Antiquarian Book Blogosphere

Anna Middleton

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

The latest in our The Booksellers series sees our cataloguer Anna Middleton discusses her interest in counterculture and sci-fi rare books, working at book fairs and what’s currently on her cataloguing desk. 

How did you get started as a rare bookseller?

I started off right here, at Peter Harrington Rare Books. I was reading English at Oxford when the rare book trade first appeared on my radar, courtesy of the Bodleian’s Special Collections. A little while later, I found myself in London, and decided to see if it was the career for me. That was four years ago.

What subjects do you focus on in your work as a bookseller and cataloguer at Peter Harrington?

I almost exclusively catalogue modern literature and counterculture. My preferred materials to work with are manuscripts, letters, and association copies of books from the 20th century – the pen-in-hand moments that offer snapshots of human relationships and the work of writers outside of their finalized first editions. I enjoy contextualizing works and exploding myths of individual, isolated genius. Writers sometimes have veils of mystique drawn around them, so it’s refreshing to handle letters where they’re begging their publisher for an advance, or drafting poems with an eye to featuring in a magazine they know will gain them dinner-party clout. I value the things that make the people we venerate human again.

You have a specific interest in counterculture. How does that translate to your work as a bookseller?

It’s a broad term, but we can say that it includes anything pushed out of our normal canon of value, the histories that exist between the gaps, particularly in the rare book trade. Things like a first edition of an Origin of Species or a Harry Potter are already well-known, so don’t need much explaining. I find it satisfying to dig into a little-known text and communicate not just why it’s important, but also to suggest why it hasn’t been considered as such before. Sometimes it’s the contents of these works that have seen them shunned – books about grassroots political movements, alternative societies, sexuality, drugs, discrimination. Sometimes it’s the form they appear in – periodicals, pamphlets, posters, handbills. There are collectors and institutions who are interested in questioning why we hold certain things dear above others, and it’s a pleasure to be part of that conversation.

Can you talk a little about your work with rare science fiction books?

Similarly to counterculture works, science fiction was rejected by “serious” literary audiences for a long time, but now we’re constantly having to replenish stocks of many of my favourite authors: Ursula le Guin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson. It’s a literary genre that seems to be going from strength to strength and is increasingly prescient – the concepts explored in books like Snow Crash and I, Robot are barely a hairsbreadth from our own reality, for better or worse.

Is there an item you’ve catalogued that you found particularly interesting?

Perhaps the pinnacle of association copies I’ve handled was a first edition of Lathe of Heaven, inscribed by Ursula K. Le Guin to Philip K. Dick with a symbol from the I Ching, connoting joy and friendship. It is possibly the premier association copy in modern science fiction: Dick was basically the dedicatee of the book, as well as being the main character. It was the perfect marriage of my love for association copies and science fiction.

If you could choose one item from Peter Harrington’s stock to keep for yourself, what would it be?

It’s too hard to choose something from items I’ve catalogued, so I’d take something that aligns with my interests, but would never end up on my desk. We have a beautiful astronomical manuscript by Henry Ferdinand Pelerin, an 18th-century science enthusiast who created a commonplace book of his learning and interests. It’s clear, elegant, wonderfully preserved, and is filled with watercolour and gouache illustrations. There are a handful depicting comets and the night sky that bring me a lot of joy.

You attend and exhibit at book fairs on behalf of the company. Could you summarize the significance of attending fairs and meeting the book-buying public in that capacity?

There’s a lot to be said for taking the shop to customers, rather than waiting for them to visit us. You can chat with overseas collectors in person, which often leads to more meaningful conversations about what books interest them. It’s also a good opportunity to take books back to their birthplace – an obscure private press work from a small Boston bindery might not be of interest to a London buyer, but when you take that item to the east coast of the US, there’s a better chance someone will connect with it and give it a good home.

Browse Science Fiction

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Unwrapping the Past: Festive Bestsellers That Shaped the Market

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

“Nothing”, writes Washington Irving, “exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination, than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times. They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books.” This season has always been an exercise in nostalgia, for any age.

