bird plates I would probably realise I was onto something good; but the other day I was called out to view a miscellaneous collection which included a shelf full of Collins’ New Naturalist series. They were generally in nice condition and most of them were in dust-wrappers. Now I don’t know much but I knew enough to know that those are worth buying – or at least I thought I did. I made what I hoped was an adequate offer for them, together with a couple of boxes of other items, and drove away happily enough. Back home I put them aside for a colleague who likes such things and who turns up on my doorstep every so often. In due course he paid me a visit and I proudly presented him with my box of New Naturalists. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, stroking his chin. ’Why, what’s wrong?’ ‘Oh dear. You just can’t sell these any more. You might still shift a few of the scarcer ones, but generally speaking the bottom has fallen out of the market.’ ‘So how much can you give me?’ ‘Sorry Charlie,’ he said, ‘I don’t really want them at all.’ So – sadder, wiser, poorer – I have shipped them off to auction.

Why, I wondered afterwards, had the bottom fallen out of this particular market? Why, above all,  had no one told me? It got me thinking, and I realised I had had an object lesson in fashion. Collins’ New Naturalists are excellent books, written by the foremost experts in their fields, well illustrated and handsomely produced. The elapse of five or ten years has not suddenly rendered them any less well written, less authoritative or less attractive as physical objects. The obvious theory is surely this: those who used so avidly to collect them are growing old. They liked them and sought them and bought them because they were the books they grew up with. They were the books that in the 1950s or 60s first nurtured their enthusiasm for birds or bats or butterflies. The series continues, but those to whom the earlier volumes, published between, say, 1945 and 1970, had a special appeal are nearing the end of their book-collecting careers and slowing down. They have their copies, or they have, in the natural course of events and for the usual reasons, ceased to buy or perhaps, alas, ceased to be; but it was, I think, their friendly memories of those books which created, in a quiet way, a small fashion in book collecting. A generation passes and its fashions evaporate with it. On reflection, I should have thought of that before I bought the damn things.

Here’s another instance of how our early experience of books and reading can kindle a fashion. I have been dealing over many years with the enormous library of the novelist John Fowles – a collection so huge that it took three men ten hours of hard labour under a broiling sun to empty his house in Lyme Regis of its books. We had to send out for more packing cases and, sometime in mid-afternoon, a second removal van. Fowles published only half a dozen novels, and of those it was surely The Magus, which came out in 1966, which made the greatest impression. It was both an immediate popular success and a seminal work of magical realism and it appealed most especially to the young. I issued a first catalogue of Fowles’ books in 2007. Note the date – 2007, just over forty years after the appearance of The Magus. I cannot tell you how many messages I had from customers all saying, basically, ‘that book changed my life.’ Fowles has some serious fans. I became for a while a sort of agony aunt for Fowles aficionados. I found myself the receptacle for people’s private memories of what The Magus had meant to them, where they were when they first read it, how it had been for them both a sacred text and a rite of passage. And who were these people? They were, all of them, men – men of sixty plus, men who had read and been profoundly influenced by Fowles’ book in their impressionable late teens and early twenties. John Fowles had defined their era and changed their lives and they wanted, in some way, to pay tribute both to the writer and to their younger selves. I truly believe that if Fowles’ books had come on the market now – just eight years later – they would have found far fewer buyers. Again, the tide of fashion rises and recedes in the course of a short generation.

The same house that yielded my disappointing New Naturalists also produced a Hobbit – every home should have one – and he too had something to teach me about fashion. There he was, sitting on the shelf, in a ragged jacket with a chunk missing from the top of its spine revealing a sadly faded patch of cloth beneath. It didn’t look like a 1937 edition or anywhere near it, and it wasn’t, but I took it down anyway and had a look at the back of the title-page. If you’re a bookseller, you can’t help it: it’s a Pavlovian reflex. ‘Eighth impression. 1956.’ I put it back. Then I took it down again. Well, you never know. I popped him in the box. I didn’t pay him much attention for a few days, but then I thought I’d better check whether it was worth listing on the net, or if it should join those other waifs and strays awaiting less honourable disposal. There were six copies of the eighth impression on offer, so evidently not a rare book; but at what prices! Well – I shall ask you: what prices? Maybe a bookseller who lives more in the swing of things would have been less surprised. You can buy a seriously dilapidated copy without a dust-wrapper for £150 – that was the cheapest; you can if you are so minded have a copy with the front end-paper and the half-title torn out for £300; but if you are really serious about eighth impressions of The Hobbit you can pay – wait for it – £1,400. OK, internet prices can be a joke and after all the books are only there because nobody has bought them, but again it got me thinking. What other novels were published in 1937? Virginia Woolf’s The Years, for one. By the 1950s it had reached its third edition and you can buy a decent copy of that for ten quid. Of about the same vintage is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The price of a 1950s hardback reprint – under £20. Are Woolf and Waugh unfashionable? Is their literary achievement generally viewed as inferior to Tolkien’s? You can answer these questions yourselves. No: Tolkien is a cult for all sorts of reasons but principally, I think, because he is read by twelve-year-olds. Readers come to Tolkien at a younger and still more impressionable age than they come to Fowles, let alone Waugh, or Woolf. The fashion for Fowles may wax and wane, but The Hobbit goes ever on. He is always in fashion. The moral seems to be, our valuable early impressions make for unusually valuable eighth impressions.

