A Cynosure for 2002

At the December 17, 1974 Sotheby’s book sale in London, entry No. 248 enticingly described a copy of Modern Love by the novelist and poet, George Meredith, as “number 3 of 10 copies on Japan vellum signed by the publisher, PRESENTATION COPY, inscribed and signed by the author for Lady Jean Palmer… Maine, Thomas Mosher, 1891…” The successful bidder at the £50 hammer price was Simon Nowell-Smith, book collector par excellence, one time secretary and librarian of the London Library, president of the Bibliographical Society, and author and reviewer, among bookish activities. There it safely resided in his ever evolving library which once contained an immense collection of Henry James, another highly regarded collection of Robert Bridges, and lastly of poetry (many signed and inscribed copies) collected up until his death in 1996. This last collection rested in limbo with his widow, Judith Adams, until it was finally offered in accordance with Simon Nowell-Smith’s wishes through the firm of Bertram Rota, Ltd in London. They fittingly chose to further mark the event with the issuance of their 300th catalogue, and what a hallmark it was.

Even though I was in debt from a small but select Mosher collection bought earlier in the year, I nevertheless excitedly received the poetry catalogue on October 11, 2002 from Bertram Rota, entitled “Poetry–The Simon Nowell-Smith Collection,” which to my amazement had two delightful Mosher items in it. I immediately telephoned London to order (hell, I’d get the money somehow), but an increased financial burden was avoided. Both were already sold! This duo included a copy of Gordon Bottomley’s A Vision of Giorgione–Three Variations on Venetian Themes (one of 50 copies on printed on Japan vellum and lovingly inscribed by Bottomley to his wife, the dedicatee, along with an original manuscript poem), and the other that very special copy of Meredith’s Modern Love which last saw the light of buyer’s day at that 1974 Sotheby’s sale

A collector may try to cover as many bases as possible so that should something significant come onto the market, he’ll be informed by the seller or at least receive word from fellow collectors or colleagues through the broadly, yet carefully strung grapevine,… and score! Well, neither happened in this case. I’ve made it a point to keep in touch–by e-mail and in person—with Bertram Rota, but I think here was an instance where my bookseller status came somewhat into conflict with my more enjoyable role as collector. This happens from time to time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but one would hope it wouldn’t happen with truly significant material. In all fairness to the Rota folks, they were in an impossible position of marketing a well known and much admired collection eagerly anticipated to come onto the market. In accord with Nowell-Smith’s wishes, it finally surfaced in a catalogue to other collectors who were primed to buy. But how, as a dealer– especially one having a responsibility to offer these books first to long standing retail customers–, can you give everybody a first shot at everything. In short, you can’t, so some customers are going to go away exceedingly happy, and others are just going to go away quite sad in hindsight that they somehow were destined to miss out. I was among the latter. Sad doesn’t come close to describing the multitude of emotions and feelings I experienced following those softly spoken words over the satellite connected telephone, “Just a moment please,… oh, no, sorry, but I’m afraid they’re both taken. Would you care to leave your wants for future quotes?” The Meredith was important beyond words for the Mosher collection, and now it was gone. I was too late, and not even any of my fellow collectors who early on bought from the catalogue ever breathed even one word to me (perhaps I thought too highly of my standing among my fellow collectors). Then as though heaping burning coals upon my already smoldering head, I found out that the cataloguer actually thought of me when composing those two Mosher item descriptions. Alas, water under the bridge and all that, and I resigned myself to the void it created, and wrote to Julian Rota thanking him for sending the wonderful catalogue and expressing my hope that perhaps in the future something of equal caliber might be offered–even if at full retail price rather than with the customary dealer discount. For now, however, at least I had that lovely Bertram Rota catalogue which itself earned a place in the Mosher collection as a record (and unfortunate reminder) of those two books now completely out of reach…sigh…

