The Rise and Fall of a Book Collector: Part One

by Mike Drew

Thomas J Wise (1859-1937)

Thomas_James_WiseThis is a look at one of the most important figures in the history of the rare book trade and the book that was published about him in 1934. At that time, he was a titan of the literary world; his word was instantly accepted – on both sides of the Atlantic. The book was equally important but would have dire consequences for his reputation.

Thomas James Wise was reticent on the subject of his life. In most cases those involved in the significant events of his life had predeceased him and those who survived evinced a noted disinterest in putting forward detail. What is known is that he was born in Gravesend, his father a ‘manufacturing traveller’ and later tobacconist. Through his father he had a strong Baptist upbringing, through his mother a literary one. He claimed to have been educated at the City of London School off Cheapside but there appears to be no record of his ever having attended there. The first real detail of his life comes when he went to work for the essential oil merchants H. Rubeck with whom he would stay for all his working life, becoming as expert in aromatic oils as he would in books.

He started book collecting as a young man, hunting the barrows of the Farringdon Road and the bookshops round Fleet Street and the Strand. He moved on to the upmarket shops of Piccadilly and Mayfair, learning the differences between the dirty, untidy stocks of the markets and the finer books of the antiquarians. After his first big purchases – Thomas Moore’s Epicurean and Shelley’s Cenci – he decided these would become the foundation of a library. The Ashley Library would eventually help alter the very direction and tenor of book collecting in the twentieth century.

book_readerWise’s influence on book collecting cannot be overestimated. Whilst those like J Pierpont Morgan may have had the more valuable stock and others, such as Sir Leicester Harmsworth, might have been more important in their field, the Ashley Library is described by John Carter (on whom, more later) as ‘one of the half-dozen finest libraries in private hands, and it is very probably the finest.’ Considering that Wise was never as rich as the great American collectors of his age – and started whilst still a modest clerk – his achievement is made all the more impressive.

Wise was an innovator, seeking out descendants and friends of those he wanted to collect and buying the heirlooms and manuscripts left to them. In this way he created a collection of inscribed and presentation copies, privately printed first editions and manuscripts. By the time he bought Swinburne’s library from Theodore Watts-Duncan (with whom the poet was living) Wise was the virtual heir to the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He was an outspoken champion of the Moderns, the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites and in doing so took up the cause of many writers who had not previously been deemed worthy of collection.

Most significantly, he drove the taste for books in original state, championing original boards, wrappers and bindings against the tradition of rebinding. This has survived today in the English and associated tradition, whereas French collectors still enjoy daring and aesthetically aligned contemporary bindings. His own rebinding notwithstanding (and he was particularly taken by apple-green morocco) his collecting habits did much to popularise the desire for the survival of the narrative of the book, displayed in its binding as well as its pages.

Not only did he collect, he described. His library was central to the bibliographic work for which he is justly famous. The bibliographies display a great energy and enthusiasm and showcased the range and power of his library. They are still valuable research tools, being expansive and informative. Their flaws – particularly a forcefulness in favour of his own interpretation of precedence, especially when it gave a special importance to works in his own collection – do not detract from them as part of the beginning of complete author bibliographies as we understand them today.

He was a member, and sometimes a founder member, of a number of literary societies and was a friend of many of the leading scholars of the day. He was an honorary fellow of Worcester, Oxford, had been a president of the Bibliographic Society and was a member of the prestigious Roxburghe Club.

The Roxburghe Club had its origins in the sale of the library of the Earl of Roxburghe in 1812. On the 16th of June – the eve of the sale – a group of bibliophiles – including the Earl Spencer and the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin who was cataloguing the Earl’s library – met for dinner to mark the breaking up of one of the most impressive collections in the world. It was suggested that the dinner become an annual event to commemorate the collection. From these origins grew the most exclusive and significant bibliophilic society in the history of collecting.

Members come from the societal elite. Its ranks have included prime ministers, cabinet ministers, university librarians, business magnates and titled and landed aristocracy. The members – aristocrats, scholars and collectors united by a love of fine books – all have to produce at least one book, often a facsimile taken from their own collection and chosen for its rarity and significance. The society started with the production of medieval black letter manuscripts and has expanded from there. During the time of Wise’s membership his fellows included such luminaries as financial tycoon J. Pierpont Morgan, Albert Edward Spencer, Earl Spencer (Lady Di’s grandfather) and scholar and horror writer M.R. James. With his admittance to this academic, aristocratic and influential group the tobacconist’s son had reached the top of the book world. His authority was absolute and his name was destined to ring through the ages.

That is until 1934 when two young booksellers – John Carter and Graham Pollard – published the innocuous sounding An Enquiry Into The Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. In this they showed without doubt that at least fifty famous first editions were forgeries and, although they did not have enough evidence to outright state this, the implication was forged by Wise.