I do not in the least mean to tease the Tolkienistes. I understand completely the impulse to own a favourite book that is, chronologically speaking, as near as possible to its source; I am merely puzzled by the extremes to which that impulse seems to propel us. Cults are simply fashions that catch fire but they breed strange extremes, in book collecting as in other fields. Here’s another instance. Jane Austen might well be called a cult author: she inspires in some the kind of intense personal affection that is not so very far from the enthusiasm of others for the hairy-footed denizens of Middle Earth, and it does not at all surprise me that her first editions can fetch anything from five to fifty thousand. I can appreciate too why the early one-volume editions of her books issued in Bentley’s Standard Novels series in the 1830s can now command prices approaching a thousand pounds; we are in shouting distance, as it were, of her lifetime. But another generation passed, and Bentley began a new fiction series called Bentley’s Favourite Novels. These are good-looking, well-made books, soberly clad, solid and respectable, in a uniform format that seems ideally suited to the effusions of Mrs Henry Wood and Rosa Nouchette Carey; indeed the series is devoted largely to the work of Victorian lady authors. But Bentley also included Jane Austen; and the influence of fashion dictates that the six Austen volumes (out of a series which ran to 160 volumes) are ten, twenty, even a hundred times more expensive than most of their companions. They are not particularly uncommon and they are of no textual significance whatsoever, but Janeites will pay dearly for a seat in the gods – even one behind a pillar – rather than risk missing the show entirely.

You are sitting at the breakfast table one sunny morning in the summer of 1929. Somewhere between the kippers and the devilled kidneys you unfold your newspaper, and read as follows: ‘Prices which two or three years ago would have been regarded as preposterously high were this afternon at Sotheby’s cheerfully paid for first editions of books by present-day writers. An important collection of the earlier works of Mr. John Galsworthy, O.M., included Jocelyn, 1898 . . . £210; A Man of Devon, 1901, £155 (Moggs [sic]); From the Four Winds, 1897, £125; and Villa Rubein, 1900, the first issue of the editio princeps, £88 (Quaritch) . . . It will be recalled that a few weeks ago the original autograph of Mr. Galsworthy’s play Loyalties was sold by auction . . . for £3,300.’ We need some sort of historical context to make sense of these sums. The lowest price quoted in the article is the niggardly £88 paid by Quaritch for Villa Rubein. Today’s equivalent of £88 is approximately £5,000. £125 for From the Four Winds translates to around £7,000; A Man of Devon at £155 would be £9,000 and Jocelyn at £210 equates to around £12,000. In other words, if you had bought all four books at that Sotheby’s sale in June 1929 you would have spent £578 or, in today’s terms, in the region of £33,000. Now let us imagine that it was not you but your great-grandparents who bought those books. They have been carefully kept in that glass-fronted bookcase in that selfsame breakfast room and handed down from generation to generation and there is a vague but confident family tradition that they are ‘worth something’. They are in pristine condition – though of course your great-grandparents (if the previous owner had not already done so) would have removed those ungainly and extraneous dust-wrapppers and thrown them in the waste paper basket. And now at last the time has come to claim your inheritance. Your four Galsworthy titles are going to be worth – what? Well, allowing for inflation alone you are surely guaranteed a substantial five-figure sum. Let’s see what they’re worth now: Villa Rubein? £60. That can’t be right, surely? From the Four Winds? £70. A Man of Devon? £300 – that’s a bit more like it. And Jocelyn, the most expensive of the lot at £210 in 1929 so what we hope will be £12,000 now? £90. So your honoured forebears’ 1929 investment of £578 has increased to – £640 in 2015; which in historical terms is something under £11.50 – and somewhat short of the £33,000 you were expecting.

