I suspect that most booksellers have at least one book like this — a book bought long since (over twenty years ago in this case), but sitting there still, mute and uncatalogued, because it represents an enigma. You take it down and look at it once in a while, puzzle over it again, and then put it back in hope that one day some unexpected access of knowledge will bring an answer. Perhaps we should all get together once in a while and pass these bibliographical conundrums around — or perhaps just pass them on to each other until the right book ends up in the right hands.
With the present example, I am now formally announcing that I have given up. I do not understand it and do not think I ever will. The central mystery surrounds the strange assertiveness of the binding, although the book itself offers oddities enough.
It is an 1810 edition of Thoughts on Hunting. In a Series of Familiar Letters to a Friend, published by James Cundee (1771-1831) of Ivy Lane, in tandem with Vernor, Hood & Sharpe of the Poultry — a partnership first established by the Scotsmen Thomas Vernor (1725-1793) and Thomas Hood (1759-1811), continued by Hood with Vernor’s widow Ann (1744?-1807) as a silent partner, and now augmented by the arrival of Charles Sharpe (1782-1854), a former apprentice of the Vernors’ son-in-law, the stationer Eliezer Chater (1763-1835). Hood, incidentally, was the father of Thomas Hood, the poet (1799-1845) — “I remember, I remember, the house where I was born” — the house in question being the bookshop at No. 31 Poultry, where this book probably started out in life.
Thoughts on Hunting was written, the title-page tells us, by the well-known William Beckford (1760-1844) — ah, yes, we think — the author of Vathek, builder of Fonthill Abbey, book-collector without parallel — except that — hold on, wait a minute — here is an oddity, because of course Thoughts on Hunting was not written by William Beckford at all, but by his kinsman Sir Peter Beckford (1740–1811). An inexplicable error, especially as at this point both Beckfords were still alive, and even more so as Hood and Ann Vernor had already published an earlier edition, correctly attributed to Peter Beckford, in 1796.
Whatever the cause of the howler, the present edition can still claim to be the last lifetime edition, as well as being handsomely illustrated by a fresh set of plates engraved by John Scott (1774-1827) from the paintings of the gifted James Barenger (1780-1831). Quite why Scott is featured so prominently on the title-page and Barenger not at all is a further oddity, and the frontispiece — the goddess Diana being shod for the chase — is not by Barenger in any case, but a close copy of that provided by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785) and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815) for the first edition, printed at Salisbury and published anonymously in 1781.
In its field, the book is a famous one, and indeed stands without rival as the cornerstone of any hunting collection. It is the first thoroughgoing account — “Never”, reminisced the Retrospective Review of Beckford in the 1820s, “had fox or hare the honour of being chased to death by so accomplished a hunter; never was huntsman’s dinner graced by such urbanity and wit. He would bag a fox in Greek, find a hare in Latin, inspect his kennels in Italian, and direct the economy of his stables in exquisite French”. Whatever your thoughts on hunting — my own having perhaps shifted slightly since an urban fox stole the breakfast bacon left on our doorstep by the milkman a couple of weeks ago — the book is undeniably a cultural landmark.
The mistake over the author’s name obviously did not go unnoticed or uncorrected. Although the letterpress title is dated 1810, newspaper advertisements show that the book was actually published no later than November 1809 (the frontispiece and engraved title, bearing Cundee’s imprint alone, are dated September 1809) — a common enough publishing practice to date books published towards the end of the year with the date of the following year, to prevent their looking out of date within weeks. After a judicious interval, in April 1810, the book was freshly advertised as a new publication all over again — a second issue, furnished with a re-set title-page giving the correct author and a more explicit title — Thoughts on Fox and Hare Hunting. Internally, the book is otherwise virtually identical, although, to judge from the British Library copy (7906.e.18), an errata leaf not included in the pagination had been added, listing nine errors in the text.
But — to the binding. What first caught my eye, caused me to acquire the book all those years ago, and has had me puzzling ever since, is the neatly lettered accusatory legend right at the centre of the spine — “PIRATED EDITION BY CUNDEE 1810”. I cannot recall ever having seen another bibliographical note of this sort on a binding — certainly not on one two hundred years old. The binding appears to be contemporary, or very near it. It is in a hard leather dyed crimson, a material popular in the early nineteenth century and generally referred to as straight-grain morocco (although I suspect it may not be). The endpapers are of that variety of marbling, a combination of Shell and Stormont patterns, very much in vogue at the same period, and the turn-ins decorated in contemporary style. We might guess at a date of about 1820, but it could be earlier — a binder’s blank at the front, admittedly perhaps old stock, is very clearly watermarked 1808.
Beyond the suggestion of a lightly attached label or a catalogue slip having been removed from the front pastedown, there is no clue at all as to the binder’s name or as to who might have commissioned it. Whoever that was, he — or perhaps she — had clearly read the book carefully before sending it for binding. All of the errors of the errata leaf have been corrected in manuscript, and an additional one spotted. Reference must have been made to an earlier edition, because some missing words are inserted on p.162, and a note added that two paragraphs have been omitted on p.241. Unfortunately, some of the missing words are still missing, because the binder, in trimming the edges prior to gilding them, has shaved off parts of the marginal annotation — and, to make matters worse, has somehow contrived to sever the tops off all the plates, and has had (very neatly) to reback them all to reattach the missing margins.
The final plate, Pointers, is missing altogether. It may perhaps have been damaged beyond repair, although there seem to be quite a number of copies around without a full complement of plates: the publication may have been bedevilled by more than just the error over the author’s name. No copies I have seen, or seen described, appear to have a leaf listing the plates, but a second copy I now have has a slip of thin paper pasted to the verso of the title, giving curiously disordered directions to the binder. Whether this was issued with the first or second version of the book, or both, it is impossible to say. The slip also mentions some advertisements, which the binder is “particularly desired” to place at the end, but I can find no reference to a copy with advertisements (although such things are not always mentioned).
The central question remains — why did the original owner regard the book as a piracy? It does not seem to be. Knowing of copies giving the correct author, did he assume that those giving the wrong one must be illegitimate in some way — the wrong name perhaps a deliberate red herring? Or did the owner know something that I do not? — I rather fear he did, I suspect he must have done. But, in any case, why the need to brand and shame the book so ostentatiously on the binding? — a note inside would surely suffice. This is an angry binding — did the owner have some connection to Beckford? Did he have other books with this kind of external annotation? — it seems unlikely to be unique. Too many questions — too few answers. I need help.