Your catalogue Oscar Wilde & His Circle is the first part of The Cohen Collection. Please tell us a little bit about your collaboration on this catalogue with Phil Cohen, who has collected Wilde for all his adult life. How did you get to know Phil?
It's a sad story in a way, because it centres around the death of our mutual friend Charles Cox, bookseller. I'd always known Phil as a collector, but we weren't particularly close. We did however have a mutual very good friend and super-hero in Charlie, one of those booksellers who made the rest of us seem rather crass and commercial. Charlie was trained at the "University of Bertram Rota", and like all of that breed, was accurate and painstakingly honest, and was also deeply wedded to the literature, especially the poetry, of the late Victorians. Charlie was best man at my wedding, and I loved him very much, as I think Phil did, and when he died suddenly and prematurely of heart failure at Christmas some few years ago I did what I could to help his lovely widow and two delightful children. So did Phil, and we became closer in that shared bond of friendship and disaster.
Phil met Charlie in 1973 at Rota's, on the first of his countless trips to the UK. (At that time, his collection must have consisted of less than 100 books.) As they discovered in their first conversation, they both owed much to Jim Nelson. Charlie had written his thesis at Exeter University on Elkin Mathews, who sold books, and initiated his publishing business, in that city. Needless to say, Jim had responded generously to Charlie's inquiries about Mathews. Even at that early date, Charlie was extremely knowledgeable, and he never stopped learning, never lost his enthusiasm for literature and books. Phil and Charlie hit it off immediately and stayed close friends for almost half a century.
I was taken aback a year or so ago when Phil began to discuss the dispersal of his collection, for it had been a central part of his being for, well, all of his adult life really: he goes into the reasoning to move the collection along in his introduction to the catalogue. This first tranche is only a taste of the riches to come, and future catalogues will be as rewarding.
You worked on this in "the first year of the Great Pandemic" and I am sure you faced a few challenges.
I did most of the cataloguing (working from Phil's own already very good catalogue) from home, as most people were obliged to do in Covid-time. The biggest problem was lack of access to reference libraries. Online resources - praise the lord for Jstor and Archive.org - made it possible, but there are failings (which I'm not about to point out) that would have been easy to rectify in the city.
You said it was an often unsettling job to divide the collection - which interconnections surprised you most?
I've worked with the 1890s since I was a tyro - one of the strange things about Wilde is that he was perfectly acceptable, indeed favoured, by the most conservative of establishments such as Maggs Bros Ltd. Wilde was a staple of the firm since the 1920s (and when I was learning the ropes), alongside more conservative figures such as Churchill, Lawrence, and Kipling. Even stranger was the enthusiasm for the larger '90s, including figures like Corvo (who incidentally Phil never found interesting), many of whom are very hard to promote in today's rather more puritan times. So I was pretty familiar with, say, the Beardsley, Beerbohm and John Gray connections, and was aware of John Barlas, but was delighted to have the chance to learn more about the genuinely tragic figures (in their endgames at least) of R.H. Sherard, Vincent O'Sullivan and Frank Miles. I also hadn't taken Lillie Langtry particularly seriously, and Phil's collection of photographs of her was a great excuse to immerse myself in her remarkable life for a short while. Everything took longer under lockdown, the corollary of which is that it's a great pleasure to have had more time than usual to study, and to finally get around to reading, say John Gray, who I found as interesting and rewarding as I had hoped. I would never have guessed him as the author of this remarkable opening, for instance:
Myself am Hang the buccaneer,
Whom children love and brave men fear,
Master of courage, come what come,
Master of craft, and called Sea-scum;
Student of wisdom and waterways,
Course of moons and birth of days;
To him in whose heart all things be
I bring my story of the sea.
What made you choose the quote for the cover - it must have been incredibly difficult to choose one quote from one of the most quoted men in history?
The cover quotation was chosen mostly because Phil had it in the collection! It's a famous quotation, and does indeed sum up the reversal that this period saw, from the artist's perceived responsibility towards society or nation, and the artist's pursuit of a more naked and free-standing conception of truth and beauty. Indeed, spending more time with Wilde increased my awareness of how responsible he was for introducing these ideas, from France in particular, into British culture, and of how long lasting their effect has been.
It is wonderful to see that you have a whole section dedicated to the performance history of Wilde's plays. The Anderson photographs stand out, can you give us a bit more background on them, please?
