30 May 2011

Wiliam Waldorf Astor at the Villa Sirena

I found this art noveau style bookplate in all five vols of a 1900 English edition of Humboldt's Cosmos bound in leather (by Root and Son.) This bookplate set me off on a quest for where Villa Sirena might have been. My search took me to the siren haunted town of Sorrento on the Bay of Naples where Astor (then the richest man in the world) had bought several villas. None appeared to be now called Villa Sirena but this seems to be it; I quote from an amalgam of holiday brochures:
"...in the first century A.D. Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Emperor Augustus built aa fine villa in the same place where is now Villa Tritone (later Villa Sirena / Villa Dei Leoni) and Ovid was one of its first eminent visitors.
On this site in the thirteenth century a convent was built for nuns belonging to an enclosed order. At the end of the sixteenth century, after a destructive invasion by the Saracens, the place was rebuilt by Dominican priests, who started to cultivate the garden, bringing the first citrus fruits trees from the Middle East. At that time, in 1577, Torquato Tasso, Sorrento's foremost poet, author of "Jerusalem Delivered", shared his torments with the prior of the monastery.
In 1888 Count Labonia, a distinguished collector of antiquities and friend of Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, bought the site and began to build the present house which he called "Aux Roches Grises", recalling the grey rocks on which the house stands. At the beginning of the twentieth century, U.S. Ambassador William Waldorf Astor bought the house and, where the convent once stood, he designed the garden, behind the villa and on either side, encircled by walls and balustrades, to protect this private green oasis of palms, oranges, cycas, cypresses, eucalyptus, pines. He bought the Villa (then called Villa Syrene) in 1906 and made it a repository for his vast and ever-growing collection of classical, medieval, and Renaissance statuary. The convent was destroyed and a wall along the property’s seaward side was raised, where various openings were made and decorated with medieval ruins and Greek-style temples. Secret paths and allĂ©es run through the lush vegetation revealing statues, urns, fountains and glimpses of sea and sky through the windows cut out in the high wall along the seaward side..."
So a distinguished place with 2000 years of history, serious literary connections and probably a fabulous library of which my vols (for which I paid £50 and hope to double) formed a tiny part. Through some route more strange and circuitous than the 'secret paths' of this villa the book ended up at Bradfield College Science Library and proudly bears their bold blue stamps. These lower the price but are fairly neatly applied. It is interesting to note from 1943 – 1945, the property hosted Benedetto Croce, turning it into a political crossroads for the rising Republic of Italy. The official signing of the declaration for the first Italian government after the war was signed in the room which is now used as a study. The place can be rented (8 bedrooms, sleeps 16 -- towels and beach towels changed every 3 days and bed linens once a week.) I doubt it is cheap.

Deeper research shows that William Waldorf Astor wrote a short story for the Pall Mall Gazette (which he had bought for £50,0000) of July 1906 called The Last of the Tenth Legion. It is of a decidedly occult/ theosophical bent beginning thus 'It was to his Villa Sirena, at Sorrento, amid its interbraiding shine and dark, that Vaini summoned me, in May 1895, for a psychical experiment...'Although it starts like Borges it does not quite have the great man's touch. In 1900 he published A Pharaoh's Daughter and Other Stories -- a Bleiler title, being a collection of fantasy stories including tales of terror and the supernatural. A fine copy can sell for £100. Oddly enough his cousin John Jacob Astor is also responsible for a Bleiler title A Journey in Other Worlds (Appleton NY 1894) describing the earth in the year 2000, along with journeys to Jupiter and Saturn. Another £100 book. One critic called it "..a pioneering work that is of considerable literary, historical, and social interest." In Villa Sirena's library one wonders if there was a large section of fantasy, vampire novels, interplanetary travel and occult detective fiction, possibly now sitting unclaimed in a Neapolitan warehouse or a storage room at Bradfield Science College...

