28 December 2011

Alastair (Count Hans-Henning von Voigt 1887-1969)

An illustrator whose real name was Count Hans-Henning von Voigt, but who published under the pseudonym Alastair. Born in 1887, he was a very late convert to symbolism , adopting in the twenties a decorative style heavily indebted to Beardsley years after the artist had died. He (not surprisingly ) illustrated Wilde and Pater , but also Frank Wedekind, the expressionist playwright whose sexually explicit plays scandalised the Weimer Republic. Movie buffs now admire him because he illustrated Wedekind’s Lulu, who was immortalised in Pabst’s film of the same name starring the exquisite Louise Brooks; Goths worship him (see their websites) because they see him as an ideological fellow traveller.

Anecdotes about his outrageous behaviour abound. When Gabriele Annunzio met him in 1914 he was dressed in priestly blue brocade robes performing ‘gothic dances‘ around a gilded unicorn. Thirteen years later the poet and publisher Caresse Crosby describes her first meeting with him:
"... a blackamoor ushered us into a room where their was a black piano with a single candle burning on it. Soon Alastair himself appeared in the doorway in a white satin suit; he bowed, did a flying split and slid across the polished floor to stop at my feet, where he looked and said, “Ah, Mrs Crosby !“.

Soon afterwards he began what would become a fruitful relationship with Crosby and her husband Harry, who were about to launch the Black Sun Press. The twenties was the heyday of Alastair. His debut was a 1920 edition of Wilde’s The Sphinx, for which he contributed ten remarkable black and turquoise illustrations. For this you might expect to cough up around $800. This was followed by a commission from high class Munich publisher Georg Muller, who asked him to illustrate the two sumptuous posthumous limited edition volumes of Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Erdgeist and Pandora’s Box, which duly appeared in 1921. Although some films based on the Lulu character had already been made by this date, it is likely that the producers of the Pabst movie of 1927 had Alistair’s iconic depiction of Lulu in mind when they cast the gamine Louise Brooks in the title role. Because of this link, the two ‘Lulu‘ volumes are in great demand from cineastes, especially members of the Louise Brooks Society. My own copies (which are, incidentally, up for grabs) have their boards hand-blocked in a black, green and red honey-bee cell pattern and 24 extraordinary full page plates in black and red showing the artist operating in full Beardsley mode.

Although these two volumes are among the most coveted of Alastair’s productions there were further triumphs to come. The nine illustrations which accompanied a French edition of Wilde’s Salome in 1922, are also in black and red. The fact that this was not a limited edition is reflected in the prices featured on ABE, which range from an amazingly reasonable $55 to a frankly silly $650. And if you lust for an original Alastair drawing for this book there is one available too on ABE at an eye-watering $17,500 !

In 1927 an edition of Walter Pater’s Sebastian van Storck included eight extraordinary plates by Alastair. The only copy currently on ABE has a superb cover which stylistically belongs at least 20 years earlier to the fag end of the aesthetic movement. In the same year, that first extraordinary meeting with Caresse Crosby developed into a fruitful partnership which resulted in at least four commissions. The first was to supply drawings for a limited edition of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which appeared in 1928 under the Editions Narcisse imprint. For this, Alastair seems to have abandoned his familiar style for a more conventional, though hardly naturalistic, one. There is a copy on ABE for $600. When, not long afterwards, the Black Sun Press began to produce its beautiful hand-crafted limited editions, Alastair was asked to illustrated Harry Crosby’s own volume of poems, Red Skeletons, which remains one of the most sought after of the Press’s titles. An edition limited to 100 of Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta , complete with glassine wrapper (pay up to $2,872), also appeared in 1928. Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses followed in 1929. With the tragic suicide of Harry Crosby in this year Alastair’s association with the Black Sun Press seems to have faded. Certainly, it would appear that the opportunities to contribute drawings in the styles he favoured were becoming fewer after this date.