One of the very interesting things that Phil did was to pursue the theatrical side of Wilde's career, and he was understandably very pleased when one of the greatest institutional collections of Wilde purchased the "performing history" group en bloc, consisting of cartes de visite and correspondence from actors and actresses and theatrical programmes. It's a great example of how, even in a mature market, the creative collector can find new ways of looking at the subject. I'm glad you liked Anderson as much as I did - she's a great figure: there's something evanescent about the careers and reputations of performers, especially before film and recordings.
I like the fact that you have listed members of Wilde's circle and the works associated with them in alphabetical order. I just wanted to mention a couple of works that stood out for me.
- Aubrey Beardsley and Salomé. A Tragedy in one Act of course - there are two copies included. The first one (22) is a first edition in English, the first illustrated edition [by Beardsley, one of the icons of decadent book illustration]. “One of 500” ordinary copies (actually 750, see Nelson), of a total edition of 875, published by Elkin Mathews & John Lane, 1894. Very slight overall wear to the binding, but a very decent copy of a book that is never found in sparkling condition. The second copy is from 1907 and an early attempt at a reconstruction of all of Beardsley’s illustrations, including the two that were suppressed by the publisher in 1894 (23).
- Max Beerbohm - A Peep into the Past (157) is illustrated by the author and the first edition, one of 300 copies of this privately printed facsimile edition on Japanese vellum in 1923. The manuscript of Max’s brilliantly comic prospective-retrospective account of Wilde’s life from the position of his comfortable, obscure old age was written while Max was an undergraduate, it was apparently intended for The Yellow Book, but not used there, presumably because of its unmistakably camp references. This piratical edition is widely attributed to Max Harzof, antiquarian bookseller of New York. He has a particular place in the booksellers’ pantheon for being the first reported source of the great bookselling joke: “When he once charged his friend [Gabriel] Wells $1,040 for a book he had just bought, and Wells asked about the odd price, Harzof answered (truthfully) “I wanted to make a thousand dollars today.” The copy of this piratical edition is available at £180.
- Lord Alfred Douglas - Esme Percy's copy of The Collected Poems (174) is a first edition from 1919. The copy of Douglas’s sometime lover, the actor Esme Percy, with his ownership inscription on the front free endpaper, and an ALS to him from Douglas of 1937 loosely inserted. Percy (1887–1957), British actor on stage and silver screen, appeared in almost 40 films, mostly Hollywood productions.fatality I suppose as I have always retained a feeling of affection
- Vincent O'Sullivan - Aspects of Wilde (263) is also a first edition with dust jacket from 1936, The jacket prominently prints Bernard Shaw on the book: Mr. O’Sullivan, an authentic personal acquaintance of Wilde in those days, with no special affection for him nor any reason for whitewashing him, gives the first sane and credible description of him. It's the copy of the aristocratic suffragist Ruth Cavendish Bentinck, with her ownership inscription on the front free endpaper.
- James McNeill Whistler - The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (295) is the first authorised edition, one of 250 copies numbered and “signed” by Whistler with his stylised butterfly motif. Published by William Heinemann in 1890 it is a sort of self-edited anthology of falling out with people, built around the famous court case where he sued Ruskin for libel. Whistler was known for falling out with his friends, Wilde managed to be his friend for several years, but in 1885 they fell out and continued a 'guerilla war' for the rest of their lives. A minor element of it is reprinted in the book when Whistler prints a brief exchange with Wilde which was conducted by correspondence in the public press, where Wilde responded to accusations of plagiarism vigorously and grandly, concluding “it is a trouble for any gentleman to have to notice the lucubrations of so ill-bred and ignorant a person as Mr. Whistler.”
The interview was conducted by Silke Lohmann (The Book Collector UK) and is published here with the permission of the author.
Maggs Bros. Ltd. is one of the longest-established antiquarian booksellers in the world, established in 1853 by Uriah Maggs, born c. 1828 in Midsomer Norton, Somerset. The initial Maggs Brothers of the firm's title were Benjamin and Henry, later joined by Charles and Ernest. In 1908 B. D. Maggs served a full (then yearly) term as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA). Maggs Bros. is still under family ownership, and as of 2018 was managed by Edward Maggs.
Maggs Bros. Ltd. have been antiquarian booksellers by appointment to King George V, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Manuel II of Portugal, and as of 2016 held the Royal Warrant to Queen Elizabeth II. The company was based in London at 50 Berkeley Square until 2015. In 2016 it moved to 46 Curzon Street, with an additional larger premises later opening in 48 Bedford Square.
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