28 May 2011

Collecting True Crime 2

When I interviewed the Ruislip Bungalow Murder Man he told me that around 99% of the books in his huge collection dealt with murder --incidentally, why does Rumpole refer to the ‘Penge Bungalow Murders’, when there are no bungalows in Penge –unless anyone knows any better ? . Not only are there few books on fraud and theft in his collection, but many of those on murder are, as he is ready to admit, with refreshing candour, almost worthless from a scholarly point of view. For instance, among his hundred books on Jack the Ripper only a dozen are of historical value. He selects as one of the best A Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden, which offers up just one name----that of George Chapman. One of the historically ‘worthless’ tomes in his library is William Stewart’s Jack the Ripper: a New Theory (1939 ),a book which, probably due to its small print run, is now ‘ a scarce and much sought after, early Ripper work’. Stewart, who appears to have been obsessed with his subject, even to the extent of making models of the murder sites from the original plans, argues that the killer was a woman—a midwife, no less. Today his book fetches tidy sums, and on ABE Harrington wants $1,253 for a jacket-less copy, a price high enough to stop it selling with any alacrity.

Books about executioners and particular executions are, he says, definitely worth searching for. The Victorian hangman, James Berry was one of the very few who left behind recollections of their time in office—indeed he published a book, My Experiences as an Executioner (1892), while he was still hanging people --- a deviation from correct practice which was frowned upon by the Home Office at the time and cost him his job. Bizarrely, some copies of the dull David and Charles reprint of 1972 cost more than the one single copy of the rarish first edition currently featuring on ABE at a reasonable $109. Copies of the memoirs of Albert Pierrepoint, who topped 435 murderers between 1932 and 1956, are common enough in paperback or hardback, but the actual diaries on which he based his book remained unsold at £15,000 by Jarndyce at the 2010 Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia. Perhaps collectors feel uncomfortable reading such intimate details of executions from the hand of someone so closely involved.

Books exposing prison conditions---the older the better—are worth searching for. One of my favourite is Jottings from Jail ( 1887) by London prison chaplain J. W. Horsley, who has a Mayhew-like approach to the prison underworld ( the book includes 35 pages of explanations of rhyming slang). There is also a rather striking illustrated cloth cover featuring chains, jemmies, bars and other symbols of punishment. I bought my rather tattered copy for 60 new pence at Ralph’s in Swansea around ten years ago, but today one online chancer wants $400 for his ex-library copy, while we are on the subject of criminal tendencies.

Books on unsolvable cases are appealing to True Crime fans. The case of Ronald Light, a ne’er do well who probably escaped hanging for the shooting of Bella Wright in 1919, occupies little space in most books on twentieth century crime , but H. R. Wakefield in his Green Bicycle Case (1930) managed to cobble up a book of 152 pages from it. This ordinary enough book should command less than £20 in most respectable bookshops, but for some reason some dealers are charging $125 and $175 for their jacketed copies. There seems be some agreement among dealers that older books on true crime must always be expensive, especially if they have striking titles. Certainly crime pays for them. Much better value is Mad or Bad ? (1950) in which John Woodiwiss discusses some famous cases that pose questions regarding the mental stability of miscreants. You can buy a jacketed copy, complete with typically creepy cover by Edward Pagram, for under $15 on ABE.

Finally, probably the most famous—certainly the most quoted in modern accounts of late eighteenth century crime—is Patrick Colquoun’s Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, first published in1796, but reprinted regularly for years afterwards. Colquhoun was a magistrate with a downer on petty pilfering and fraud and his statistics-heavy treatise laid the foundations for the establishment of Peel’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. Read it and be amazed at the author’s most un PC attacks on certain reprobates, particularly the ‘ lower class of Jews’, who are described as a:
‘ depraved race … educated in idleness from their earliest infancy, they acquire every debauched and vicious principles which can fit them for the most complicated arts of fraud and deception, to which they seldom fail to add the crime of perjury … ‘

I found a copy of an early edition in the sale of the historian J. H. Plumb’s library a few years ago. This association meant that it went for a ridiculously high sum, but only months later through ABE I found a similar copy in Nova Scotia for a mere Canadian $80 in original boards, with a buckram spine and inscribed label, which on the flyleaf bore the signature of Robert Wilson, who I would like to think was the same General Sir Robert Wilson who was knighted at 24 ( surely a record ), became a radical MP and was drummed out of the army for being compassionate. I was probably lucky in this purchase. Today you won’t secure an early edition for much under $370, with firsts of this iconic book going for more than $2,000.