As you lament that none of your contacts came through, yet another avenue may surprisingly unfold and come to your aid. Just before this past Christmas I received an e-mail out of the blue from one of the most respected dealers I have come to know over the years: David J. Holmes, Autographs (PADA, ABAA, ILAB). I’m sure if any of you have had the good fortune of meeting David, you’d know just how much of a gentleman scholar this quiet and unpretentious fellow is. David and I have had a long standing association (I still remember his kindness in readying things for my Mosher talk to the Philobiblon Club in May 2000) and purchased a number of fine Mosher related items from him over the years including an exquisite and quite rare Gordon Bottomley book from James Gutherie’s Pear Tree Press, inscribed by Bottomley to Thomas Bird Mosher, along with some very interesting ephemera all of which once set on the shelves in Mosher’s library long ago. So months after the Rota catalogue first appeared I received this somewhat nonchalant e-mail from David who wanted to know if I had any interest in a Roycroft Press book he had for sale, and then almost secondarily asked me if perchance I’d like to add a presen-tation copy of a Mosher printing of George Meredith’s book to my collection, adding that perhaps I saw the Rota catalogue in which it appeared. Good heavens–this was THE book from the Simon Nowell-Smith Collection!!!!! I didn’t even take time to reply to the e-mail, and called him without hesitation. Yes, that was the book and he had bought it at full price from Bertram Rota Ltd. After receiving the book, it simply languished on his shelves and he had just gotten around to mentioning it. Amazing!

Of course behind my jubilation was the uneasy feeling that this was going to be a costly venture, but I was determined to have the book. We came to terms which, I must say, were most welcome and pleasantly agreeable, and he sent the book just before Christmas. I distinctly recall getting the plain brown package on December 24 at the post office. My wife, Susann, was with me in the car and when I came out of the post office I immediately put the box in the trunk. I got in I told her that that was the last item I was expecting before Christmas. Of course her thought was that it was a gift I’d just received for her or at least for somebody on my list, but I couldn’t breathe a word until I had unwrapped the book and seen it for myself. I also felt a bit uneasy, even guilty, in showing off such an acquisition just before Christmas. On Christmas day my wife presented me with two specially bound red volumes of the Brocade Series editions of William Morris’s “Old English Romances”-especially fitting since I already had the two Morris volumes which were mates down to the very detailed gold tooling, only bound in green leather and encasing the “Old French Romances.” Lovely they are, and a prized addition to the collection, but would have been embarrassingly upstaged had I previously unveiled the Meredith volume. It was a matter of considerate timing and common sense manners, so it was only after Christmas that I finally summoned enough fortitude to tell her about the acquisition, especially hard to mention in light of the fact that the past few months had been slow in business and I was still paying off that collection I bought almost a year earlier.

But now, residing in my Mosher collection, is this important Mosher book which I more thoroughly detail below, and the significance of which I discuss further along. It appears in “POETRY: The Simon Nowell-Smith Collection” Catalogue 300 (London: Bertram Rota, Ltd, 2002):

Entry 512. Meredith (George). Modern Love. Foreword by E. Cavazza. Thomas B. Mosher, Portland, Maine, 1891. Pirated Edition. Of 50 Large Paper copies, this is one of ten numbered copies [copy #3] on Japan vellum signed by the publisher (probably the copy that Mosher sent to the author). 4to. Presentation Binding, contemporary brown calf [indeed, by Cedric Chivers nonetheless], sides with triple fillet gilt, upper cover with central monogram “JEAN”, spine elaborately gilt with brown morocco labels, inner dentelles and edges gilt, watered silk end-papers. Half-title. Binding a little rubbed and slightly stained, otherwise a very nice copy. Presentation Copy inscribed by the author on the title-page “To Jean: Who knows as little of it as the Moon / The tides she attracts: From, By permission of Walter, Her George”; with the presentee, Jean Palmer’s bookplate [and bookplates of Simon Nowell-Smith and his wife]. Buxton Forman 9. £600

Jean Palmer was wife of Sir Walter Palmer [1858-1910], a wealthy biscuit manufacturer. The two loved to entertain artistic and literary celebrities at their town and country residences and Meredith was extremely fond of them, as this inscription suggests. He referred to her as “Queen Jean” at her glittering receptions.

