Private Libraries: Sir Louis Sterling

Article reproduced with permission from the Times Literary Supplement, 4 Feb. 1939

Book-collecting is, comparatively, an inexpensive hobby. The value of a very fine library might not suffice to purchase more than one or two really first-class pictures. The Folger Library is the best of its kind in the world. It would probably be impossible now to make a collection of Shakespeariana equal to it. Translate its value into old masters, however, and it would be a long way below the best. The Gutenberg Bible is the only book that compares, in terms of money, with the most valuable pictures. Moreover, in the sense that collecting is one expression of the acquisitive instinct, it is satisfying because there is much to acquire. The collector of great pictures may buy one a year, or one in five years; the book-collector may find something almost every day which demands to be added to his collection.

This indulgence in bibliophilic Gemütlichkeit results from a visit to the library of Sir Louis Sterling. Here is a collector who observes a simple, if not very easily imitable, principle – namely, to buy the best whenever he sees it. He excludes no period or subject, and his double-lined shelves remind one irresistibly of the more swagger catalogues of the Anderson Galleries. Huth, Bishop, van Whitall, Kern and other similar collectors come to mind, and Sir Louis may be compared to them without disadvantage.

There simply is not a department of English book-collecting of which his library cannot show some brilliant example. Early printing and Kelmscotts, the Romantics and the Augustans, Rowlandson and Alken, Shakespeare and the moderns, a manuscript of Mozart, Powys, or Byron – all are fish to Sir Louis’s net, if only the catch be big enough to save it from being thrown back.


Evolution of a library

The stages of its evolution are not the least interesting features of such a library. There was no time to examine the purchases of Sir Louis’s shoestring period. We began with the bound sets of first editions of Hardy, Thackeray, Dickens, and others. Friendship and the example of Mr. A. Edward Newton and Mr. Jerome D. Kern showed Sir Louis the error of these ways and the next step is represented by fine copies, mostly in modern bindings, of the colour plate books. Almost all the best titles are in the library. To mention Pierce Egan, Surtees, “Dr. Syntax,” the quarto Ackermann “Microcosm,” and the rest is but to indicate the widely inclusive nature of this part of the library.

Perhaps to this period also belong the fine copies, often in modern bindings, of first editions of such landmarks as “Gulliver” and “Robinson Crusoe,” but the later acquisitions demand so much more detailed attention that only passing mention can be given to these and their companions, attractive though they are. Many of them, in fact, might be worthy corner-stones of some collections, and, although their owner referred to them as “just the ordinary stuff,” this was due less to a proper affection and regard for them than to the anticipation that the visitor would be more entertained by the library’s unusual possessions.

Not the least of these were the Alkens. His earliest productions, published under the pseudonym of “Ben Tallyho,” have not survived in large numbers, but Sir Louis has most of them in the finest state and in the original printed wrappers, among them “Sporting Notions,” ”Ideas,” and “Qualified horses and Unqualified riders.” His “Military Discoveries” and “Some do and some do not” are in similar condition. It may be heretical to suggest that this kind of book may be enhanced by a suitable binding, but I would rather have Sir Louis’s copy of “British National Sports” in its handsome contemporary straight grain morocco binding than any copy I have seen in original boards. Illustrators of another temper are Blake, who is finely represented by India paper proofs on large paper of the engravings for the “Book of Job,” and a set of Goya’s “Cappriccios” in fine state.


English literature

In English literature we may begin most suitably with Shakespeare and the English Bible. The four folios of Shakespeare and duplicates of all but the first, include a superb third folio in contemporary calf. There are also two Shakespeare quartos, King Lear, 1608, falsely dated (the Pavier-Jaggard second edition of 1619), and Othello, 1630 – first edition, 1622. The most important of the Bibles, is a perfect copy of the Authorized Version, 1611, with broad margins and not only the “He” reading in “Esther” but the first state of the map and all the other points. There is also the important Coverdale version of 1535 and the “Great” or “Cromwell” Bible, 1539, the first officially commissioned text ordered by Henry VIII to be read in churches. In this Coverdale also had a hand.

Herbert’s “Temple,” 1634, has the uncancelled title, and, if Sir Louis’s surmise about his copy is correct, it must be one of the most interesting in existence. He believes that its amateurish binding of inlaid leather is the work of the Little Gidding Community. Nicholas Ferrar, the head of this community, edited Herbert’s book, and nothing seems more likely than that some copies of it should have been bound by the members.

In this period the library also includes a fine Herrick’s “Hesperides,” 1648, with the uncancalled leaves; Burton’s “Anatomy,” 1621, in original vellum; the first edition of Milton’s “Lycidas” – “Justa Eduardo King naufrago” – Cambridge, 1638; the first English translation of Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” 1620; Locke’s “Essay concerning Human Understanding, “ 1690; a superb copy, with fine impressions of the portrait and maps, of Drayton’s “Poly-Olbion,” 1613-1622, the first complete edition; a fine “Coryat’s Crudities,” 1611, in contemporary calf; and Newton’s “Principia,” 1687.

Slightly earlier in date are “Batman upon Bartholme,” 1582, which may have been Shakespeare’s source book for some of his scientific references; Gavin Douglas’s “Aeneid, “ 1553, the first classical translation into English; Florio’s translation of Montaigne, 1603, with its extravagant title-page running over on to the reverse and its fine portrait; the first collected edition of Chaucer, published by Godfray in 1532; the 1527 edition of Higden’s “Polycronicon”; and the 1570 edition of Barclay’s translation of Brandt.


