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A kind of madness, not so gentle

Posted April 13th, 2018, 11:06 AM IST

A kind of madness, not so gentle

StoryLtd, an online auctioneer more known for its sales of rare prints and paintings had its first ever online auction of rare and antiquarian books. While antiquarian books are regularly bid for and sold in the west and we even have specialised books fairs dealing with these books, in India this is somewhat of a rarity.

The history of book collecting has shown that some collectors do have a passion for collecting art and in 2006 Osian wanted to mount an exhibition of Indian art for display and sale at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But in collecting art versus books, art always wins. Far more is written about art collections and its considered far more valuable and exotic.

This is why the auction of rare books relating both to the colonial period and the British Raj in India is significant. went to get lengths to put its collection on the raj in India together. While it had an exhaustive online catalogue to tempt buyers, the more serious among them could view the books at a preview in their offices at Prabhadevi in Mumbai. This is very much in line with the accepted practice in the west, where bidders or their agents could physically examine the books and examine the quality of printing and binding.

The auction recorded sales of over 86 lakhs with 31 of the 51 lots put up for action finding buyers.

This is small change compared to international sales of rare books but considering that the business of acquiring, storing and displaying rare and antiquarian books is still very new in India, it’s a promising beginning.
One of the prize catch of the auction among the many travel histories etc was a set of 144 aquatints set in six parts called ‘Oriental Scenery’. This was the more famous work by the Daniells, Thomas and his nephew William who first travelled to India in 1785 under commission from the East India Company. Thomas was an art engraver and William was his apprentice.

The Daniells were to spend the next nine years in India producing a series of aquatints covering Mughal architecture, mountain landscapes, and city life in Madras and Calcutta. These aquatints were regarded as the finest illustrated work on India at the time. The original aquatints are preserved in the British Museum but they were also reproduced in book form in two parts called Oriental Scenery.

It was this book that was displayed and and successfully auctioned at the online auction by StoryLtd.

Oriental Scenery when it was first published evoked a great deal of nostalgia and warmth among the British colonial administrators. But the interest in the book was kept alive by the subsequent rise in fame of the Daniells. Many of their tints and engravings were acquired and displayed by collectors over the years. Some of the fine work of the Daniells hang in hotels and art galleries and exhibition of the British Raj in India can ever be completed without some display of the Daniells’ work.

But Oriental Scenery hold a special place. In the 1990s, the architects, Antonio Martinelli from Paris and George Michell then of the Smithsonian embarked on a project of compiling two hundred years India’s artistic and architectural heritage.

On top of their list was to travel through India in the tracks of India’s first great reporters, the Daniells through the many sites in both north and south India. The idea was to reproduce the many landscapes depicted by the Daniells but this time in camera. It was a task easier said than done.

The Daniells had travelled the country over a period of nine years travelling from north to south using whatever mode of transport was available. Martinelli describes his first encounter with the Daniells by spreading reproductions of their aquatints on the floor of his Paris flat and visualizing their journey.

Between 1995 and 1997, Martinelli and Michell made four trips to India and found access to many of the Daniell sites virtually impossible. Even in the sites they managed to get to, they found that many of them had changed beyond recognition. But they could photograph them and this they did.

The result is another fascinating book also called Oriental Scenery published in 1998 and this juxtaposes many of the original sites of the Daniells with what obtains in the present day. While the photographs are by Martinelli with a fascinating text by Michell, in some cases, the original aquatints are shown against the modern photograph and one can see how much the landscape or structure has suffered by modern day depredations.

What motivates a an antiquarian or rare book collector to trawl through catalogues and collections offered for sale to acquire something? Collecting art not necessarily of the masters is perceived as both desirable and a value-added activity. The pride of acquisition leads to a pride of display in a prominent place at home. People with art acquisitions that are valuable tend to get them valued and insured against loss or theft.

But what about collecting rare books? It’s a singular passion pursued with great vigour by a few about which not much is known. Nicholas Basbanes called his seminal book on book collecting A Gentle Madness with a subtitle Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books. The acquisition of Oriental Scenery by Thomas and William Daniell at the online auction by StoryLtd may well be the result of such an ‘eternal passion’.

We also hope that this first online auction of rare books will lead to a greater interest in the books themselves especially in their history.

This will help books acquire a distinct value in their own right as against art. We do have an instance where the relentless passion for books, the gentle madness becomes not so gentle.

This had to with the acquisition of a rare Shakespeare First Folio in England. The famous Bodleian library had owned a First Folio once in its history. But it had sold it in favour of a Third Folio dubbing the First as inferior. The First Folio disappeared from sight for two and a half centuries and now by a curious set of circumstances, its present owners, the Turbutt family had shown the First Folio to the deputy librarian at the Bodleian both to examine its damaged binding and authenticity. Being declared as genuine, the library wanted to acquire it back and the Turbutt family was willing to sell it.

The noted collector of the First Folio, the millionaire Henry Folger got wind of this and through his agent, offered Turbutt a pre-emptive bid of 3000 Pounds.

This set off a furious war between the Bodleian and the American Folger, with the Bodleian evoking national pride. Hoping to raise public funds in addition to the 1300 Pounds the Bodleian already had an appeal was filed in the London Times, ‘that we should lose this volume, a precious symbol of our national pride because a single American can spare more money than all of Oxford’s sons and friends is a bitter prospect indeed’.

Folger was indeed furious and upset by all this publicity. Collectors do like to remain incognito but the battle was in the open now. In spite of Folger’s best efforts, public sentiment prevailed, the balance money was raised and the Turbutt family’s First Folio was acquired by the Bodleian and Folger had to be content with the 82 First Folios he already owned!

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books



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