It is hard to understand the immense impact this had on both the book world and the ‘real’ world. It was as if Christopher de Hamel had been making hooky 10th century Apocalypses or Brian Sewell had commissioned knock-off Dali’s. Had he lived in our own age Wise would have been a media talking head, called on for comment on any subject from the Romantic poets, to eBooks to the decline of modern culture. The scandal made the cover of national and provincial newspapers and for a period everyone was talking about it. Even after the furore died down in the public eye the discoveries would remain a talking point, and often a divisive one, amongst the trade for years.

bookmanWise’s genius, much remarked about even by his accusers, was to eschew the traditional avenues of forgery. Not for him William Henry Ireland’s creation of Vortigen and Rowena. Creating a new text has any number of difficulties, any of which might allow for detection, and it is remarkably hard to write good pastiche, let alone a believable original. Nor did he produce a copy of an existing book which only calls for invidious comparison with the original. He also did not match the incomparable Vrain-Lucas who supplied autograph letters by Lazarus and the Virgin Mary in flawless modern French. No, Wise’s flair for innovation showed itself as much in his forgery as in his collecting. He took poems known to be first published in collection, but which plausibly could have been privately printed first and, in Alan Thomas’ words ‘He produced books which ought to have existed, but didn’t.’

Poets often privately printed their verse to show friends and family. If the work was praised they may then decide to seek ‘official’ publication. These private editions are rare but make a handsome catch for any collector or bibliographer. Thus the genius of Wise, there was no ‘original’ with which to compare the physical object and the work itself could be shown definitively to be the work of the purported author. As well as this, the desire of the collector, the bibliographer, the scholar was that the work be genuine. Any initial suspicion would be countered by the reputable nature of the source and the innate desire for something so interesting (or so expensive…) to be true.

Wise had intelligence, cunning and contacts on his side. Although he was known chiefly as a collector few knew he also had a sideline as a seller and often kept watch for his clients, many of whom were rich Americans like John Henry Wrenn and William Harris Arnold. He would mention that a library was coming up for disposal and that it contained an unsuspected first edition and he would offer to purchase this for the client. After a little while he would inform them that the sale had fallen through but that he had managed to secure the particular book and would they want to purchase that alone? They invariably did. He took care never to flood the market. He created valid provenance for the works. He found willing dupes and willing allies to support his claims. Most audaciously of all the famous bibliographies he so scrupulously produced would often exist solely to lend validity to his forgeries.

Thus did at least 100 false firsts enter the marketplace backed by what appeared the finest credentials. The authors he chose were either dead or close to it. In the case of William Morris he was so good natured and obliging he even signed Harry Buxton Forman’s copy of Sir Galahad (Forman would later be accused of being Wise’s co-conspirator).

Carter and Pollard’s suspicions, and they were no more than that to begin with, were first aroused by the absence, rather than the presence, of detail.  If these really were privately printed copies they would have been naturally given to the writer’s friends and family – why were they not inscribed?

One of the most important of the suspicious books was the Sonnets from the Portuguese. These were an outpouring of love from Elizabeth Barrett to her future husband, the poet Robert Browning. The romantic story has it that whilst living with her controlling father she produced a sonnet sequence baring her love. She pushed this on Browning one day and ran off embarrassed. After reading them he decided they were too powerful to keep from the world and had them published. To spare her they were published as if translated from an older sequence in Portuguese, hence the title. In the new versions of the story spread by Wise’s adherents the manuscript became a printed copy. Carter and Pollard asked why, if this book was so important, did she not inscribe it to Browning? Why did he not make some note in it? Why did none of the other copies have any sort of inscription or owner’s mark?

Likewise, why were all of the copies of this, and of other works, in such incredible condition? Why were they all uncut or bound in modern styles instead of contemporary half-calf or morocco gilt? Why, when bookbinding was relatively cheap and common, would you not take advantage in order to preserve a precious gift from a friend? Why were none of them mentioned in letters of the period, least of all Mary Mitford’s who, it was claimed, had had the Sonnets printed? Why had none of them appeared at auction or in catalogues before the 1890s? Whilst none of these concerns were proof of anything, taken together, and across a series of suspicious works, they became grounds for the deepest suspicion.

The story of the uncovering of these forgeries, and the efforts taken to prove them so, is what makes the Enquiry such compelling, and essential, reading for anyone involved with, or interested in, the trade. Whilst Wise’s forgeries looked genuine to the 1890s when they were produced they proved less durable against 1930s science.

Two main tests proved Carter and Pollard’s case: paper and type. The paper was perhaps the most damming. Up until the end of the nineteenth century paper was made using rags. However, owing to a rise in literacy and an interest in reading, there was a shortage of rags and a replacement was needed. In 1854 a competition was announced by The Times offering a £1000 prize for anyone who could devise a cheap and practical alternative to rag paper. In 1861, after several false starts, esparto grass was found to work. This was followed in 1874 by the use of wood pulp, and then chemical wood. Using microscopic analysis of fibres it was possible to identify what was present in samples of paper. This technique showed that certain of the works under suspicion were printed on paper which could not have existed at the date of their purported printing. In the case of the Sonnets (imprint 1847) it was shown that the paper could not have been manufactured until 1874, almost thirty years afterwards. Since the forgeries continued after the dates when the new paper was introduced it was impossible to comment on all of them, but it categorically disproved those it covered.

