24 July 2012

Alvin Langdon Coburn

London, with an Introduction by Hilaire Belloc, Duckworth and Co and Brentano’s, London 1909. Folio,  20 photogravures.

Current selling price: £6,000 - £10,000

Apparently the Olympics are coming to London soon, so with this in mind and also with the more interesting prospect of a new, glossy, authoritative study by Pamela Glasson Roberts out soon from Thames and Hudson, it’s time to visit the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn, dubbed by George Bernard Shaw 'the greatest photographer in the world'.

Coburn is the big hitter among art photographers-- the man who was the first to create art out of  the humble topographical photograph. But as well as his well captured portraits and urban landscapes of London and New York , he later experimented with ‘Vortographs’, which makes him  especially fashionable now that Futurism and Vorticism are currently very hot indeed. Alas, at the height of his powers he retreated to Wales, where he became embroiled in Freemasonry and the occult. He died almost forgotten in 1966.

Despite its size London looks superficially like a standard Edwardian chatty topographical book of which there are so many-- the sort of book you might find at the bottom of a tea chest at some obscure country sale, or at a jumble sale in the Cotswolds. The title page tells you that the text is by Hilaire Belloc. It could just as easily be by Edward Thomas or E.V.Lucas, or indeed George Bernard Shaw, who was originally approached to supply the Introduction. It is only by opening the book and flicking through its pages that you discover its true qualities. The photogravures are stunning. Even if you didn’t know Alvin Coburn from Alvin Stardust you’d be enchanted.

An American from Boston, Coburn fell in love with photography after being given a Kodak as a child of 8 in 1890. At 17 he accompanied his photographer cousin F. Holland Day to London, where nine of his plates were included in an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. In 1904 he held his first one-man show in New York City as well as having a photogravure published in Stieglitz’s magazine Camera Work. He subsequently made other visits to England, taking photographs of the capital and studying the photogravure process at the London County School of Photo-Engraving, before settling permanently in the metropolis in 1909. He had already been commissioned by Brentano’s and Duckworth to create twenty plates for a luxurious coffee-table book on London and after building two hand-operated printing presses in his new home he immediately set about putting all his new engraving skills into practice. For London he personally prepared the plates, creating proofs from them until he had created the perfect plates for his printer to match. He also supervised the printing.
The appearance of London created a sensation. Never before had the British seen their capital is such romantic light, though William Hyde’s London Impressions had done something similar in 1898; nor had buildings and bridges been photographed from such elevated positions. Coburn’s image of Tower Bridge, which had only recently been opened, is unforgettable.

Other publications in which Coburn was involved are equally expensive today. New York, the follow-up to London, which contains an iconic photogravure of Brooklyn Bridge, can go for even more, that is if you can find a copy. Many copies of both books must have been broken up for framing, which may explain why only two complete copies of London are currently for sale online at £11,000 and £15,000. More common are the many annual editions of Coburn’s Men of Mark series, which range from $3,000 for issues featuring middle-ranking figures, to $17,000 for the 1913 issue that contains portraits of big names like Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats and Mark Twain. Copies of Camera Work also range from $1,500 to a staggering $3,500 for the 1906 issue, although with all these fragile publications condition is an important factor. Many copies, notably one on Abebooks, for which one chancer requires $2,000, have damaged spines, and others may be dog eared or have pages creased. They are, after all, essentially magazines. Perhaps the best current online Coburn bargain at $1,250 is a copy of The Blue Grass Cookbook (1904), an unremarkable book in many respects, but notable for being the first in which his photographs appeared. It is basically a celebration of southern USA cuisine and of those women who perfected it.

All in all over a working life of around 61 years Coburn illustrated 25 books, most of which featured photogravures, but not all command big prices. Search for anything featuring his work, and look out for the new book on him.[R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. The online prices seem very high. In auction the book has never made more than $11000 and usually makes about £4000 to £5000. The $11K record goes thus:

Coburn, Alvin Langdon - London.  L & NY, 1909 - Folio, - orig bds - rebacked & recornered, small repairs to bd extremities - With 20 mtd plates. - Some spotting to text - With ALs to Douglas Glass, 3 June 1956, laid in - Christie's New York, Apr 10, 2008, lot 3, $11,000 - Open Book pp. 50-51

Somewhere I have seen a little masonic book with Coburn wearing the dress of the order and looking about as  Bohemian as John Major. It seemed curious he had once been a wizard of the lens right up there with Sander, Emerson, Ray and Stieglitz.