Remember that newspaper article also mentioned the sale of a Galsworthy manuscript? It made £3,300. That would be about £180,000 in today’s money. Luckily your great-grandparents didn’t buy that one, because a few months later disaster struck. At the beginning of September share prices began to slide and at the end of October the market crashed and the decade of the Great Depression had begun. By May of 1930 The Spectator was reporting that ‘the phenomenal Galsworthy boom reached its peak last year and prices have slumped alarmingly. Copies of A Man of Property [1906 – the first volume of the Forsyte Saga] are now to be bought for £55 that last year fetched about double that sum.’ Turning to the books of George Bernard Shaw, the same article notes that ‘There has been a slump in Shaviana recently, but this is the direct result of the financial crisis in America and prices will go up again in time.’ Well of course they did, but not that much and not for many, many years. Before that, the situation deteriorated still further and if you had been buying books – especially first editions of modern authors – specifically as an investment, you would have taken a serious knock. Auction prices quoted in Andrew Block’s Book Collector’s Vade Mecum of 1932 illustrate yet again the spectacular collapse in values that took place in the two years after 1929. Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale dropped from £90 to £20; Treasure Island from £148 to £35; Kipling’s two Jungle Books from £66 to £9.10s.; Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly from £28 to £8. In other words, serious collectors of these authors and many more like them sustained a loss of about 75%, a loss that in most cases has never been recovered. As for booksellers, the late Bill Fletcher liked to tell the story of selling a copy of Villa Rubein which had cost him £100 in order to raise the cash for a Sunday joint, while the family firm’s premises quickly dwindled from two establishments – in Oxford Street and Porchester Terrace – to a single shop in Bloomsbury and eventually to a private house in Enfield.

Of course booksellers continued to sell books and collectors went on collecting; but the bubble had burst. I am not going to attempt any profound analysis of the reasons behind the rise and rise of book prices over the previous thirty or forty years, but we can at least trace something of the history of that giddy ascent which saw so much money – much of it American money – being invested in old books, and invested in a speculative way which had never previously been seen.

The possession of rare and beautiful things defines the owner as in some way rare and beautiful. Possession of rare and beautiful books defines their possessor as rare, yes, beautiful – perhaps – but also educated, refined, genteel, intellectual. Book collecting had itself become a fashion. Some of the great aristocratic and what one might call the landed libraries of the Old World continued to enlarge and enhance their holdings, but from somewhere about the 1880s it was the newly educated and the newly rich in particular who came to see the acquisition of rare books as a badge not only of wealth, but of taste and intellectual distinction; and if one badge can signal all three qualities at once, then why not wear it. It was an elite club, yet it was one that anyone could join. And whereas collectors of a previous generation could simply presume a familiarity with classical history, classical art and classical languages, new recruits needed only be able to read English. The club was good enough for the likes of Folger and Huntington, Lilly and Widener and Pierpont Morgan, but you too, even with your modest means, could become a member. And as more members queued to get in, the excitement, the prestige and the prices gradually mounted. In 1918 A. Edward Newton published his Amenities of Book-Collecting, an anecdotal and (in my opinion at least) irritatingly garrulous introduction to this fashionable new sport. It sold, quite rapidly, 25,000 copies. In 1924 the Irish-American collector John Quinn sold his library at the Anderson Galleries in New York. It was a curious sale because the vast majority of his books had been bought new, the manuscripts acquired from their still-very-much-alive authors. Prices were modest or even disappointing, but the auction nevertheless confirmed beyond doubt that the simple but discerning purchase of a new book could also be an investment, and over the next five years the market blossomed – or perhaps one should say inflated – with remarkable speed. Up and up went the balloon, culminating in the Jerome Kern sales of 1927 and 1929 – an incidence of perfect tempo if ever there was one – which netted the composer-collector a sum equivalent nowadays to about $23 million or fifteen-and-a half million pounds. Collecting books, when all’s said and done, is only a hobby; but the solemnity with which it had by then begun to be pursued is I think nicely indicated by our 1929 newspaper article. Did you notice the use of the phrase ‘editio princeps’ applied to Galsworthy’s Villa Rubein? It’s a somewhat portentous term nowadays which might perhaps be deployed for a 1470 Horace or the Aldine Aeschylus of 1518, but I don’t think we would talk of the editiones principes of, say, Ian McEwan.