The cheapest Alastair book on ABE is the 1931 Rarity Press edition of Manon Lescaut, of which there are several for sale at a bargain $4. The appearance of this title also signalled the end of his career as a book illustrator at the ripe old age of 48. He returned to drawing in 1964, but published little, if anything. Right up to his death in 1969 he remained true to himself. In his eighties he could be seen with powdered white face, bold black eyebrows, his black silk shoes poking out from the voluminous trousers. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. I have not seen a 'Red Skeletons' for a while, we sold a decent copy in 2001 for £800. Mad, bad Harry Crosby's finest... As for Alastair's drawings they occasionally show up in auction, last month a 1920 drawing 'Le Vampire' made 800 Euros at Sotheby's Paris and there are many other results at less than a 1000 Euros. A superb iconic drawing might make 5000 Euros. $17500 is stronging it but not unimaginable - Alastair probably has appeal to those laden with cash. For far less money you can occasionally buy drawings by our own 'gin and tonic' version of Alastair- the fabulous Beresford Egan, but that's another story (watch this space.)

20 December 2011

Give Puce a Chance

Forgive the pun, but it was suggested by the war theme of this (presumably) early 1914 pamphlet. Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist magazine BLAST (aka 'the puce monster') appeared in July of that year, the same month as war broke out and the pamphlet judging by the title appeared earlier that year. Was there a load of puce dye offloaded in London at that time, was it the colour of the moment? Is this really puce? The nearest dictionary (the big Bloomsbury) describes it as 'a brilliant purplish red colour.' Did Wyndham Lewis spot someone hawking the pamphlet in the street, it seems quite possible - even the typography is similar (at least the angular printing...)

The pamphlet (of which I have the cover only) is unknowable, no such title shows at WorldCat or Copac and the title page may have born a different title and possibly the name of an author. A colour that used to be seen in the 1990s 'hot pink' was similar to puce but rather cheap looking; the 1940s Elsa Schiaparelli colour 'shocking pink' is nearer to the mark but puce has a glamour all of its own. A fine copy of BLAST would be a thing to behold and I can think of two thousand reasons why I would like one. They usually turn up in distressing shape, as for the war pamphlet it is probably too rare to have real value - unless you found Lewis's or Pound's copy -- even Gaudier-Brzeska's, with a small sketch.

Below is a recently added and obviously modern puce publication - of which I know nothing, except it appears to be part of the enviable collection of kunstler Richard Prince.

16 December 2011

John Le Carré

John Le Carré. THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR. Heinemann, London 1965.

Current Selling Prices
$60+ /£40+

I was chuffed to see a copy of this book making £840 at Dominic Winter yesterday. It was described thus:
Author's presentation copy, inscribed to title: "John Le Carre aka David Cornwell - with best wishes! Cornwall 2nd March '03. P.S. I'm not sure that poor George Smiley c[oul]d handle the present mess - I'm rather glad he hung up his boots! J.L.C." The inscription refers to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Le Carre, of course, was no fan of Blair - feeling he was America's poodle ('minstrel') in the Iraq war and called for him to resign as quickly and 'elegantly' as possible. The inscription is surprisingly restrained in view of this. It belies the old 'Flatsigned' axiom that a plain signature is worth more than an inscription as copies of the book merely signed by Le Carré can be had for £100. The egregious inventor of the word wrote an entire guide book where every plain signature was priced 25% higher than an inscription. Thus if Nelson Mandela inscribed a book to someone he had known in jail it would be trumped by a plain signature...

Not a scarce book but hard to find in faultless condition as the spine tends to fade, sometimes badly. The preceding book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is also not scarce but worth ten times more. The jacket on the Spy did not change in any way for the first dozen or so printings so marriages are not uncommon, a fine jacket often covering a slightly tired looking book. Le Carre is a generous signer and late works signed can be had for £20 or less, however I think he will prove a good investment in the long term. The latest star heavy movie was well received. In it Gary Oldman (formerly Sid Vicious and Joe Orton) played the stolid George Smiley. According to Huffington at the UK premiere of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oldman asked Le Carré if he liked what he'd seen. "I'm chuffed to fuck," came the reply.

07 December 2011

Collecting Books on Magic 1

This can be an expensive area for collectors. Amateur magicians and historians of the subject are up against big name magicians like David Copperfield, Raymond Teller and Ricky Jay, who can afford the rarest and most desirable titles. However, those with limited means may build up a decent collection, provided they steer clear of certain glamorous titles, aren’t bothered too much about editions and condition, and avoid signed and extra illustrated items.