The principal country estate for the Palmers was Frognal, Sunninghill (about a mile east of Ascot, Berkshire County) and there they often entertained literary folks the likes of Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, and of course, George Meredith. His beloved “Queen Jean” was the object of Meredith’s chivalric love in his later life, although his general gallantry toward women was well known. They probably met sometime around 1890 and maintained a close correspondence, visitations, and mutual gift giving. His published letters with her date from 1892-1905, and contact may have continued up to his death on May 18, 1909 at the age of 81. The Meredith letters are replete with adoring missives sent to Lady Palmer, opening or signing off with comments like:

— my mouth to the hem of her garment

— I am, O thou Superlative in Sweetness! Your devoted…

— I am ever the fiddle to your bâton

— My Liege and Beloved

— [and one of my favorites:] to pipe the note of love to Love’s living Queen Jean by name

The relationship between Jean’s husband, Sir Walter Palmer, and Meredith was certainly a very close one as Meredith would often either write Walter separately, or include him in letters to Jean with something like “my heart embraces your Walter, kisses the hem of your garment and bids you know yet again that it beats for Queen-Jean”. Indeed, Meredith was like family, in fact so much so that one of Meredith’s close women friends even referred to him as George Palmer Meredith!

It’s particularly thrilling to realize that this presentation copy, pirated or not, was obviously highly admired by Meredith who, in his own words, viewed it as a “sumptuous edition” which “one has to look to France for an equal” and who most likely was the one responsible for having Cedric Chivers of Bath adorn it in a special calf binding with JEAN formed by means of the elaborate decorative initials on the front cover as a tribute to his Lady.

This unique double presentation copy of Modern Love fills a hole in my Mosher collection in that not only is it Mosher’s first book signed by the publisher and sent to the author, but just as importantly inscribed by the author. It’s also quite simply the only Japan vellum copy limited to ten which I’ve ever seen for purchase. I’ve come across two others during my research for the Mosher bibliography, one in a private Mosher collection in New Jersey (the Jerome Kern copy, No. 9), in rather unadorned but still nice dark burgundy leather binding, and copy No.7 from Mosher’s library bought by the great Mosher and you-name-it collector, Norman Strouse, at the 1948 sale of Mosher’s library, presently at the University of San Francisco. But that’s it! I never saw another copy in any institutional collection I visited, nor has any come on the market in recent decades, save for that Kern copy No. 9 mentioned above (California Book Auction, May 10, 1980), as evidenced by an examination of 27 years of American Book Prices Current records.

I can’t help but think that this was the copy which Meredith himself wrote of when he wrote to Mosher, “Sir, a handsome pirate is always half pardoned, and in this case he has broken only the upper laws. I shall receive with pleasure the copy of Modern Love which you propose to send. I have it much at heart that works of mine should be read by Americans.” (Letters, 1399) and then later sending a note of receipt indicating, “I have received the Copy of Modern Love, and my previous letter has come to your hands, I may suppose. Your edition of the work is most creditable. In England the sumptuous edition is devoted only to very favourite writers. I cannot say it is generally an example of refinement. One has to look to France for an equal to your production; and there seems a probability that Americans will rival the French in the issue of books that honour their stands.” (Letters, 1405) Simon Nowell-Smith wrote on a card loosely inserted in the book that “this is presumably the copy that Mosher sent to G.M.”, and Jim Earl, a Canadian government administrator (à la Charles Lamb), and fellow Mosher enthusiast, shared his thoughts on the matter writing:

As for the comments on whether it is ‘the copy’ I lean towards it being the one. This for a couple of reasons. The first, Mosher would have been particularly interested in ingratiating himself with Meredith, it being his first effort. A small paper copy would not have done. Second. I think any dedication might not have been written in the book itself to preserve it’s quality. I don’t see it as a gift but as an offering which is slightly different. I think Mosher would have written a letter to go along with it, separate. I sense, and I here go out on a limb, Mosher was not confident of his own powers of production to assert himself by copying into the book. He became so later but I think he would not have been that forward to advance the piece in that way. Third. I think the rarity of the item would have precluded Meredith from purchasing a Japan vellum one post-production. If he would have done so it would likely have to have been a small paper copy. It would bear checking to see how quickly Mosher was divested of the Japan vellum copies. I think they would have gone quickly and become unavailable. Of course these are all speculative and as is often the case there is likely no definitive proof of anything. But I can see it all the same and the associations of the book, in tandem with it being the first true Mosher and limited all combine to give a plausible explanation.