The classics we turn to every December have proved so enduring because they are populated with the ghosts of Christmas past. Our Christmas exhibition spans almost two centuries of festive publishing which have shaped our modern conception of the holiday. While the attraction of these books for readers has always been rooted in the way they speak to cherished traditions, nonetheless each has contributed something new to our celebrations. The printing and reprinting of a set of core texts, reimagining them for each generation, has established a literary mythology for Christmas. The variety on offer displays how both Britain and America have appropriated and adapted each other’s holiday ideals. Through this collection of volumes, ephemera, and original art we can appreciate the foundations of today’s essential customs: from generosity and goodwill, to Santa Claus and cards.

An Emerging Festive Book Market


Any discussion of the festive book market should start with the landmark publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, which was an instant success in Britain. When Dickens toured the States in the winter of 1867-8, his publishers Ticknor and Fields leapt to capitalise on the immense popularity, releasing little volumes of his readings, and America’s own Christmas Carol in deluxe and trade editions.

The book preached a message that was radical in its rejection of modern values in favour of a return to old-fashioned morality. In his introduction to our facsimile of the first edition, G.K. Chesterton explains that Dickens “saved Christmas”; the “tradition has often been in need of defence, as Dickens here defended it”. But Dickens was not the first to put his pen to resurrecting the true spirit of the holiday. Washington Irving’s work pays tribute to an American admiration for a lost golden age embodied by an old English Christmas, where social harmony and communal cheer presided between classes.

Among our collection are the first volumes of Irving’s Christmas stories to be published separately from the larger works in which they first appeared: The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall (1906) and his Old Christmas (1876). The former appeared, fittingly, as part of Dent’s English Idylls series, with illustrations by Charles Edmund Brock, who also illustrated our set of Dickens’s five Christmas books. Brock’s work embodies the spirit of Christmas nostalgia; a connoisseur of Regency and early Victorian design, his ‘period-piece’ watercolours perfectly evoke a lost era.

The Timeless Influence of The Night Before Christmas


If A Christmas Carol is the festive novel par excellence, then The Night Before Christmas is its poetic peer. First published anonymously as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, the poem’s author was first identified when the American scholar Clement Clarke Moore included it in his anthology of poetry in 1844. Its status in the national canon is clear from its inclusion in an American treasury of Christmas Poems and Pictures from 1864.

This anthology features many of the same traditional English verse and carols as our Christmas with the Poets, published in London in 1851, but, crucially, adds Moore’s new classic. Although Moore named his character after the familiar Dutch saint so long associated with the season, his description of the figure was quietly revolutionary: “this Santa had no precedent in history” (Restad, Christmas in America, p. 47). The latter half of the 19th century saw a flurry of illustrated reprints, snowballing into a publishing phenomenon in the States (it arrived in the UK around 1890; one of the earliest foreign editions of the poem is among those on offer this year). The great US cartoonists and illustrators of the day tried their hands at the poem, such as F. O. C. Darley, from whom “American book illustration can be said to have begun” (ANB).

Our 1862 edition of his Visit from St Nicholas is believed to be the first book to print the last line as “Merry Christmas to all”, replacing the original “Happy”. In 1862, Thomas Nast, the “Father of the American cartoon”, first sketched Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly, inspired by Moore’s “chubby and plump… right jolly old elf”. He continued to draw him for decades, culminating in an anthology of his Christmas drawings published in 1890. Over the years, Nast’s various depictions popularized the image of Santa Claus as we now know him. A particularly early incarnation of his Santa is found in the curious palm-sized Visit from St Nicholas, which unfolds like a concertina, produced in 1864 by Louis Prang. Prang later brought Christmas cards to the American market and this little souvenir anticipates his first cards by over a decade. It depicts Santa wearing a brown fur suit; only later did Nast begin to dress him in the red with which he is now associated. Through the sheer number and range of illustrations from the 19th century we are showing this year, one can watch Santa’s development from a diminutive figure fitting Moore’s elfin description, who is dwarfed by his naughty-and-nice book (believed to be a Nast invention), to an adult-sized one.