Bubbles always burst. No one seemed to remember the tulip mania of the 1630s or the railway bonanza of the 1840s. Out-and-out speculators in brand new literature had allowed no time for reputations to rise or to sink, no time for the passage of years to indicate which books were genuinely rare or which were simply suffering from a temporary shortage. They were not harking back to some Edwardian equivalent of Collins’ New Naturalists or Fowles’ Magus which had, even if only to a small extent, stood the test of time, but were all too eagerly anticipating the continued rise in value of this week’s John Masefield or next week’s latest story by that brilliant new novelist Francis Brett Young. It was not uncommon for collectors in this field to buy two copies of a new publication – one to read, the other to lay down.

How on earth did we get there? What was the ultimate source of all this nonsense? I think I know, but I must become autobiographical again. I began my bookselling career with Bertram Rota, a firm that since its foundation in 1923 had been at the forefront of the modern first editions market. Indeed it might be said almost to have invented it – certainly as a speciality. It was I suppose because Rotas had arrived so early on the scene that, when I joined it in 1971, the definition of modern was so surprisingly broad. The 1890s were still modern and indeed as a result of the 1966 V&A Beardsley exhibition were enjoying an enormous resurgence in popularity. The early works of writers like Robert Bridges were modern. John Addington Symonds, though his first book was published in 1862 and he was dead by 1893, was still considered modern. Swinburne was modern. At Bertram Rota in 1971 even the Preraphaelites were modern. This strange asynchronicity is I think significant. Bear with me and I shall explain why.  

I can’t be certain of it, but I very much suspect that one of the formative books of the young Cyril Bertram Rota’s life of bookselling as he learnt the trade behind the counter of his uncle Percy Dobell’s shop was a guide by one J.H. Slater called Early Editions: a bibliographical survey of the works of some popular modern authors. Slater’s book, published in 1894, has I think a fair claim to be the first attempt at a manual of modern firsts. It appeared in response to a newly discernable rise in interest in collecting the literature of the current and the previous generation. Only a couple of years before Slater had specifically excluded all discussion of ‘modern works in print’ from his Library Manual, but there were straws in the wind already and now he was keen to catch at them. In 1886 Frederick Locker-Lampson’s Rowfant Library catalogue had listed and described with the full panoply of bibliographical ceremony the works of living writers like Browning, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, Tennyson and Swinburne; and a number of notable rarities by these very authors had recently begun to surface at auction and had attracted high prices and a measure of public interest. Even publishers were becoming aware of the potential value of their products beyond their printed texts. The incipient Bodley Head, in particular, began in 1887 to issue well designed books in specifically limited editions which would soon be advertised, enticingly, with the advice that ‘very few remain’. The message was clear: buy it now, for it will soon be a collector’s piece.

Slater begins his Early Editions with a placatory nod to the gods of fashion: ‘Early in the century it was the classics – Latin or Greek – and other scholarly volumes that chiefly attracted the book-man, just as in remoter times the ponderous commentaries of the Fathers held almost undisputed sway.’ Now, however, ‘if there be a fashion in acquistiveness, there is little doubt that books of the kind mentioned in the following pages are collected mainly in accordance with its dictates.’ Slater then goes on to discuss the works of thirty-three writers, all of them judged either by himself or by others to be, in the terms of his sub-title, both ‘popular’ and ‘modern’. It is a surprise, even in 1894, to find Burns and Shelley classed as ‘modern’, and nowadays one might raise an eyebrow to see Austin Dobson or the aforesaid Frederick Locker-Lampson described as ‘popular’. Of the rest, some have fallen from grace for interestingly different reasons. Fewer collectors I suspect now pursue the novels of, for instance, Charles Lever or Harrison Ainsworth, not because of any very marked alteration in literary taste, but because the plates by Cruikshank and ‘Phiz’ and other artists that were once their principal attraction have aged poorly and are now apt to be unpleasantly blotched and discoloured: few can relish the contemplation of these leprous engravings and it is hard to imagine that they will ever be fashionable again. Similarly the illustrations that formed so large a part of the appeal of the works of Surtees and Nimrod are not much to current taste, and I fancy not so many of us now ride to hounds. We still like the aquatints that adorn the books of William Combe (of Dr Syntax fame) but does anyone assiduously collect the works of Gilbert à Beckett, issue points and all?