[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Sorry not blogging myself currently due to massive onslaught of books. It's murder. The misogynist poet JK Stephen used to be my favourite candidate for the Ripper but a researcher ruled him out using the train timetable from Cambridge to King's Cross. He was, of course, a cousin of Virginia Woolf and would have known her as a girl. Also apparently related to VW was the unpleasant Dennis Nielsen, the British civil servant who strangled young men at his Muswell Hill residence. When told by his biographer of his connection to Virginia Woolf he commented: "I don't like the sound of that. She went mad, you know."

Rock on Robin, I'll be scribbling something soon.

20 May 2011

Same name, different game…..2

The second and last list of 'literary doppelgangers.'

D. H. Lawrence, author of Women in Love
D. H. Laurence, co-author of A Bibliography of Henry James. (1957)

T. E. Lawrence, motor-cycling author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
T.E. Laurence, author of Do You Believe ?---an occult thriller.

Wyndham Lewis, major Modernist artist, novelist and theorist.
D. B. Wyndham Lewis, now largely forgotten compiler of ‘ humorous ‘ anthologies . If you want to annoy Lewisites pretend you have always thought that they were one and the same person.

John Milton, author of Paradise Lost
Jon Milton, author of Do Try this at Home (‘Punk Science’, apparently )

John Piper, unsmiling English artist, designer, poet, writer on art.
John Piper, American evangelical author.

Bernard Shaw, author, playwright
Bernard Shore, author of The Orchestra Speaks

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island.
Robert L Stephenson, author of The prehistoric people of Accokeek Creek (1959)

Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy
Lawrence Stern, author of the ever popular Stage Management

Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury novelist.
Virginia L Wolf, Associate Professor and author of the gripping A Reader’s Companion to A Little House on the Prairie (1996) and Louise Fitzhugh.

Then there are the names of famous authors that supposedly literate booksellers cannot spell, even when the book they are listing is in front of them. Booksellers, we know who you are !

Steven Spender
H. G. Welles
P. G. Woodhouse
Charles Dickins
T. S. Elliott
Rupert Brooks
William Falkner
Virginia Wolf
E. M. Forester

[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin, formidable research there. To the misspelled writers I would add Jane Austin, a common mistake and a sure sign that the person has not read the mighty Jane. To the doppelgangers I could also add Tom Wolfe, white suited author of 'Bonfire of the Vanities' not to be confused with Thomas Wolfe author of 'Look Homeward Angel' (1929) a rather valuable book when seen wearing a jacket. The other confusing name is W.H. (William Henry) Hudson, author of 'Green Mansions' and the anonymous sleeper 'A Crystal Age' + a few natural history titles. There is another William Henry Hudson, professor of English at Stanford University and author of books on the romantics and the novel 'The Strange Adventures of John Smith' (1902) and 'A Quiet Corner in a Library' and several other neglected works. I have some signed books by the wrong Hudson, a man now so forgotten that he has no entry in Wikipedia...

12 May 2011

Same name, different game…..

A posting inspired by finding in Any Amount of Books, a few years ago, a slim volume bearing my name. I bought it, thinking that there would now be one less person who thought I was a New Zealand poet who had been born in 1937 and who had written a poem entitled ‘Pullover’:

‘I want to be your little black sleeveless pullover
so I can feel your ribs
pout gently for your boobs…’

Unfortunately, ABE currently has one copy of Mr Healey’s little book for sale, but I take some comfort from knowing that other more distinguished writers than myself have their literary doppelgangers (if that’s the right word ). Here are some I found.