One of Nast’s major publishers was McLoughlin Brothers. Founded in 1858, they specialized solely in children’s entertainment, from books to games and toys, which was unusual at the time. John McLoughlin Jr. was a keen innovator in the realm of colour illustration, who experimented with various techniques until McLoughlin Brothers started producing lavish chromolithographs, for which they became renowned; by 1870 they had the largest colour printing factory in the country.

Until John McLoughlin Jr.’s death in 1905, the firm remained the market-leaders despite much new competition in the juvenile sector. Capitalizing on the power of familiar favourite stories, they cannily repackaged content for decades with vibrant lithographs and in various formats: on linen, paper, and thick card. The Night Before Christmas was a natural classic for them to reissue each year, as was a spinoff called Santa Claus and His Works. In December 1865 Nast provided his first major depiction of Santa for Harper’s Weekly, a multi-scene work titled “Santa Claus and His Works”, revealing what Santa did in the off-season. It further elaborated the mythology behind the figure who had emerged from Moore’s poem, such as locating his home on the North Pole. Seeing the commercial potential, in 1869 McLoughlin Brothers contracted Nast to illustrate a book alongside a poem of the same name provided by George P. Webster.

Among the many McLoughlin books we have collected this season, particular highlights are the couple of volumes of Santa Claus and His Works illustrated by Nast, as well as the first and second editions of A Visit from St. Nicholas for which he was commissioned by the McLoughlin. While the majority of their books are illustrated anonymously by in-house artists, the publishers were quick to name those illustrators, such as Nast, who were known to the public. But it was the McLoughlin brand itself which became most familiar with their young consumers, and which became so closely associated with the image of the favoured national saint, Santa Claus.

Festive Illustrations


To conclude our whirl-wind tour, one must appreciate the continued reinterpretation of these foundational texts throughout the 20th century, through seminal new illustrations, like those of Arthur Rackham, and eccentric retellings, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr Seuss dressed his antihero in the iconic red Santa suit, gave him the temperament of Scrooge, and told a timeless story of redemption, once again in resounding rhyming couplets. It had all the trimmings one expected of a seasonal classic, but added an important reminder: that the materialism that had sprung up around the holiday was not, really, at its heart. “Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

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“Not of an age, but for all time”: The Legacy of Shakespeare’s First Folio

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

This month marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most important books ever published: Shakespeare’s First Folio. It has been credited with shaping and solidifying Shakespeare’s influence on the English language – the literal and literary heft of the First Folio granting Shakespeare’s works a prominent and permanent place in the English literary canon. However, at the time of the Folio’s publication, many of Shakespeare’s plays had started to fall out of fashion and were staged less frequently. The First Folio was the first book solely dedicated to printed plays ever to be published in the prestigious folio format – an imposing size usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles and collections of sermons. This folio format lent a gravitas and importance to Shakespeare’s plays, marking them out as something far beyond mere entertainments, and in the process established the world’s most important literary canon.

‘The Play’s The Thing’

In Shakespeare’s day, plays were written to be performed, and rarely printed – and as a result many were lost. The real importance of the First Folio rests on the fact that it contains 36 plays by William Shakespeare, half of which had never been published before. Of Shakespeare’s plays, only five are missing – Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, and the two lost plays, Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won. Without the First Folio, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost forever, including some of his most loved and well-known works such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest.

The plays themselves were typeset from varying sources; many, including The Merry Wives of Windsor and Measure for Measure, were set into type from manuscripts prepared by Ralph Crane who was a professional scrivener employed by the King’s Men (the acting company in which Shakespeare belonged). Many others were taken from what are known as Shakespeare’s foul papers – working drafts of a play.  When these working drafts were completed, the author or a scribe would then prepare a transcript or fair copy of the play. These copies were heavily annotated with detailed stage directions needed for a performance, and usually served as prompt books used to help guide the performance of the play.