Other authors on whom Slater concentrates include some of much more permanent reputation: Arnold, the two Brownings, George Eliot, William Morris, Rossetti, Ruskin, Stevenson, Swinburne and Tennyson, all authors of proven literary worth who were also proving to be worth money. Slater was making no attempt to set a fashion; he was following one, and recommending his readers, amateurs of both literature and bibliophily, to do likewise. Rare works by contemporary authors were becoming, within a limited circle of collectors, more and more desirable and Slater provided a signpost for the aspirant: these authors are a safe bet and these books are worth buying. And he took his responsibilities seriously, warning his readers that a pamphlet of poems by George Eliot entitled Brother and Sister: Sonnets ‘is supposed to be a fictitious and ante-dated edition reprinted from “The Legend of Jubal and other poems” . . . in which the Sonnets perhaps really first appeared.’ In that tortuous ‘perhaps really’ one detects a certain puzzlement. Slater was uneasy about it, unsure of his facts; but luckily help was at hand and in a last-minute addendum to his preface he was able to set the collector’s mind at rest: ‘I am assured . . . on the highest authority, that there is no foundation for the assertion’.  Many of you here will know that the authority whom Slater is quoting was none other than Thomas James Wise, collector, consultant, agent, editor, bibliographer, thief and forger, and himself the perpetrator of the questionable George Eliot pamphlet. Slater’s book lists and in doing so validates a number of Wise’s other forgeries, a process carried further a couple of years later in the pages of the otherwise respectable Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century (1896), nominally edited by Wise and the unsuspecting W.R. Nicoll, but in fact largely the work of Wise’s co-conspirator Harry Buxton Forman.

Every fashion needs an arbiter. Every fashionable book or author must at the outset bear the imprimatur of a trusted or admired authority. I am not about to declare that T.J. Wise and H. Buxton Forman were the arbiters of a fashion that a generation later was to see the hyperinflation and eventual implosion of current book values, though they did perhaps supply the nihil obstat. They certainly jumped on the bandwagon very soon after it began to roll and gather speed and by a sleight of hand that still seems remarkable they managed to represent themselves as trusted and admired authorities and contrived to steer that bandwagon in a certain direction. No, Wise was not the arbiter, nor was Buxton Forman. They were merely dedicated followers of fashion. The two who set the trend were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

I shall now attempt to justify this shocking assertion. Neither Rossetti nor Swinburne are generally considered book collectors in the accepted sense, though Swinburne in particular amassed a large and impressive library; but they both exhibited to a marked degree what one might call book collector’s nose – an instinct for the rarities of undeservedly neglected literature. Swinburne hunted out border ballads and nursery rhymes, old dramatists and French modernists. He shared Rossetti’s enthusiasm for the forgotten Joseph and his Brethren, the dramatic poem of 1824 by Keats’ friend Charles Wells – so much so that he contacted the author, still alive but having produced virtually no new work for fifty years, wrote an introduction to a revised edition of Wells’ poem, and in 1876 persuaded his own publishers to re-issue it. Rossetti meanwhile was one of the earliest re-discoverers of a rather bigger fish: William Blake. In 1847, aged just nineteen, he bought the famous Blake notebook now very properly known as the Rossetti Manuscript. It was being offered for sale by Samuel Palmer’s brother, who seems to have been working as an attendant at the British Museum. At any rate, it was an opportunity too good to be missed and Rossetti knew it. He absolutely had to have it, but he had no money, a situation by no means unknown in the annals of book collecting; so he borrowed the requisite ten shillings from his sensible brother William and the deal was done. William never got his ten bob back, but Gabriel had proved himself a true collector and Blake’s book was saved for posterity. Rossetti later contributed largely to Gilchrist’s Life of Blake, while Swinburne wrote one of the earliest critical essays on his work. Again, it was Rossetti and Swinburne who were foremost amongst those instrumental in the resuscitation of Edward FitzGerald’s practically stillborn Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald’s great work was issued at his own expense by Quaritch in an edition of 250 copies in 1859. Almost nobody bought it – indeed Bernard Quaritch could not later recall having sold a single copy. After a year or so he reduced the price from a shilling to a single ignominious penny and dumped the unsold copies in the bargain box outside his shop. It’s a famous story though the precise details differ, but it was probably the Sanskrit scholar Whitley Stokes who bought several copies and gave them to friends including Richard Burton, Monckton Milnes and Rossetti. Rossetti promptly returned to Quaritch’s and bought more, giving one to Browning and one to Swinburne. A third visit was paid by Rossetti and Swinburne together, who found that Quaritch had raised the price to what Swinburne called ‘the sinfully extravagant price of twopence’. This time they bought copies for William Morris and Burne-Jones; word spread outwards and the poem’s fame was thus eventually secured. The point of these stories in the present context is to illustrate the fact that Swinburne and Rossetti were born collectors. Like all the best collectors, they used their discoveries; and like all the best collectors, they shared them. If they hadn’t spent so much time writing poems and painting picures they might have made formidable book dealers. They were certainly formidable arbiters of literary taste.

