catherinedickensportrait.jpgThe Charles Dickens Museum in London reported that it discovered an original portrait of Catherine Dickens, wife of Charles Dickens. In a curious twist, the painting was discovered by X-ray beneath the portrait many believed to be the original. As it turns out, the original painting was extensively overpainted, perhaps after a botched attempt to clean it.

The Museum was gifted the portrait in 1996 and has it treasured it for 20 years as one of only two paintings of Catherine in the museum’s collection. In May of 2016, however, some gaps in the painting’s provenance were discovered, raising concerns about its authenticity. During cataloging of the museum’s art holdings, concerns were raised about the way the paint was handled in some places, which seemed amateur. The original painter, Daniel Maclise, was unlikely to have painted in such a manner.

Further investigation revealed that about 70% of the painting was not original and had been overpainted. The painting was scanned with infrared and a single X-ray in September, where the original Maclise portrait beneath was discovered.

“This has been an interesting process to say the least and one that has seen us swinging from dismay to elation,” said Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, in a statement. “It is also a reminder of the fascination involved with being responsible for such extensive collections and the importance of ongoing research into those collections. Our next move will be to raise the necessary funds to enable a complete renovation of the painting, to reveal the original Maclise work of Catherine for display in her home.”

 Image from Charles Dickens Museum

Book News for the Week of December 19-23

In case you’ve been too busy getting last-minute holiday errands done, here’s what you missed in the world of books this week:                                                                                                                                                        

Publishers Weekly says that book sales are lackluster this holiday season.                                                                                                                                                          

The Daily News reports that Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum closed this week after roughly two and a half years in existence. (Check out our story on the space in the Spring 2014 print issue.)



image source: Wikimedia Commons                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon chronicles the preservation and recent restoration of medieval wall murals at Stratford-Upon-Avon thanks in part to William Shakespeare’s father.                       

Clare Ansberry at the Wall Street Journal explores the origins of the holiday carol “Winter Wonderland.”


Happy holidays! 

st nick.JPG

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. public domain

L15317_500_5.jpgWren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge has received an “extraordinary” bequest from Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. The duchess, who died in 2014 at age 99, left over 7,500 books to the library including first editions of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. The bequest is one of the largest received in the library’s history.

Trinity’s librarian, Dr. Nicolas Bell, said in a statement it was “an extraordinary library - one of the most important private collections in Britain, which offers untold discoveries.”

Those untold discoveries include previously unknown manuscripts of Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Dickens.

The book collection was primarily formed by Mary’s father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, and her grandfather, Richard Monckton Milnes, a Liberal Victorian politician.

Dr. Bell continued: “Richard Monckton Milnes was a fastidious collector of unusual books. As well as major works of English and French literature, his library included transcripts of notorious trials for murder, forgery and witchcraft, rare political pamphlets on the French Revolution and the American Civil War, and several shelves of unpublished literary manuscripts.”

Some highlights from the collection are already on display at Wren Library during regular opening hours.

Image via Trinity College.

I think it’s fair to say that all of us behind the scenes at Fine Books are book lovers and compulsive readers. So I reached out to our staffers and asked them to recommend their favorite book this year. The results were wonderfully heterogeneous: fiction, non-fiction, topical, bookish, historical, riveting. So if you’re looking for a good read over the holiday break, check out our “Best of 2016.”

9781524721725.jpgColumnist Nicholas Basbanes: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), a memoir by one of the great literary editors of our time.

Publisher Webb Howell: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight (Scribner, $29). Webb said, “This uniquely American story includes the drama of a Greek tragedy but with a happy ending. It says much about where we’ve been the past thirty or so years and what we’ve come to value. NIKE is more than a shoe company; it manages the sports figures who entertain us, who give countless people the extra nudge to ‘just do it.’”

Columnist Jeremy Dibbell: Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines (Mulholland Books, $26), a novel set in an alternate America where the Civil War never happened. Jeremy wrote on his blog, “Winters’ tale is chock full of slightly-twisted historical threads--like any good counterfactual, it explores what might easily have been had things gone just a bit differently. It’s uncomfortable, chilling, heartbreaking ... and it deserves a wide audience.”

