The 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop has created a catalogue of Magnificent Books & Photographs. This is also a magnificent catalogue, filled with photographs and detailed descriptions. The material is, quite simply and accurately, magnificent. This is for collecting at the highest level, many items being rare or unique. Names like Lincoln and Washington, Shakespeare, Darwin, Whitman, Lewis and Clark, Locke, even Rockefeller abound. This is quite a collection. Here are a few selections.
We begin with a rare book that is of monumental importance to photography. The title is The Pencil of Nature, interesting since no one today would compare a photograph to something drawn with a pencil, but back then there was not much else with which to make a comparison. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it as “the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs – a milestone in the art of the book greater than any since Gutenberg's invention of moveable type.” The inventor/photographer/author was William Henry Fox Talbot. It was published in six parts from 1844-1846. While Louis Daguerre is generally thought of as the first to develop photography, Talbot, like Daguerre, had been working on the technology long before Daguerre's announcement in 1839. With that announcement, he realized he needed to make his discoveries known too. Perhaps surprisingly, the two had developed very different processes. While Daguerre's photographs produced somewhat sharper images, Talbot's had one major advantage that allowed him to publish a book with photographs. Because he was creating a negative from which to create photos, while Daguerre directly created the positive, Talbot could print many copies from a negative, hence the ability to create a book with the same images. Daguerre's photos were one and done, no more than one copy could be made. Still, while the number of copies printed is unknown, it must have been fairly small as there was deterioration in the negatives. As a result, it is a very rare book, particularly in a copy with the complete run of 24 photographs, as most copies remaining contain partial runs. This copy was originally owned by Talbot, descending to his granddaughter Matilda Talbot before passing out of the family. Price available on request.
We think of Charles Darwin as the first to conceive the theory of evolution, and he probably was, but he kept it to himself for many years, concerned about the inevitable hostile reaction. Meanwhile, another man was reaching the same conclusion. That was Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist working far away on the Malay islands, mostly in today's Indonesia. His discoveries were made independently of those of Darwin. Wallace traveled 14,000 miles and collected over 125,000 specimens. He found that the islands were divided into distinct biological zones, separated by a deep-water channel. That was similar to what Darwin found between South American and offshore island wildlife. Like Darwin, he concluded the explanation for similarities, yet differences, was evolution. Darwin being an eminent naturalist, Wallace wrote to ask him what he thought of his idea. Darwin said “Oh #@*,” or something like that. He realized he needed to reveal his beliefs or be left in the dust. Fortunately, Wallace was not out seek personal renown. Instead, they decided to jointly publish a paper to announce their discovery to the world. Darwin went on to publish his book on the origin of species, and several more on the topic, while Wallace went back to studying Malay ecology. However, he constantly praised Darwin and defended his theories. Offered is Wallace's book on the Malay islands, The Malay Archipelago: the Land of the Orang-utan, and the Bird of Paradise, published in 1869. It is dedicated to Darwin. $12,000.
Next is a presidential biography by one of America's great authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfortunately, its subject is not one of America's great presidents. Indeed, he would be near the top of the list for the title of the worst president in American history, along with James Buchanan and perhaps a more recent inhabitant of the office. Franklin Pierce was the classic northern man with southern principles, a man whose administration helped pave the way to the disaster Buchanan could not avoid. Nevertheless, Hawthorne stood by his college friend, believing the loyalty of long-time friends more important than politics. When a dying Hawthorne went to take a final journey to the lakes of New Hampshire, it was Pierce who accompanied him, and was the only person with him when he died. They were loyal friends. In 1852, Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce, though it preceded Pierce's most important years. It was published in 1852, the year Pierce ran for the presidency. It was designed to promote his friend's candidacy for the nation's highest office. This copy was inscribed by the book's subject, Franklin Pierce, to Ohio publisher Washington McLean. $22,000.
From one of the worst we go to one of the best Presidents. There are no shortage of accolades for George Washington, well deserved. However, no one is perfect, and this reflects his greatest weakness. Washington owned slaves. He worked them hard, though he was never brutal like some slave owners. They were always given reasonably good care. Washington knew slavery was wrong, but like so many in the South, he depended on slaves to work his plantations. Even after concluding that slavery was not as good a way to get best results from his workforce, he could not bring himself to freeing them. It was too risky. However, he was the only presidential slaveholder, and a rarity among all slave owners, who freed his slaves on his death. Offered is a promissory note, signed by Washington in 1867, for William Lee, commonly known as “Billy.” Lee would not be any ordinary slave. He would accompany Washington as a valet and aide, through the Revolution and much of his adult life. Lee spent some time with Washington at his presidential residence, though that time was limited as by then, Lee had debilitating knee damage that made even walking very difficult. Washington made special arrangements for Lee after he died, including a pension and the right to continue living at Mt. Vernon. He understood how valuable the talented Lee was to him. Washington agreed to pay Mary Lee, widow of Capt. John Lee, £149.15 for a group of slaves. The mixed race Lee was likely the son of John Lee, one of his sons, or some other White man on the Lee plantation. £61.15 was attributed to “Mulatto Will.” Washington paid his debt the following year. “Billy” Lee is one of the most prominent characters found Ron Chernow's Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Washington.$275,000.
Next is a collection of portraits of the six last surviving American veterans of the Revolutionary War. They were taken during the Civil War, in 1864. Their ages were 100, 102, 102, 102, 104, and 105. None of them had long to go. Surprisingly, it was the oldest, 105-year-old Lemuel Cook, who lived the longest, until May 20, 1867, when he died at age 107. The photographer who first had to locate the veterans, Elias Hilliard, likely missed a few, but none of the others who made claims and lived longer were clearly verifiable Revolutionary War veterans. Hilliard published a book with his photographs of these men, which more readily can be found, but this set of six carte-de-visite photographs is very uncommon. Hilliard was inspired by patriotism to conduct this search, hoping it would stir up more loyalty to the nation they served in its war for independence so long ago. $12,000.