An estimated 750 First Folios were printed in 1623; currently 233 are known to survive worldwide. More than a third of these are housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which is home to a total of 82 First Folios. On the private market they are exceedingly rare and highly sought after. One can expect a copy to fetch a price tag in the millions of pounds.

The Birth of Shakespeare’s Canon

The unpublished plays were the property of Shakespeare’s theatrical company, the King’s Men, with manuscripts in the possession of Shakespeare’s two fellow company members and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They compiled the contents of the First Folio in 1623, seven years after their friend’s death, by which time most of Shakespeare’s plays had fallen out of the repertoire. Were it not for the First Folio, the scattered papers would have been worthless. With its great heft and imposing appearance, the First Folio established the Shakespearean canon for all time.

In book form, the plays found a new lease of life and sense of permanence. The First Folio was reprinted in 1632, again in 1663, and in 1685, the four Shakespeare folios spanning the century, eclipsing the rival collections of Ben Jonson and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, the English dramatists who collaborated in their writing during the reign of James I (1603–1625). Shakespeare was the only dramatist to achieve four folio editions in the 17th century, so the publication of the four editions in relatively quick succession set the seal of distinction on Shakespeare’s reputation as England’s foremost playwright. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, already a little old-fashioned in 1623, were among the first to be revived in the Restoration, when the theatres reopened for business after the enforced darkness of the puritanical Commonwealth. They have continued to be performed ever since.

The Printing of the First Folio

The publishers of the First Folio were the booksellers Edward Blount and father and son, William and Isaac Jaggard all members of the Stationer’s Company. William Jaggard is sometimes seen as an odd choice by Heminge and Condell to print the First Folio because he had previously published works by other authors under Shakespeare’s name, and in 1619 had printed new editions of 10 Shakespearean quartos to which he did not have clear rights, some with false dates and title pages which are referred to as the False Folio by Shakespeare scholars.

The printing of the First Folio was probably done between February 1622 and early November 1623. It was listed in the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue to appear between April and October 1622, however modern consensus is that this was simply intended as advance publicity for the book. The first impression had a publication date of 1623, and the first recorded buyer of the First Folio was Edward Dering, an English antiquary, who made an entry in his account book on December 5, 1623, recording his purchase of two copies for a total of £2.

Some pages of the First Folio were still being proofread and corrected as the printing of the book was in progress. As a result, individual copies of the Folio vary considerably in their typographical error with around 500 such corrections having been made in this way with the typesetters changing out and resetting the type in the middle of printing. These corrections consisted only of simple typos and clear mistakes in their own work. There is much evidence here to suggest that the typesetters rarely if ever referred back to their manuscript sources.

One error in the printing process was that the play Troilus and Cressida was originally intended to follow Romeo and Juliet, but the typesetting was stopped, potentially over issues with rights to the play. It was later inserted as the first of the tragedies and does not appear in the table of contents.

Preface to the Folio and The Droeshout Portrait

Ben Jonson, one of the most important English dramatists of the Jacobean era, wrote a preface to the folio addressed “To the Reader” is sits facing the famous engraving of Shakespeare on the opposite page. The engraving opposite Johnson’s preface is known as the Droeshout portrait and it serves as the frontispiece for the title page of the First Folio. It is one of only two works definitively known to be a depiction of Shakespeare and is thought to be based on an equally famous oil painting known as the Chandos portrait. The copperplate engraving used by Martin Droeshout to create the portrait for the First Folio was subsequently reused for all three later folios. The plate began to wear out from frequent use and had to be heavily re-engraved and re-touched with each subsequent folio.

The Book Collector’s Prize

Of the surviving copies of the First Folio most are missing some of their original leaves, with only about 56 copies complete, and many of those have been “made-up” with leaves supplied from other copies. It was during the 19th century, when the First Folio became firmly established as a popular item with book collectors, that many “improvements” to copies were made, it was common for early calf bindings to be discarded and replaced with shiny red goatskin shimmering with gilt.

