The Book-Hunters of 1888 (1)

Sotheby's 1888

I spied a copy of this print in the ABA Office a few weeks ago.  The scene is in Wellington Street off the Strand and the date is 1888 – it was first published in “The Graphic” of 26th May of that year under the title A Book-Sale at Sotheby’s Auction-Room and what makes it particularly interesting is that letterpress captions in the margins identify (not always without ambiguity of placement) sixteen of those present – mainly of course the leading booksellers of the period.

It was engraved by “Williamson” – probably the Scottish engraver David Wallace Williamson (1838-1908), who was working in London at this time – from a wash drawing by “H.M.P.”, evidently Henry Marriott Paget (1856-1936), a regular contributor to “The Graphic”, “The Sphere”, and other leading periodicals of the day. The original drawing apparently came up for sale at Bonham’s a few years ago.  I thought at first that I’d not come across the engraving  before, but subsequently realised that this couldn’t be true.  Perhaps more accurate to say that I’d not seen it at its full double-page size before.  It is reproduced in Frank Herrmann’s “Sotheby’s : Portrait of An Auction House” (1980), which sits on my shelves  – reproduced both in the book and on the jacket.  And it was reproduced much earlier in William Roberts, “The Book-Hunter in London” (1895), which also sits on my shelves.  What is interesting about the Roberts version, re-titled A Field-Day at Sotheby’s, is that he provides an outline key (see below) taking the number of people identified to twenty-nine – the identifications not completely matching those originally given in “The Graphic”.

The scene was reproduced again in William Carew Hazlitt’s “The Book-Collector” (1904), this time in a fresh engraving from the original drawing (then in the possession of Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge), identifying the artist and with the Roberts key, but without further commentary.  Then the image appeared yet again in the second volume of “Book Auction Records” (1905), on this occasion with some editorial reminiscence from the bookseller Frank Karslake, essentially the man who founded the ABA in 1906.  Karslake was at that time both editor and publisher of “Book Auction Records” and politely notes that the Roberts key-plate “is not quite accurate”.  He has made “strict personal enquiries” and “the names now given are correct throughout”.  That said, he doesn’t name everyone and there are still a couple of matters left unresolved.

None of the commentators identify the particular sale taking place and it is possible that the view is a composite one, put together from sketches made on separate occasions.  I don’t think this is the case and actually suspect that the drawing was made from a posed photograph of some sort.  My reasons for thinking this are the comparative lack of figures in the foreground (either seated or standing), the way that most of those present seem to have been pushed round in an unbalanced way to the far wall (although the accompanying text in “The Graphic” gives another explanation for this), the odd positioning of a several significant figures behind the rostrum and out of sight of the auctioneer, and perhaps most telling of all, that beyond his hat, beard and catalogue, the features of one of the booksellers named by Roberts, “Mr J. Toovey”, probably the second most important bookseller in the entire room, are almost wholly hidden behind a corner of the rostrum.  I find it difficult to think of a reason for Paget depicting James Toovey in this way unless following a photograph.

Over the coming weeks I shall attempt to follow the Roberts enumeration round the room and to bring some of these Victorian booksellers back to life – my word, these men handled some fabulous books – but in the meantime, here is the full original account of what’s going on from “The Graphic”.


The scene represented by our artist in the engraving will probably be unfamiliar to the majority of our readers.  It represents the interior of Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson, and Hodge’s Sale Room, at No. 13, Wellington Street, Strand, during one of their interesting sales of valuable books, and contains characteristic portraits of the principal London dealers and others who are in the habit of attending the sales held there.  

Although books, of course, take the prominent place at these sales, the rooms are not exclusively devoted to them; sales of rare prints, autograph letters, coins, and other articles of antiquarian interest being of frequent occurrence.  The order of procedure is generally after the following: –  Soon after one o’clock p.m., the auctioneer takes his place in the rostrum, and business commences. The first lot is placed upon the table and examined, and is immediately bid for by one of those present; should it happen to be of value a brisk competition for its possession at once arises, and the bids follow one another in quick succession till it is ultimately knocked down to the highest bidder.

The auctioneer depicted in the engraving as officiating on the present occasion is Mr. E. G. Hodge, of the above-mentioned well-known firm of literary auctioneers, who, attended by his clerk, Mr. Snowdon, is offering a quarto volume, which at the moment is being critically scrutinised by Mr. Reeves overlooked by Mr. Stibbs, two veteran booksellers; the lot is evidently of interest to Mr. Walford, seated upon the left of Mr. Stibbs, and who is keeping a sharp eye upon the auctioneer to see that his bidding is not overlooked. Mr. Quaritch, the Goliath of the trade, may be noticed in his usual well-chosen seat just beneath the auctioneer’s desk, but upon this occasion he is not wearing his wide-awake hat (or “buying hat”, as it is jocularly termed).  It is here that the books are usually placed upon the table by the porter who takes them from the shelves at the side, where they are replaced as soon as sold.  It is for this reason that most of the buyers collect at this spot, or are seated upon that side of the auction room.

Mr. Hodge is a brisk and cheerful salesman, and keeps the attention of all the buyers well engaged from first to last (which is an essential point in a successful auctioneer), and consequently invariably obtains good prices for the goods he sells. The lots being put up and knocked down extremely rapidly it is very dangerous for any buyer to have his attention for an instant taken off the sale, as a slight inattention is frequently rewarded by the loss of a desirable book; instances of this kind often occur.

It is in this room that so many famous and historical libraries have been dispersed within the last few years. Among the principal may be enumerated the unrivalled Beckford and Hamilton Collections, which together realised upwards of £85,000; the Syston Park library, famous for its rare editions of the classics, its Gutenberg Bible, and Codex Psalter of 1459, the latter volume being remarkable as having realised the highest price of any single book that has ever been sold by auction, viz., £4,950; the Osterley Park Library, famous for its Caxtons, and many others too numerous for us to notice here.

Roberts Key Plate

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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4 Responses to The Book-Hunters of 1888 (1)

  1. Good stuff. FYI bibliographically: I have an example of the print with original / contemporary coloring.


  2. John Windle says:

    As recently as the 1960s Quaritch still held that spot at the table and my memory is that Maggs, Francis Edwards, Alan Thomas, Rota, Marks, E. Joseph etc. all had “their” place. Underlings like me got to run in with the marked catalogue (in code of course). Bid, collect, and dash on to Hodgson’s Rooms or Chrstie’s etc. always in foot or by bus ( no budget for taxis).


    • Thank you, John – yes indeed. The system was certainly still in place in the 1970s when I arrived on the scene. All a matter of ritual and mystique – I could never decipher who actually decided who the chosen few at the table should be – or how you might ever become one of the elect – but I do remember a full-on H. M. Bateman “The Man who …” moment when some innocent newcomer attempted to sit at an unmarked chair tacitly reserved from time immemorial for one of the high priests of the trade.


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