Associate Publisher Kimberly Draper: The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, $27), a novel about a teenage girl that ends up joining a Manson Family-style cult.

Writer Barbara Basbanes Richter: Chanson douce (Gallimard, €18), a psychological thriller based on true events that opens with the murder of two children at the hands of their beloved ‘nounou’ (nanny), written by Franco-Moroccan ex-journalist Leïla Slimani. Barbara said, “I inhaled it in two nights--I could do nothing else but finish the book.” The book won the 2016 Prix Goncourt, and it is reported that Faber acquired the English translation rights.

Madness.jpgColumnist Jeffrey Murray: Revolution (W. W. Norton, $75) by map collector Richard H. Brown and dealer Paul Cohen (of Cohen & Taliaferro). Said Murray, “I found it an aesthetically wonderful presentation of the cartographic heritage behind the American Revolutionary War.”

As for me: Mike Jay’s This Way Madness Lies (Thames & Hudson, $45), a fascinating and unsparing illustrated history of mental illness, from eighteenth-century madhouses to nineteenth-century lunatic asylums to twentieth-century mental hospitals. The book complements the still-current Wellcome Collection exhibition, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond.

Images courtesy of FS&G (top); Thames & Hudson (bottom).

134193_couverture_Hres_0.jpgFrench publisher Le Seuil has threatened legal action against the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam after the Museum questioned the authenticity of a series of previously unpublished Van Gogh sketches. The sketches were recently published by Le Seuil in the book “Vincent Van Gogh, the fog of Arles: the rediscovered sketchbook.”

The book purports to contain a series of previously unknown sketches conducted by Van Gogh during his time in Arles, discovered in the accounts book of a hotel Van Gogh stayed at in 1888. The text was written by art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, the main expert behind the find, who specializes in Van Gogh, and teaches at the University of Toronto.

After the book was published last month, the staff of the Van Gogh Museum rejected the sketches as mere copies of Van Gogh’s style, referring to them as “clumsy” and “monotonous.”

In response, La Seuil, as well as the owner of the sketches, are threatening legal action. In a press statement, La Seuil said they intend “to obtain compensation for the damage they have suffered as a result of an insidious and unfounded campaign” on the part of the Van Gogh Museum. 

For its part, the Van Gogh Museum has said it is not interested in engaging in a public debate about the authenticity of the sketches and instead are calling on the publisher and author to provide a clear response to all of the issues its experts raised about the work.

 Image via the publisher

If you’re like me, you have a go-to font when you open your word processor. You scroll through the options, but unless you’re designing something special like an invitation or a flyer, you click on your old standard, selected for readability and aesthetic gratification. (For me, the choice is Cambria.) Of course there are dozens of alternatives, perhaps even hundreds if you’ve purchased extras, most unused and unappreciated. Until now.   

Type Is.jpgType is Beautiful: The Story of Fifty Remarkable Fonts, recently published by the Bodleian Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press, offers an excellent introduction to type design. Author Simon Loxley lists fifty fonts not as a “best of” but to showcase those with intriguing histories, cultural significance, or uncommon beauty, and he employs a historical approach, beginning with Gutenberg’s Bible Type, c. 1454, and ending with Zulia, a script face developed in 2013 by Jose Luis Joluvian. The usual suspects, like Bodoni, Helvetica, and Doves Type are here, but so are Comic Sans, London Underground, and Data 70. Each short chapter is usefully illustrated with a clear example of the typeface.


Some fun facts learned:


  • The first commercially available sans-serif typeface was called Two Lines English Egyptian, which appeared in the Caslon foundry’s 1816 type specimen;
  • The typeface most commonly associated with the ‘Wild West’--e.g. Wanted! posters--was originally called French Antique, developed in the foundry of Englishman Robert Besley c. 1854;
  • A novelty typeface called Bloody Hell was created in Britain in the mid-1970s. Its letters “appear to be melting, or dripping with blood.”

Loxley’s take on type through the centuries is exceptionally engaging, and one that might even entice readers to try a new font or two.

Image Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.


