Rare Books Uncovered

Posted on 18th April 2019 by eittaebnima


For better or for worse, serendipity plays a significant role in antiquarian book collecting and bookselling.  As much as people will tell you that the Internet has virtually obliterated the coincidences and turns of luck that make this hobby (or vocation) so thrilling, it simply isn’t true.  UK bookseller Simon Beattie’s fateful experience just a few years ago provides proof of this, dare we call it, phenomenon.

Beattie had just struck out on his own as a bookseller, having spent over ten years in the rare book business, mostly with the venerable firm Bernard Quaritch in London.  With undergraduate degrees in German and Russian, a master’s degree in lexicography, and several languages under his belt, Beattie tends to stock foreign literature and European cross-cultural history.  He also travels widely to buy and sell at book fairs in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

Accordingly, in late January 2010, Beattie found himself in Stuttgart, Germany, for the annual antiquarian book fair.  As is his custom during fairs such as this, he spends time browsing the bookshops in the city too.  In one secondhand shop with a small antiquarian section, where he had scouted once before, Beattie was pleasantly surprised by a book of drawings.  There is, he said, ‘a bookseller’s instinct to pull items off a shelf and ask, “What’s this?”’

That impulse served him well.  The vellum-bound sketchbook contained thirty-eight drawings executed, he postulated, by an English man or woman travelling in Italy, circa 1817 to 1837.  It was a pretty volume, with a hand-decorated color border and the spine tooled in gilt.  The drawings themselves were mostly achieved in pen and ink, with sepia wash; several were sketched in graphite.  Most were captioned and dated, but only one was enigmatically signed ‘F.B.’

‘Other than that,’ Beattie recalled, ‘no other marks of provenance, or anything like that, so I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was a nice thing.’  The anonymous artist had captured papal villas, castles, and other locations in the historic Frascati section of Rome.  The only signed drawing was labelled ‘Mount Albano.’  For less than €500 (about $700 at the time), he took a chance on what he felt were accomplished drawings.

Three weeks later, he stopped in a shop in London that he described as ‘higgledy-piggledy.’  He was looking through the books and came across a privately printed volume of photographs of art, the cover of which said, ‘Views of Rome and the Environs, photographed from the original drawings taken from nature by Frances Baroness de Bunsen.’  He flipped it open.

‘Oh, my God,’ Beattie thought, ‘These are the drawings I’ve just bought.  I don’t believe it!  What are the chances?’

With a name to investigate, Beattie could prepare a better catalogue description.  It didn’t prove terribly difficult to dig up interesting material about the artist—a woman with an intriguing, international history.  Frances Waddington (1791­­–1876), the daughter of a Welsh country gentleman, spent winters in Rome.  She met and later married Christian Carl Bunsen, a Prussian diplomat, there in 1817.  The earliest drawing in the sketchbook dates from this year.  Mr. Bunsen became an ambassador in 1823, and they led a busy life—raising ten children and hosting a salon in their Palazzo Caffarelli for artists and intellectuals, including Sir Walter Scott, who were visiting Rome.  Those in her circle knew that Frances Bunsen was a talented artist.  In The Life and Letters of Frances Baroness Bunsen (1879), Augustus J.C. Hare wrote, ‘The glorious subjects in the Alban Hills and at Rome…gave constant employment to the artistic powers of Madame Bunsen.’

The fact that Beattie found the sketchbook in Germany made sense too.  The Bunsens were called to England in 1842 when Christian was appointed ambassador to the court of St. James.  Again, their London home was known for its social soirées.  When they left there in 1854 it was to Germany they retired, first to Heidelberg, and then, after Christian’s death. Frances moved to Karlsruhe.  She died there in 1876 and was buried in Bonn.

The book of photographs containing albumen prints of six of Bunsen’s drawings had been published sometime around 1860, but there was no indication of where or by whom.  ‘Quite who did it and when they did it and why they did it, I don’t know,’ Beattie said.  Surely it must have been a very limited edition, for when Beattie checked WorldCat holdings, he detected only one other extant copy, located at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.  The outside wrapper of the book is numbered and seems to indicate that it was the first in a series, but no other parts have come to light.

The rarity of both objects—the unique sketchbooks of drawings and the limited edition book of prints—made for a quick sale.  In May 2010, the Yale Center for British Art, a public art museum and research institute for the study of British art and culture located in New Haven, Connecticut, acquired both from Beattie for a mid-four-figure sum.  Beattie was happy to see them go where they will benefit scholars/

As for the experience as [a] whole, Beattie said it was ‘just an absolutely extraordinary coincidence.’  But, he added, ‘Booksellers are going to have these stories.  You learn something, and then you go off and then suddenly something slots into place.  I guess that’s how we work.  You just learn more as time goes on; then you can visit a shop or read a catalogue, whatever it is, with that knowledge and you can find more things which you wouldn’t have done five or ten years before.’

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