09 July 2012

More celebrity collections, an A- Z

Sherlock Holmes
The popularity of our greatest fictional detective is evinced by the fact that there are at least two fan clubs devoted to him. Membership of both is studded with celebs, but it is not easy to discover exactly who of these are genuine collectors. Popular entertainer Stephen Fry, a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, has a fine collection of firsts, as has cultural historian and literary odds and bobs man,  Christopher Frayling, and comic novelist Simon Brett. The late Richard Lancelyn Green began his vast collection of Sherlockiana at the age of seven, and painstakingly built an accurate copy of Holmes’s study in the attic of his home. He vigorously fought a campaign against the sale of the Conan Doyle Archive in 2003, but all his efforts failed. At about this time I asked for an interview on his life’s passion, but he refused. He committed suicide soon afterwards and Sherlockians have speculated that the manner of his death, which closely resembled the suicide in ‘Thor Bridge’, suggests that, like the heroine of that story, he was trying to implicate one of his enemies in his death. Green’s collection of 14,000 books and over 200,000 other items filled 12 vans.

Signed books
Multi-award winning former US country singer Barbara Mandrell has a collection of around 300 autographed books at her home. She appears to confine herself mainly to show business figures, but also values her signed copy of Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years, which was a present. Perhaps someone should tell her that the unsigned copies are worth more. A much more interesting item in her collection is the ‘ very special ‘ book that Katherine Hepburn signed for her. ‘She never signs her books ‘ Mandrell revealed, ‘ But she signed one for me ‘.
Crime writer Ian Rankin collects signed books by writers he admires but has never met, such as Anthony Burgess and George MacBeth. He signs copies of his own books for collectors, but never adds a dedication. 'People don’t want dedicated copies', he contends.

The late Dame Edith Evans had a wonderful collection of books on the theatre, including many which George Bernard Shaw, had inscribed to her. Tragically, when she was close to death an unscrupulous dealer conned some of these from her for paltry sums. Brian Forbes attended the auction at Christies where the remaining volumes were sold, but despite being armed with £10,000 from the Theatre Museum, was 'outbid ten times over'by an American University.

Key Sixties figure Barry Miles, co-founder of IT and owner of Indica, the trendy bookshop/gallery where Yoko Ono and Lennon first met, documents all things Beat and guards his probably unrivalled 'Beat library and archive' at his West End home.

Travel writer Jan Morris, who lives in Gwynneth, collects books on Wales and has so many copies of the Transactions of the Society of Cymmroddian, which was founded in 1751, that she has to store half of them at her son’s house. Neil Morrissey, star of Men Behaving Badly and that Homebase ad with Leslie Ash, is a great fan of Dylan Thomas and once owned five properties, including  Brown’s Hotel, in the poet’s hometown of Laugharne. But how good is his collection of firsts by Thomas ?

Women’s fiction
Jacqueline Wilson is that rare being, a true female bibliomaniac and has haunted second hand bookshops since she was a teenager. Fiction by women outnumbers other genres in her vast, double-stacked library, and when I interviewed her she showed me her firsts of Anne Tyler, Stevie Smith and Iris Murdoch. She was horrified when a friend announced that she had sold all her Barbara Pym firsts to a dealer for £10 each.

Germaine Greer also collects work by female writers, mainly of the seventeenth century, on whom she has published . She collects female artists too and once landed a wonderful portrait by Gwen John for a bargain. Workaholic art historian Frances Spalding collects firsts of Bloomsburyite stalwarts such as Virginia Woolf, as well as Stevie Smith. It is likely that the library of the self-deprecating Jeannette  Winterson also contains a fair number of key work by female writers.

R. M. Healey
Last in series…

Many thanks Robin. A little unfair on Baroness T...as a dealer, I find she is very saleable, although she signed a lot of books. It's Ted Heath you don't want, some of his books are quite hard to find unsigned. Also Katherine Hepburn is not an impossible signer although her signed autobiography is a few hundred of your British pounds. I once saw her in a London cab and she laughed when recognition dawned on my face...a great moment. Lastly I have seen Jeannette W bidding at auction - for a T.S. Eliot item as I recall. A great punter.