Coconut cake at the Emily Dickinson Museum. Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Basbanes 


On Saturday December 10 the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, celebrated what would have been its namesake’s 186th birthday with cake, guided tours, and of course, poetry readings. Last year the museum welcomed visitors to partake in crowdsourced poetry creation and to tour the recently completed renovation of Dickinson’s bedroom.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Roughly 260 visitors braved bitter temperatures to attend this year’s bash, which coincided with the restoration of the property’s conservatory. Built by the Dickinson patriarch Edward in 1855, the tiny, south-facing, six-foot by 17-foot glass-enclosed greenhouse served as a year-round link to the natural world so beloved by Emily, where she tended to nearly two dozen native and exotic plants like orchids, ferns, carnations, and gardenias.                       

Dickinson’s interest in plants was far from casual; consider her Herbarium, a collection of over 400 plants she collected, pressed, and identified by their Latin names while a precocious fourteen-year old student at Amherst Academy. A facsimile of the impressive volume is at the museum, while Harvard’s Houghton Library houses the original. (The entire book has been digitized and is accessible online.) 

The conservatory was dismantled in 1916, but many of the original building materials remained on the property, undisturbed, for one hundred years. Now, the museum plans to use those existing pieces to rebuild the greenhouse as accurately as possible, as well as replant the various flowers that both inspired the poet and, as she grew more reclusive, served as her representatives to the outside world.

“The restoration of the conservatory is still a work in progress,” said Brooke Steinhauser, the museum’s program director. “We’ve got another month before completion--but there’s a roof and a floor, and already you get a feel for the size of the space and how important this room was to this poet who was a gardener at heart.”

Throughout the afternoon, volunteers invited children and adults to fill miniature pots with marigold or foxglove seeds from the garden. At 2:30 p.m. sharp a crowd assembled on the main floor around a table supporting two massive coconut cakes prepared according to a recipe sent to the poet by a woman known as Mrs. Carmichael. (Find the recipe here and in Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as a Cook.) Taste-testers agreed that the confection was appropriately sweet and dense--a pleasing remedy to wintery doldrums and a lovely tribute to a woman who distilled “amazing sense From Ordinary Meanings.”



The poet’s bedroom reproduced to appear as it did when Dickinson inhabited it. Photo: Nicholas A. Basbanes


The Emily Dickinson Museum closes later this month for the rest of the winter and will reopen in March. 

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Wilder Wohns, who collects exploration and mountaineering in Asia:


Where are you from / where do you live?

I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and then lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for four years during my undergraduate program at Harvard. Following graduation last spring, I now live and study in the “other” Cambridge (in the UK). I will be moving again to Oxford next year, where I will study as a Rhodes Scholar.

What do you study at University?

At Harvard, I majored in Human Evolutionary Biology with a minor in Computer Science. At the University of Cambridge, I am studying genetics as an MPhil student in Biological Anthropology. My dissertation focuses on the use of ancient DNA to study the people of medieval Cambridge, with special emphasis on better understanding the Black Death.

Please introduce us to your book collection. 

I’ve always been fascinated by remote places and particularly by the vast landscapes of Asia. My collection is mostly comprised of works on exploration and mountaineering in Asia, specifically in Siberia, Central Asia, the Himalayas, and Japan. I also have a collection of maps of these areas. Most of the books are from the 19th or early 20th centuries.

How many books are in your collection?

There are approximately 50 books and 10 maps in my collection.

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

The first book in my collection is a work called War Between Russia and Japan by Murat Halstead. This book is an account of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 by an American war correspondent. The work draws together many of the themes that interest me: interaction and conflict between cultures, the setting of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Manchuria, and Japan’s evolving relationship with Asia and the West. The war was significant for many reasons, but particularly because it was the first time an Asian nation had defeated a major European empire. Halstead’s prejudices against the Japanese are evident in the text, so it is fascinating to examine how he responded to Japan’s victory.

How about the most recent book?

I most recently acquired an early edition of Through Siberia: The Land of the Future by Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen is a personal hero of mine: he was successful as an explorer, a humanitarian, and a scientist - he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian efforts. In this work, he recounts his attempts to find a trade route from the Arctic Ocean to the interior of Siberia. He embarked on a journey by sea and land across the vast expanses of Russia, recounting his experiences, the land he traversed, and the peoples he met, in fascinating detail.