The most assiduous folio hunter of all time was the president of Standard Oil, Henry Clay Folger, who bought his first First Folio in 1903 and whose Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, now has the world’s largest holdings, comprising 82 copies, of which 13 are complete. The vast majority of First Folios are similarly housed in major libraries, universities, and other institutional holdings. Only 27 or so copies remain in private collectors’ hands, and only six of those are complete.

Complete copies of the First Folio emerge in commerce once in a generation. The first complete copy of the 21st century was from the library of the Chicago collector, Abel E. Berland, sold at auction by Christie’s in New York, on October 9, 2001. Known as the Canons Ashby copy and bound in early panelled calf, c.1690-1730, it had passed three times through the hands of the famous Philadelphia bookseller, Dr A. S. W. Rosenbach. Like most complete First Folios, it was not perfect and had its title-leaf and two, possibly three, other leaves supplied from another copy. It sold for $6,166,000 to Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft

Nearly 20 years later, the same auction house sold a complete First Folio that had been bequeathed to Mills College in Oakland, California, for $9,978,000. The relatively small price uplift over two decades reflects the truth that no two copies of the First Folio are strictly alike. This copy was bound in full blind-stamped russia in about 1810 and had been shown at the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition of Books. It had the first leaf with Ben Jonson’s verse address “To the Reader” inlaid, a few letters on the title and a portion of the portrait restored, and the last leaf re-margined. It was 15mm shorter than the copy bought by Paul Allen, having been trimmed very close at the top of the leaves, often removing the upper box-frames. These factors were enough to keep it from breaking the $10m mark. Even so, it remains the most expensive work of literature ever auctioned.

Earlier this year, in 2023, we offered a First Folio for sale at £6.25 Million which has now sold.

A Wordsmith Without Equal

Shakespeare’s primacy as the earliest and greatest writer in modern English has led to some unsupportable claims made for him. It used to be argued that he was a preternaturally inventive wordsmith, with a huge number of original coinages attributed to him. But he wouldn’t have been so popular in his lifetime if he couldn’t make himself understood to the general playgoer. What Shakespeare displayed was an extraordinary linguistic ability to redeploy parts of speech in unexpected contexts, a process of transference known as functional shift. In Troilus and Cressida, for example, he describes how “Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages”, where he converts “kingdom” from a noun to an adjective. It’s the earliest instance of this usage recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and just one of many such that we can assume to be Shakespearean creations. Shakespeare may not have plucked new words out of thin air (a phrase first found in The Tempest), but he had a special gift for combining words to create resonant phrases that made their way out of the First Folio into the English language. Only one other book, the King James Bible of 1611, has had such a profound and lasting influence on the common stock of English phrases.

William Shakespeare: Bard and Muse

It can be argued that Shakespeare’s is the shadow that all subsequent writers in the English language find themselves trying to escape from under. While Shakespeare was known for adapting existing stories and myths, it is his versions which have stood the test of time laying the foundations for subsequent re-imaginings and interpretations.

Many important modern writers, including Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, have created work either in response to or inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard’s ghost haunts the Scylla and Charybdis episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus presents his “Hamlet theory” to a group of acquaintances in the National Library of Ireland.

The title of William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, is taken from a line from MacBeth, as is Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of my Thumbs, while David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is taken from a line in Hamlet.

Even Disney has played its hand at Shakespearean adaptation most notably with The Lion King not to mention the countless film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work by famed directors such as Derek Jarman, Julie Taymor, Peter Greenaway and Kenneth Branagh.

Reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s work are not only limited to the Anglosphere with works in many other languages having been influenced by the plays collected in the First Folio; a particularly good example of this is Aime Cesaire’s Une Tempête, a post-colonial reimagining of The Tempest.


Sections of this article were previously printed in an issue of Antique Collecting.

The post “Not of an age, but for all time”: The Legacy of Shakespeare’s First Folio appeared first on Peter Harrington Journal - The Journal.