The second great proof was type. Here the two enlisted one of the foremost typographers of his time: Stanley Morison. Morison is probably best known for his re-design of The Times and for commissioning and supervising what became possibly the most ubiquitous serif font of all – Times New Roman. The investigators noted three characters which seemed to link almost all of the forgeries and which helped prove their downfall.

4_bookshopOne of the greatest problems which faced designers of type and printers was the lower case f. The upper loop of an f projects forward and, if it is wholly on the body of the type, creates a gap between it and the next letter in a word. The method to avoid this problem was the introduction of the ‘kern’. The upper loop is free of the body of the type and so sits above the next letter along, thus removing the gap. The problem with this is the unsupported loop is very fragile and with constant use breaks off. The printer Richard Clay commissioned a series of tests to look for an answer and P.M. Shanks & Co. came up with the ‘broken-back’ f. The stem of the f above the crossbar leans backward so as to bring the upper loop back onto the body of the type. They took this and applied the same technique to the j, which caused similar problems. These are, once pointed out, incredibly distinctive. These innovations were first used in the early 1880s. Sixteen of the forgeries purportedly printed before then contained them.

With the help of St. Brides Foundation Library (specialists on the print trade) they identified the font used and all they needed was to discover a genuine piece printed using this font. Here the third individual element would also come into play. In several of the forgeries they spotted a question mark which came from a different font and had become mixed in with the Primer. The chance of two printers each having the same typeset but with the same rogue symbol mixed in was incredible. If they could find a legitimate facsimile print with the ‘f’, ‘j’, and ‘?’ the chances were very good that they had the right printers. They finally found the hybrid font in Alaric at Rome, a legitimate facsimile of Matthew Arnold’s poem printed by Richard Clay & Sons and edited…by Thomas J Wise.

When they examined the type used (Clay’s Long Primer No. 3) it proved to be identical to Shank’s Long Primer No. 20 except for the question mark which must have come from another typeface. When asked about this the printers readily admitted their part in printing the works. There was no suggestion that they were involved with them knowingly. Wise, using his position in literary societies, had been responsible for printing facsimiles so the printers were used to his asking for things with seemingly false imprints. Unfortunately, the firm’s customer records did not precede 1911 so they had no record of who had ordered the forgeries made.

There were other tests as well. They examined the collation of the texts, checking them against known editions. This did not always show anything untoward but in a couple of cases it could be shown that the supposed early edition was taken from a later text. In these cases again the ‘first’ edition could not have been written when claimed. They checked printers and publishers. In most cases they were perfectly valid but for a few, Wise’s care and genius escaped him and the printer had not been at that address on the date shown, or had been called something different or even had never existed according to Kelly’s Post Office Directory. Finally checking auction records, poets’ personal letters and other sources showed no trace of the existence of any of the suspected works before 1890. These additional tests were not always conclusive, nor did they affect every book, but for those affected they helped support the more controversial scientific evidence.

Despite all the evidence to prove the works were forgeries, there was no direct evidence against Wise through the microscope. The lack of records at Richard Clay’s did not help either and just because Wise was linked to forgeries did not mean he was responsible for them. Carter and Pollard’s remaining trail came to ‘a certain bookseller in the south of London who was known to specialise in this sort of thing’. That bookseller was Herbert E Gorfin, who had started work as an office boy in 1892 at H. Rubeck. Although his stock certainly contained a number of the suspicious pamphlets he was born in 1878, so could not have been old enough to have produced the earliest forgeries.

Carter and Pollard showed him their evidence for believing some of his stock was forged and he was shocked. They believed that he had no idea about the pamphlets and Gorfin was happy to tell them how he had come by them. He had started working as an agent for Wise in 1898, selling items on his behalf (this helped maintain the fiction that Wise was not a seller). In 1912 Gorfin had set up as a bookseller and Wise had supplied him with stock to sell, salting it with forgeries to reduce his own exposure. Gorfin moved these rarities with restraint and skill, never flooding the market and maintaining their value despite the large bundles of them he had left. Gorfin admitted the books came from Wise, but supplying them was not the same as producing them.

Despite their conversation with Gorfin, Carter and Pollard did not have enough evidence to directly accuse Wise of the manufacture of the forgeries. They could, and did, point out that he was linked to the printers, that the books were in his bibliographies, that he defended them when they were challenged, that Gorfin and Wise were linked, that Gorfin had bought and sold the forgeries, that of the copies in the British Museum Library (later the British Library), most were supplied by Wise and the others could be traced to him and that it was from him that much of the detail of their provenance had come. The implication was clear: at best Wise had been consistently fooled and at worst was directly responsible.  Wise responded to the Enquiry with bluster and then cited illness – a letter from his wife to the TLS stated that his doctor had forbidden him from engaging in controversy. Three years later he was dead.

The investigation was not.

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