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BRITISH BLAKE NEWS

From Michael Phillips, our Associate Editor at the University of Edinburgh:

On 15 June 1971 the Blake-Varley Sketchbook is to be broken up and sold at auction at Christie’s. And Jeudwine, the purchaser of copy C of The First Book of Urizen at the Britwell Court Library sale at Sotheby’s 29 March 1971 (see above, and see the last issue of the Newsletter [#15], pp. 69-70), is also threatening to break up that work in order to enhance its re-sale value. The following account appeared in The Times Wednesday, 19 May 1971:

Scholars and art historians are becoming disturbed by the growing practice among dealers and owners of dismembering works of art for which they cannot find begin page 113 | back to top a market when intact.

Sketchbooks, hand-printed books, and even paintings are being “broken” or cut down for sale because they often fetch more nowadays as separate items than if sold whole.

The latest case to arouse scholarly concern is that of the celebrated Blake-Varley sketchbook, which is due to be sold as 30 separate lots at Christie’s on June 15. This important William Blake work, which contains his famous “Ghost of a Flea” drawing and his visionary head of Job, was discovered four years ago in Scotland. It had been missing for nearly a century. It contains drawings by Blake’s close friend, the water-colourist Varley.

It had to be “broken” for exhibition at the Tate and its owner, Mr. David Clayton-Stamm, decided to sell it as a series of separate drawings. These could fetch anything up to £50,000, considerably more than if sold intact.

One Blake scholar, Miss Kathleen Raine, the poet, yesterday described the breaking and selling of the individual drawings separately as “shocking.” She said it ought to be kept as one work. She was far less concerned about its being lost to Britain, as a result of auction, than about its being broken up. She hoped there might still be time to save it.

Mr. Clayton-Stamm defends his decision on the ground that a facsimile edition of the sketchbook has been published, and also because small museums and collectors who could not otherwise afford to buy original works by Blake will now be in the market for them.

Sir Geoffrey Keynes, another authority on Blake, said he thought it was already too late to save this particular work, since drawings had been removed in the past. However, he thought it would be “monstrous—like demolishing an historic house”—if Blake’s First Book of Urizen, another work by the visionary poet and artist on the market, were to be broken up. The owner, who paid £27,000 for it at Sotheby’s recently, has said that if he cannot find anyone to buy the complete book, hand-printed and hand-painted by Blake, it will have to be broken and sold in separate lots.

These two examples, which highlight the question of breaking up, promise to bring to a head controversy over the ethics and wisdom of this growing practice.

Hundreds of printed books containing hand-coloured engravings are being broken up by print sellers for framing and selling individually. The economics of book-selling make this an inevitable temptation. A book for which an antiquarian book dealer expects £50 may contain 50 colour plates which can be sold for anything up to £5 each.

The result is that these books, once abundant, are rapidly disappearing from the market, making it increasingly difficult for specialized libraries and collectors to obtain them. Many antiquarian booksellers who feel strongly about the practise refuse to sell to known print sellers, except where the book is already deficient.

I shall record the outcome of the sale at Christie’s of the Blake-Varley Sketchbook and the eventual fate of copy C of The First Book of Urizen in a forthcoming issue of the Newsletter.

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Recent publications in Britain of interest to Blake scholars include a splendidly illustrated and documented catalogue of the Tate Gallery collection of Blake drawings, paintings, and associated items. The Tate Gallery catalogue, substantially revised by Martin Butlin, together with the Fitzwilliam Museum catalogue of their Blake collection place at the disposal of Blake scholars accurate and detailed reference to two of the major Blake collections in Great Britain. A review of the Fitzwilliam Blake Exhibition and Catalogue will appear in the Newsletter.

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