Mark Pickett

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

The latest in our The Booksellers series, our cataloguer Mark Pickett discusses his role at Peter Harrington Rare Books, his areas of interest with the rare book trade and some of the more interesting items he has come across in his work. 

What are your main responsibilities as a bookseller and cataloguer at Peter Harrington Rare Books? 

Broadly speaking, a book goes on three journeys through Peter Harrington: acquisition, cataloguing, and selling. I mainly do the cataloguing, which involves confirming an item’s authenticity, researching its history, and writing the descriptions that accompany all our items. Whether you are browsing our website, one of our branches, a newsletter or even a book fair, it is vital that your bookseller provides reports on an item’s condition and what makes it worth collecting. That’s where cataloguers come in. An item shines when its strongest selling points are presented in a clear and concise manner, and I store away additional information for conversations with customers in my other role as a bookseller. When answering the phone or greeting visitors to our shop in 100 Fulham Road, my goal is to make clients as excited to discover our stock as I felt while cataloguing them.

What do you enjoy best about working for a rare book dealer? 

The tangible atmosphere of passion and willingness to share knowledge is a great bonus. As a cataloguer, I would say the variety of material I work with. No two customers share the same interests, and we aim to serve them all by providing beautiful and foundational items in all kinds of areas. Here is what that looks like: last week, I finished cataloguing an inscribed copy of The Tanks (1959) by great military theorist Captain Liddell Hart, set it aside with an animation studio’s box containing films and records of famous American children’s books, and turned to a curious miscellany of magic and captivity aptly titled The Mental Novelist (1783). Each day brings new piles of wonderfully diverse material offering their own unique cataloguing challenges that are always a pleasure to solve. Sometimes, that entails familiarising myself with new subjects. I can’t claim an academic background in philosophy, but I can explain how Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1946) was first published in the UK with dust jackets printed on the reverse of surplus wartime maps. It’s an imposing visual reminder that commercial and other worldly forces are inseparable from the intellectual exchange of ideas. This is the framework I use to understand all the books I catalogue, regardless of the subject.

You tend to come across quite interesting items in the course of your work. What would you say is the most interesting item you have handled?

After escorting material from our landmark Shakespeare sale, a colleague dubbed me the “First Folio Bodyguard”, but I’m not sure that item counts. One of my personal favourites is an early scientific travelogue Nabokov wrote in the scarce 64th volume of The Entomologist. It stands at the heart of Nabokov’s complimentary and competing passions for literature and lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). In this essay, the editors of Nabokov’s Butterflies (2000) tell us, the writer “had thrown off any constraints at expressing his feelings and perceptions in an entomological article, and portions of it read no differently from his fiction” (p. 40). Published in 1931, the volume shows a novelist and taxonomist still growing in strength. It comes before his first novel originally written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941); before his first discovery of a new species of butterfly in 1938, the Lysandra cormion; and decades before Lolita (1955). The essay reminds us that there was more breadth to Nabokov’s life and talents than “only” being one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.

Paradoxically, what draws me to this book is its apparent unassuming nature. There is nothing to indicate this publication deserves a place in a collector’s library of modern first editions, unless, of course, you somehow already knew that buried between pp. 255-7 and 268-81 is that crucial Nabokov essay. This also helps to explain its rarity. While cataloguing it, I traced just two copies in the world held in public institutions. No doubt many more copies have been passed over, disregarded for being, well, the 64th volume of The Entomologist. It was a great privilege to rediscover another copy and offer it for sale in its full context, telling of that young Russian who, in words and wings, revelled in aesthetics.

Recently you’ve been cataloguing novels and stories associated with popular films. Can you tell us about those? 

To me, these items are fantastic demonstrations of why we collect books: going back to the source material, the physical objects that underpinned literary masterpieces and cultural phenomena. We are all familiar with the film sets of Peter Jackson, but what does an original set of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) books look like? How did James Bond make his dramatic entrance to the world? Those initial few thousand readers who learned of a wizard boy named Harry Potter before anybody else – what kind of object(s) were they holding, and can I hold it too? You can at Peter Harrington, and if that sounds like time travel, it’s because it is.