Caveat emptor !

Iain Banks, cult Scottish author
Dr Ian Banks, author of the hardly cultish, Not Feeling Well ?

William Blake, poet, artist, mystic ( 1757 – 1827)
William Blake, author of A penknife in my pocket and Wayfarer, a voice from the Southern Mountains

William Boyd, British novelist, currently at the top of his game
William C Boyd, author of Textbook of Pathology (1970)

William S Burroughs, Harvard educated cult junkie, wife-killer.
William J Burroughs, author of Weather.
William E Burroughs, author of Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security.

Robert Burns, Scottish literary icon, peasant poet
Robert Burns, author of Seven Steps to Stop a Heart Attack

James Boswell, sex fiend, lickspittle to Dr Samuel Johnson.
James Boswell, 20th century book illustrator
James D Boswell, author of The Sower’s Seeds

John Clare, peasant poet .
John D. Clare, author of American Indian Life.

Thomas Dolby, early nineteenth century radical, author of Floristan
Thomas Dolby, indie musician and composer.

George Eliot, Victorian novelist
George Elliott, author of The Kissing Man
George P Elliott, author of Conversions: Literature and Modernist Deviation.

David Gascoyne, tall surrealist poet and Francophile
David Gascoyne, author of Let’s Visit Norway!

Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows.
Kenneth G. Graham, author of children’s classic, A Study Skills Handbook (1984 )

Graham Greene, English Catholic novelist.
Graeme Green, Canadian novelist whose first (‘scarce’ )novel was Six Legs (1969).

Henry Green, cult novelist, author of Moving, Living, Being..etc
Henry Green, author of Favourite Movie Themes

Thomas Hardy, gloomy novelist and poet
Thomas Hardie, author of Sermons (1811)
Thomas Hardie, author of the ever popular Higher Physical Education Success Guide

Robin Healey, author of Hertfordshire—a Shell Guide etc
Robin Healey, New Zealand alleged poet.

Henry James, American novelist
Henry James, author of The Farmer’s Guide to the Internet (1996)

David Jones, ethereal artist and war poet.
David Jones, author of Baboon

Charles Lamb, author of Essays of Elia (1823).
Charles W. Lamb, author of Essentials of Marketing (1999)

[Robin Healey]

Many thanks Robin...To be continued with the other T.E. Lawrence and the other D.H. Lawrence and many others. Let me add one of the most confusing doppelgangers-- Winston Churchill (the greatest Brit ever) and Winston Churchill (forgotten American romantic novelist). The unsaleable Winston Churchill is often taken for the good one and fancy prices are demanded especially on Ebay. Almost all his novels begin with the letter C. ('The Crisis' 'The Crossing' 'The Celebrity' 'Coniston' etc.,) Wikipedia has this on them: "The British Churchill, upon becoming aware of the American Churchill's books, wrote to him suggesting that he would sign his own works "Winston S. Churchill", using his middle name (actually part of his surname), "Spencer", to differentiate them. This suggestion was accepted, with the comment that the American Churchill would have done the same, had he any middle names." Winston S. Churchill did actually write a novel 'Savrola' (1900) which can command as much as £1000 in the first state (no copyright statement on verso of title). To add confusion both men were amateur painters...There is also a good poet called Brian Jones, not the drug friendly Stone and a writer on poster art known as Tony Curtis, not the screen idol...

06 May 2011

An Austin Osman Spare exhibition 1955

As someone who used to deal in Austin Osman Spare art and books I was intrigued by a rare exhibition catalogue that I discovered last week in a box. It was for a show at the Archer Gallery in Westbourne Grove (London) in October 1955, six months before Spare's death at age 70. The introduction is by Kenneth Grant, an occultist and writer who is himself highly collectable. Having written an introduction to an AOS art catalogue myself (early 1980s) it was fascinating to see how Grant went about it. Such pieces are without exception enthusiastic, even celebratory, sometimes with elaborate claims being made for the artist. I praised his 'courageous originality' and talked of comparisons with Durer, Goya, Rops and Hokusai. Grant goes somewhat further in his claims, as you will see...