And your favorite book in your collection?

My favorite book in my collection is Blank on the Map by Eric Shipton. Alongside Bill Tilman, Shipton pioneered the “fast and light” approach to mountain travel in a time when mountaineering expeditions were run in the fashion of military campaigns. Shipton’s compact team traveled into extremely remote and difficult terrain in the Karakoram Mountains and mapped huge areas that were previously “Blank on the Map.” The work is a classic of the mountain travel genre and Shipton’s accounts are eminently readable. I love hiking and climbing in a fast and light fashion, so Shipton’s passion resonates with me.

Best bargain you’ve found?

The best bargains I’ve found were at a flea market in Paris. I found Russian first editions concerning exploration in Siberia and Central Asia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Each book was only a few Euros!

How about The One that Got Away?

I was enthralled by a 100-year-old Japanese atlas in a secondhand book store in Kanazawa, Japan. I decided to think it over for a day, but when I returned it had already been sold.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

There are many books I would love to have in my collection, but I have long been intrigued by the story of Ekai Kawaguchi, the first Japanese person to enter Tibet. Kawaguchi was a Buddhist monk who wanted to study Tibetan Buddhism in a time when Tibet was closed off to foreigners. I have been eagerly examining first editions of his book Three Years in Tibet. This book excites me because the story of exploration in Asia (and my collection) is dominated by Europeans, so I would greatly appreciate the perspective of a Japanese explorer.

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

My favorite bookstore is Henry Sotheran’s in London. The store has deeply knowledgeable staff who are always eager to help those who share a passion for antiquarian books and the incredible stories they contain.

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

I would collect Japanese woodblock prints. They are beautiful - strikingly rich in color and detail. Whether they depict sublime scenes from another age or historically significant battles and individuals, Japanese woodblock prints are endlessly fascinating.

Image Courtesy of Wilder Wohns.

One of only seven copies of J. K. Rowling’s handwritten and illustrated manuscripts of The Tales of Beedle the Bard sold at Sotheby’s yesterday for £368,750 ($467,317) to an anonymous phone bidder. This copy had been personally inscribed for British publisher Barry Cunningham, who made publishing history by accepting the first Harry Potter for publication twenty years ago. Rowling wrote and illustrated six manuscripts in celebration of completing her series in 2007 to present as gifts to those intimiately involved in its creation; a seventh copy was made for an auction to benefit the children’s charity, Lumos.

Screen Shot 2016-12-14 at 12.02.11 PM.pngEach of the seven copies is “uniquely embellished,” and “inspired by an ancient Italian prayer book,” according to the Sotheby’s catalogue. This one, bound in brown morocco, is adorned with seven rhodochrosite stones and a silver skull mounted at center.

Speaking about the book prior to yesterday’s sale, Dr. Philip W. Errington, Director of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department said, “The personal resonance of this book makes this both an exceptional and highly desirable object to come to auction. It is particularly special as it is only one of six made for those closest to the author throughout the journey of creating the Harry Potter series, gifted to the man who recognised the brilliance of J. K. Rowling’s writing and her potential impact on children’s literature.”

An inscribed first edition of Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) made £57,500 ($72,870) at the same sale.

Image via Sotheby’s

Bidding is currently open for the Tom Gregory collection of signed Hollywood photographs at RR Auction. The collection is considered the finest ever assembled. Online bidding continues through Thursday, December 15.

Gregory, a film producer and news commentator, began collecting Hollywood glamour photographs when he was only four years old, after stumbling across a box of photographs in his grandmother’s house. As he grew older, and his monetary means increased, Gregory followed the oft-repeated collector’s advice of “buy the best copy you can afford,” gradually assembling a world-class collection of signed Hollywood photographs of stars in classic roles.

Highlights, all signed, include a Greta Garbo photo inscribed to Eva von Berne, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, a variety of silent film stars and directors, Fatty Arbuckle, and an oversized portrait of James Dean from East of Eden.

Watch Tom discuss his collection in this YouTube video:

Auction Guide