If there were any rare book that you could have for yourself from our stock, what would it be? 

I’ll aim high. The 1532 edition of Chaucer’s Works, the first collected volume of any English author, ours being the most complete copy to enter the market in three quarters of a century. Its astounding beauty aside, this is the book that first argued our vernacular language should be collected and its canon curated in comprehensive singular volumes. It speaks out, telling us that English literature is worthy literature, on par with ancient classics and as deserving of our attention (for context, it was not until around 1910 that the first degree in English literature was offered at British universities). The book is a fundamental starting point that provided the model for the supreme achievements of English collected editions and of fine printing, the Shakespeare First Folio and the Kelmscott Chaucer. It is so much more besides.

My Sixth Form headteacher taught us that, to really enter Chaucer’s world, we needed to recite his poems in their original pronunciation. If one recited from this copy, in the domestic comfort of their own home, they might well feel upon their shoulders the weight of not only the medieval period, but of 500 years of literary tradition in English vernacular, from Chaucer to Joyce, and beyond.

What do you think people would find most surprising about the rare books trade?

It’s no surprise the trade involves detective work, but our methodology is perhaps less well known. An obvious form of research is provenance, and among my favourite discoveries in this area was identifying Elizabeth Rice (1800-1884), the former owner of a collection of correspondence between three women of letters, as the niece of Jane Austen. Other clues are more arcane, particularly when it comes to leather book bindings. A colleague recently shared that russia leather is identified by its spicy smell, and now I can’t unsmell it. Sheep is cheap, often stripping away in long, thin pieces, while pigskin, when you inspect it very closely, has a grain that comes in threes. By interrogating a book’s external appearance and aging process, we find answers to such questions as who bound it and when, how and for whom, and (crucially) has it been altered since.

Case in point: I once catalogued a book that just felt wrong. The red morocco binding appeared contemporary to the work of 1825, but it seemed too shiny, too sticky, and somehow out of place. Looking it over, one of our senior specialists declared the binding had been removed from its original book and placed onto the edition it currently clothed. In a word (there’s usually a word), it was a remboîtage. It takes handling thousands of books to build up the knowledge base of a diligent rare bookseller, and very few professions provide the sample size required for our brand of bibliophilic sleuthing.

Browse our rare books

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51st Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair20th – 22nd October 2023

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Location: Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada

The Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair will feature the foremost Canadian and international antiquarian book sellers. The fair, now in its 51st year, will showcase a wide selection of rare antiquarian and first edition books, maps, prints, manuscripts, photographs and ephemera.


Friday, October 20, 5PM-9PM. Saturday, October 21, 10:30AM-5:30PM. Sunday, October 22, 12PM-5PM   More book fairs

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The ABA Chelsea Rare Book Fair3rd – 4th November 2023

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Location: Chelsea Old Town Hall, King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW3 5EZ


Held annually in the historic Chelsea Old Town Hall, the ABA Chelsea Rare Book Fair brings together up to 80 exhibitors specialising in rare books, first editions, maps, prints, and manuscripts from all over the world. The ABA Chelsea Rare Book Fair has something to offer for every kind of book lover with expert antiquarian booksellers on hand to assist the public and answer any questions you may have.


Friday, November 3, 2PM-7PM. Saturday, November 4, 11AM-5PM. More book fairs

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Callum Hill

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

The latest in our The Booksellers series, our cataloguer Callum Hill shares his journey into the rare book world, his interest in modern literature, and some of his favourite experiences working at Peter Harrington Rare Books.

How did you find yourself working in the rare books trade?

Luck! I’m not one of those people who always wanted to be a bookseller, but I’ve always loved reading. I studied English at university, and during my master’s I found myself thinking and writing more and more about book history. I got to know enough about it that, when a friend sent me a listing for a job at Peter Harrington, I had enough confidence to think I might be able to do it. I was straight out of uni, and I didn’t really know anything about rare books, so I got unbelievably lucky.