Ben Mazer, published poet, contributor to a variety of American and British periodicals, and assistant at Boss Fine Books in Boston, added these additional insights:

From the Meredith point of view, why would Meredith have bothered to order one? I can’t see an English author of his stature, particularly a poet, bothering to get another in order to keep one, particularly a bloody signed one from a pirate publisher. He doesn’t ask for a second copy in two letters in which he has every normal socially pragmatic opportunity, does he? Plus, he gave her the only copy, on Japan vellum, that’s the whole point, right?

I was pleased with the sensible comments from these two gentlemen and moreover concur with their assessments. So unless I discover hard evidence to the contrary, this must be the copy which Mosher sent to George Meredith, and which the author himself presumably had specially bound and presented to one of his closest lady friends, Lady Jean Palmer. This alone is a fine tribute to Thomas Bird Mosher who was then at the very beginning of his publishing program, and assigns high merit to this select historical artifact. It gets added to other Mosher books in fine bindings, but obviously cross categorizes into the sub-collection of signed/ inscribed books, and to Japan vellum and other very limited copies, and… well the potential assignment goes on. To be sure, I’ve amassed other nice Modern Love material in the past, including Copy No. 1 of the small paper edition with the bookplate of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of Cyrus H. K. Curtis of Curtis Publishing Co. (Saturday Evening Post) in Philadelphia, and wife of Edward Bok, his son-in-law editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal and a good bookman and autograph collector in his own right. Then there is another large paper copy, one of forty printed on Van Gelder paper and still in simply lovely condition, found by me in a small bookshop in Atlanta, Georgia. These are all nestled near Mosher’s own scrapbook recording the reception his first American edition of Modern Love in the press and among collectors far and wide–including a letter from the esteemed New York printer, Theodore Low DeVinne, who added a view from the technical standpoint that he was “very pleased with your book. The composition and presswork are well done.” All these heralded the advent of Mosher’s publishing career, but above even these must stand the copy of Modern Love sent by Mosher to his revered author idol, George Meredith, whose book Modern Love remained important to Mosher throughout much of his publishing career.

Modern Love’s poetic portrayal of a failed marriage mirrored the termination of Mosher’s own first marriage through desertion. His own resulting inner thoughts and sorrows were given expression by Meredith in the feelings of severance and alienation prevalent in the pages of Modern Love. The volume’s last line, “To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!” would become a metaphor to Mosher. Throwing that ”faint thin line” was akin to sending out his select line of publications into the world to help readers discover the importance of literature in interpreting life, a task he had hoped to achieve over the years.

In place of his own usual foreword to his catalogues, in 1910 Mosher substituted “George Meredith | Box Hill–May 22, 1909” by J. M. Barrie who touchingly wrote about Meredith’s funeral procession. He introduced that brief essay with a note saying, “Instead of the usual Foreword to these yearly Catalogues of The Mosher Books I have reprinted this inimitable tribute to the memory of George Meredith. It seems so far beyond anything I could hope to say that I feel my readers will be the gainers by my personal silence. T.B.M.” Head bowed, Mosher was paying his respects to the author who launched his publishing program and helped form his own life’s mission. One year later, in 1911, he again printed that same essay only now in book format. Modern Love itself was published by Mosher three more times in his Old World Series in 1898, 1904, and 1910. By the time of the last issue of the Bibelot in December of 1914, Meredith’s “faint thin line upon the shore” had traversed all the way to Blake’s “end of a golden string” leading you to “Heaven’s gate, built in Jerusalem’s wall.” Mosher achieved his mission in life.

Mosher himself would have certainly appreciated this copy the author chose to lovingly inscribe for Jean, but that’s one of the benefits of collecting more than a century later. Not even Mosher could have corralled this book for his own extensive collection. Once a book is published and sent, it moves along a path of its own apart from its creator, and it remains for some future collector to harvest it for future evidence and documentation. Now in the Mosher collection here at the Bishopric of Lancaster County, the book has come full circle and helps further explain the Mosher story, and certainly has become a cynosure* acquisition capping a year of fine acquisitions in 2002, and in this collector’s humble opinion, even vis-à-vis the collection as a whole.

* This word was suggested to me at our local farmer’s market by fellow shopper, Russel Strunk, who calls himself “a non-aggrandizing lexicographer and peripatetic victualizer.” Amazingly, he regularly speaks this way.

© Philip R. Bishop
17 January 2003

This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the March 2003 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.