Two works should be on top of the rich collector’s wish list. One is Porta’s Magi Naturalis, which dates from 1558. As its title implies, it deals primarily with the wonderful properties of Nature, rather than deception and illusion. There are, for instance, sections on geology, optics, cooking, magnetism and gunpowder, but (alas) no illustrations. This is a truly early work, and was much reprinted in the original Latin; the English edition didn’t appear until 1658. It is extremely early and very rare, but the fact that the first English edition didn’t appear for a hundred years rather spoils its appeal for me. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of the first in Latin it will cost you a cool thousand pounds today, though the edition in English is more sought after. Equally glamorous is Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a legendary work of myth-debunking from an enlightened JP who argued that the magic ascribed to witches could be reproduced by anyone with the skills and resources. Scot made many enemies in his defence of those who were persecuted as witches, and James I ordered the burning of all copies of the book in 1603. Few survived the flames and those that did could probably be numbered at below twenty.

Raymond Teller was pursuing a first of The Discoverie not too long ago and was overjoyed to find one, despite its steep price. There are hundreds of Dover reprints around and currently on ABE twelve copies of the 1930 John Rodker limited edition, with an introduction by Montague Summers. One chancer has the gall to boast that this particular edition is ‘ almost as rare as the 1st ‘. Hollow laughter from the direction of Raymond Teller ! Hocus Pocus Junior (1634) was heavily indebted to Scot, but is worth looking out for, nevertheless, for its illustrations and lively descriptions of legerdemain and magic trickery. A first will set you back thousands, but a 1950 limited edition reprint is currently on ABE at an amazing $775.

The books on magic you are more likely to find today date from the late eighteenth century, were often scissors and paste jobs. One of the better known examples is the four volume Rational Recreations (1774 ) by William Hooper, who is said to have been heavily indebted to Guyot’s Nouvelle Recreations, Physique et Mathematique. Hooper brings together a lot of practical or ‘ parlour ‘magic, such as optical illusions, magnetism, chemical experiments and fireworks . A ‘ sturdy ‘copy of the 1794 edition is priced at a not unreasonable £495 on ABE, where there is also a first at double that figure. John Badcock, was another- scissors- and- paste man whose Philosophical Recreations or Winter Amusements (circa 1820) contains material from a variety of sources. All editions appear to feature many attractive plates, which may explain the fancy prices—from $719 - $1200. A similar kind of book, Endless Amusement (1822), which went through many editions in the early 19th century, will cost at least £150.

Works on the history of magic date from the Victorian period are perhaps more sought after by collectors, since they were not often reprinted. Thomas Frost wrote three books, all of which are worth looking out for. The Old Showman and the Old London Fairs (1874) can be had for around $250. His Last Lives of the Conjurors (1876 )is much rarer, while Circus Life (1876), is rightly been described as a ‘ classic ‘ of its type. If you can tolerate a ‘ working ‘ copy of this book there is one in New Zealand at a reasonable $100. For a better copy you may have to pay four times this amount elsewhere.

Along with the early books on magic were the magazines, most of which are hard to find. The Conjuror’s Magazine was published in the 1790s and was the earliest magazine entirely devoted to magic. It’s very difficult to locate a single volume, let alone a complete run. Look out for the supplements on physiognomy, which were bound in with the magazine, but were often removed.

Houdini is a name collectors can’t ignore, though he was more a showman than a gifted illusionist. His books are ghosted because he couldn’t write for toffee. His titles, which include The Unmasking of Robert Houdin (1908), are collected avidly in his native United States, where they tend to be more expensive, especially if signed. In fact, it seems that anything associated with Houdini has a fancy price tag Stateside. Currently on ABE are a paper bag signed by the master at a painful $3,000+ while a longish letter of 1901 from him comes in at $14,500. All collectors must beware of forgeries. [ R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. 'Endless amusement' as the old book has it. It is very common and very slightly vexing for dealers to hear that collections of magic books have been offered to the Magic Circle, almost as common as military books that have been offered to the Imperial War Museum. The magic books always seem to get accepted but the military books are far less often wanted...