Fine condition

The eighteenth century books in the library are especially notable because of their superb condition. Johnson’s “London,” Boswell’s “Johnson” and “Hebrides,” and Mrs. Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho” and “The Italian” are present in original boards or wrappers so fresh in condition as to make it appear incredible that they should have survived. The “Ode to Mrs. Thrale” 1784 (i.e., 1788), which gives Johnson’s name as the author on the title-page, but which Professor Pottle has proved to be by Boswell, is one of the copies in unstabbed sheets which Glen bought at the Auchinleck sale.

Sir Louis has an excellent Kilmarnock Burns; a signed presentation copy from the author of Wycherley’s “Miscellany Poems,” 1704, in contemporary calf and on large paper; a fine Walpole “Castle of Otranto,” 1764. Most of the important books of the period like White’s “Selborne,” a large paper “Dunciad” and Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” and “Sentimental Journey,” Fieldings, Smolletts, Richardsons and the like are first editions and in contemporary bindings.

An unusual and attractive book is Gray’s copy of Volumes 1, 4, 5, and 6 of the six-volume Dodsley “Miscellany,” of 1758.


Nineteenth century

Fine condition is also evident in the nineteenth-century books. Ainsworth’s copy, with his autograph, of Shelley’s “Adonais,” Pisa, 1821, in the original blue printed wrappers, vies with Lamb’s “Specimens of English Dramatic Poets,” 1808, with an inscription from Lamb to Southey dated at Keswick, “August 6, 1808,” its original boards covered in Southey’s “Cottonian” binding. Many other Shelley first editions are there in bindings, but “Rosalind and Helen,” 1819, is in wrappers with the label.

Other rarities and high spots of the century are too numerous to mention in detail. Such are Reade’s “The Cloister and the Hearth”; Thackeray’s “Flore et Zephyr,” and his novels in parts and cloth; Barham’s “Ingoldsby Legends”; Dickens novels in parts, and a collection of variants of the first and early editions of “Christmas Carol”; Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”.

Fine printing of various periods begins with two Caxtons – a perfect copy of “The Game of the Chess,” 1481, and “Cronicles of England,” 1480, with six leaves in facsimile and lacking two blanks – and ends with a complete collection of Doves and Kelmscott Press books and a selection of Ashendenes and Golden Cockerels.

Finally there are the manuscripts. The earliest and in some ways the finest of these is a fourteenth-century manuscript of Langland’s “Piers Plowman.” This is of the “C”, or final text, which is almost twice as long as the earliest version and dates from about 1395. Sir Louis has also the first printed edition of the poem of 1550, which is falsely dated 1505. There are two important eighteenth-century manuscripts, the one a letter from Burns dated 1791 incorporating his poem “The Song of Death,” fittingly addressed to Mrs. Dunlop, a descendant of Wallace; the other of some canons by Mozart.


Byron and Tennyson

The nineteenth-century manuscripts in the library are of great interest and importance. Five cantos of “Don Juan” entirely in Byron’s hand include Canto XVII, which remained unpublished until the present century, when it was printed in Murray’s collected edition, 1903. A manuscript of the third canto of “Childe Harold” is in the hand of Mary Wollstonecraft with corrections by Byron. There are several Tennyson manuscripts, the most interesting of which is the first draft of “Sir John Oldcastle,” which was printed in “Ballads and other Poems,” 1880. In this manuscript the poem has been sketched out in pencil, sometimes leaving lines unfinished; more frequently a line is left without its couplet, the imperfections being supplied later in ink. Other Tennyson manuscripts include “The Voyage of Maeldune” from the same volume and seven stanzas of “Early Spring” (“Tiresias,” 1885).

Original manuscripts of Scott’s “Death of the Laird’s Jock” and “A Highland Anecdote” published in The Keepsake for 1829; Swinburne’s “Robert Davenport,” written for the Fortnightly Review, November, 1890, partly in pencil; the manuscript of an essay by Carlyle; and Borrow’s manuscript of “Szekeley,” an article for the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” are also in the library. Of considerable bibliographical importance is the correspondence, from both sides, between Mrs. Davis and Charles Dickens about the character of Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” She charges Dickens with anti-Semitism, but Dickens neatly rebuts the charge, and eventually satisfies her of his good-will to the Jewish race.

Sir Louis’s interest in modern authors is to be seen in his acquisition of their manuscripts. Among these are Mr. Compton Mackenzie’s “Carnival,” Mr. James Hanley’s “Boy” and “Maelstrom,” and others by Mr. T F. Powys, Mr. H. E. Bates, Mr. Rhys Davies and Mr. Siegfried Sassoon. It is their owner’s intention to bequeath all the manuscript material to the British Museum, apart from the Dickens correspondence, which will go to the Jewish Historical Society.

The description of such a collection as this cannot give more than brief reference to some of its high-water marks and thereby attempt to indicate the catholicity of its owner’s tastes. Few collectors in this country now attempt – let alone achieve – anything on quite so extensive a scale, for the younger generation prefers its own more specialized – and, some might say, more scientific – methods of collecting. The great charm of Sir Louis’s library lies precisely in its rambling nature and in the evidence of his determination to follow no set path, but to buy whatever he happened to like. It is comforting to know that the tradition is not entirely extinct.