We heard earlier that among the more unexpected so-called ‘modern’ authors in Slater’s Early Editions was Shelley. Now Rossetti and Swinburne were both in their separate ways deeply in thrall to Shelley – his influence is evident throughout both their work and their lives. Two later disciples and Shelley’s most assiduous editors were our good friends Wise and Forman, whom we last heard of in connection with Slater’s book. They were surely the most active and tireless members of the newly instituted Shelley Society, formed in 1885; but if Wise and Forman admired Shelley, they positively revered Swinburne and Rossetti, and indeed the whole Preraphaelite milieu. These were the poets and artists of their impressionable teens and twenties and theirs were the works that they were later most avidly to collect – and, failing that, to invent. It was simply a case of the Magus syndrome; and just as pilgrims were later to beat a path to Fowles’ front door, so Forman had befriended Rossetti in his last years and Wise was soon ingratiating himself with the elder statesmen of the same circle: they viewed them with a mixture of starry-eyed veneration and sharp commercial appraisal. How apt and how gratifying was the fact that the Shelley Society’s chairman was none other than William Rossetti – and he, of course, knew everyone worth their knowing. Forman and Wise were literally rubbing shoulders with their heroes and it is I suppose possible in light of their adulation to see the long line of their forgeries as a kind of perverted literary homage to their idols. They even copied their enthusiasms: Forman for instance wrote the account of Swinburne’s beloved Charles Wells for Miles’ Poets and Poetry of the Century.

Those must have been heady days, most especially perhaps for the younger and less well connected Wise. The Browning Society – the Shelley Society – the type facsimiles – the busy-ness with printers and papers and proofs – the new enthusiasms for the neglected geniuses of the previous generation or the undiscovered productions of the major figures of mid-Victorian literature – all these elements added weight and speed to the bandwagon to which Rossetti and Swinburne had given, I suggest, the crucial initial push. The market in modern first editions was rolling and signs of frenzy were visible even at an early date. The Wise/Forman forgeries played very easily into such eagerly outstretched hands, but even an innocent pamphlet such as an 1884 Macmillan school edition of Tennyson’s The Passing of Arthur was being offered within a few years as a rarity at fifteen guineas, when it was still available new from Macmillan’s for ninepence. It was a pamphlet: to collectors anxious not to miss a trick, it looked as if it ought to be rare. What they didn’t realize, of course, was that they had missed the trick completely.

The line of succession becomes clear. From the distant influence of Shelley it leads to Rossetti and Swinburne; from the two poets both directly and through their wider artistic circle to their star-struck admirers the Two Forgers who were both, one must not forget, to a large extent legitimate traders and pioneers of bibliography; they set themselves up as trusted authorities and were accepted as such by an ever-widening clientele from a new generation ready to embrace the collecting of books as their great-grandfathers had collected Old Masters or pedigree shorthorns. These new collectors were in their turn guided by a succession of experts from Slater to Wise to A. Edward Newton; reassured in their investments by a gradual but certain increase in prices periodically confirmed by major auctions in London and New York; and advised and supplied by a new kind of dealer specialising exclusively in first and rare editions of modern literature – the likes of young Bertram Rota, for instance, who, glancing over his shoulder in the 1920s, looked back naturally to the 1880s and beyond as the start-point of the modern idea of the modern first. And that is why, when I joined Bertram Rota in 1971, the Preraphaelites were still modern. To me, they still are.

Now it’s time we all went home. I am sorry, in retrospect, that I have been a bit hard on the author of the Forsyte Saga. It was not his fault that he became the preeminent subject for unbridled speculation, and the Stock Market crash had nothing to do with his power as a story-teller, but perhaps one day we might take a look at our shelves and ponder whether any of our own treasures, come the next financial meltdown, are destined for the same fate as Francis Brett Young, or Masefield, or poor old John Galsworthy. 

Charles Cox, April 2015