Frank Lechford, an old dealer in military books and a friend of AOS, used to say that something weird always happened around Spare and sure enough at our 1980s exhibition a fight broke out, unpleasant but short. One wonders who attended the 1955 exhibition and what strangeness occurred there. Here is an abridged version of Kenneth Grant's introduction ('An Appreciation'):

The spirit which permeates the artistic creations of Austin Osman Spare may not be easily ensnared or examined, for it is exceedingly tenuous and elusive, as fugitive as the odour of a rose and as cloyingly nostalgic.

Those who would read into his flowing arabesque line and into his haunting modulations of light and shade the speech of usual things will step back baffled by the hint of wild and unknown things which are here presented to view. It is as if a corner of the veil of inscrutable mysteries were suddenly lifted before our eyes ...It is the nostalgia of remembered remoteness; the anguish of things lost and all but regained, but which slip yet again from the memory's grasp; the disquietude that comes from the knowledge that Spare has unerringly captured for us what we ourselves are unable to shadow forth from the dark deep confines of our latent being...

[talk of Atavistic Resurgence and of his Sidereal paintings…' peculiarly dynamic and enigmatic sidereal semblances…']

...here are not only the creations of an artist gifted beyond the normal, but these very creations themselves are the true delineations of a realm of being existing here and now at a level of awareness veiled to the uninitiated vision of the generality of men. One might almost say that far from being fanciful products of a highly trained and vivid imagination, these works represent faithful recordings of those latent levels wherein and wherefrom proceed the motivating causes of all the complex and inscrutable mentations, fragments of which only appear within the limited orbit of the so-called 'rational' activities of the mundanely conscious individual.

We have to understand not only the mysteries of dream and of sleep, of waking consciousness and the mechanism of desire, but also we should have direct experience of the 'knower' of all these various states of consciousness before we can begin to understand the fugitive essence of Spare's enchanted creations. For even as the universe is a glamour cast forth from and by the mind of man... so also these creations subsist as realities within a deeper consciousness than is manifest in the everyday waking activities wherein the human machine lives and moves. From regions which make these activities seem merely automatic reactions to external phenomena, Spare brings the tenuous thread of his dream into the reality of day, and makes the dream-intrusion into waking awareness a subtle perichoresis of two worlds as remote and apart from each other as the outward form and appearance of man himself is to the soul which exists in the veiled sanctuaries of his unknown realities.

This perichoresis is what Spare has achieved and it is the greatest witness to the power of his magic that such interpenetration does not result in confusion but in unity, not in distortion but in beauty, not in conflict and pain but in perfect balance and intensity of rapture. All these things form the thread of the bright tapestries wherewith these walls are hung. If we do not fail to lose the central thread of all, we shall pass from picture to picture as from delight to delight, relishing a bliss that is rarely given to mortal man in his hour of upheaval, disharmony and corruption. To Spare- as for the individual who is able to stay possessed of this central thread- none of these imperfections exist, and we are brought to a vision of transcending beauty, seeing the perfection of the whole in the true relation of its myriad parts. [Kenneth Grant 1955.]

As for 'perichoresis' (which Grant is using metaphorically) some definitions are the length of a short story and there is even a video about its meaning and pronunciation, but put simply it is a term used in the theology of the Trinity to indicate the intimate union, mutual indwelling, or mutual interpenetration of the three members of the Trinity with each other. By the way--the pamphlet must be worth £50+ and works by Grant can go for up to £400. The colour Goddess image was later used for 'Man Myth and Magic' in the 1970s. One of the few collectable part-works...The portrait of Freud was item 151 in this 1955 catalogue of 221 works and was priced at 10 guineas, probably worth a little north of 2000 guineas now (he's not Frank Auerbach) but a decent investment. Thanks to the Cabinet of the Solar Plexus who display this fine slightly sidereal painting.