I started in January 2021, the same day we were thrown into another lockdown. I don’t remember everything about that time, but I remember the books. One of the first things I catalogued was a small pile of pamphlets by Virginia Woolf, and one of them was signed by her. I still remember the thrill that gave me.


What is it about rare books that excites you?

I think a lot of the excitement is in the authenticity. There’s something about handling a signed copy of something and thinking – knowing – that the book you hold in your hands was once held in the author’s hands. And if the book is a first edition in fine condition, it looks and feels the way it did the first time it came into the world. It lets you understand the feeling, the what-is-it-like-ness, the experience of the book as an object. In a way, it takes you there, to the moment when it was new. Even when it’s passed through collections over the years, it gives you something of that first-hand knowledge.
But for me, the most exciting books are the ones with a story – an inscription or an association that hints at a friendship or relationship between two writers, or between a writer and a reader. They’re the books I love to write about.

I’ll give you one example. Earlier this year, we had a copy of Belcaro, a book of essays on art by Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget). The book is dedicated to her lover, the poet A. Mary F. Robinson, and the first chapter takes the form of a love letter from Lee to Robinson, offering a copy of the book to her, like an old-style dedicatory epistle.

Now, in that letter Lee writes things to Robinson that make you feel – in Emily Dickinson’s phrase – as if the top of your head has come off: “I wish I could give you what I have written in the same complete way that a painter would give you one of his sketches; that a singer, singing to you alone, might give you his voice and his art; for a dedication is but a drop of ink on a large white sheet, and conveys but a sorry notion of property. Now, this book is intended to be really yours; yours in the sense that, were it impossible for more than one copy of it to exist, that one copy I should certainly give to you”. It’s as if she’s written, “there is only one copy of this book that matters, this one”. And we had that copy, the dedication copy, which Lee inscribed and presented to Robinson. I still think that’s incredible.

What’s your specialism at Peter Harrington?

I specialize in literature. In practice, this means mostly 20th-century books – modern literature is my bread and butter – but I also work with a good amount of earlier material, as well as manuscripts, letters, photographs, sketches.


What are some of the most interesting books you’ve catalogued?

There are some that leave a deep impression. One was a first edition of the Völsunga Saga, a collection of Icelandic epics translated by William Morris. It’s a gorgeous book, the covers designed by Morris and Philip Webb – and this copy was inscribed by Morris to his fellow Pre-Raphaelite, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Another was a book of war poems given to Siegfried Sassoon by his second-in-command, while they were still in the trenches in northeast France in 1918. It was an incredibly evocative thing.

The most interesting, though, was a copy of a beautiful edition of Whitman’s Song of Myself, printed by the Roycrofters, a socialist artisan community in upstate New York, and presented by the publisher to Whitman’s friend and, possibly, his lover, Edward Carpenter.

It’s a superb association. Carpenter was a philosopher, a socialist, and an early 20th-century prophet of gay rights in Britain. When he was young, he struck up a correspondence with Whitman, and travelled across the Atlantic to meet the poet in 1877. The two had written to one another about “the love of men”, and it’s rumoured that, when they met, they began an affair. Carpenter told the story to another of his lovers, Gavin Arthur, who wrote it all down in the 1960s. You can say it’s only whispers, but until then it was the sort of thing that could only be whispered about. You’ll never read about it in any biography of Whitman, but I believe every word of it.

And if you could have any book in stock for yourself, what would it be?

It has to be poetry, and for me at the moment it would be a first edition of Keats’s Poems (1817), his first book. We currently have a copy from the library of Robert Calder Campbell, a soldier-poet who introduced Keats’s poetry to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who in turn developed something of a cult of Keats among the Pre-Raphaelites. That or his next book, Endymion, finely bound by Riviere & Son: a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

What lessons have you learnt working as a cataloguer and bookseller?

I’ve learnt a lot, but I think the most important thing is this: if you’re interested or excited or enthusiastic about a book, if you love it and if you can put it into words, someone out there will love it too. It comes through in your writing and you can’t help it. For me, that’s what it’s all about.

Browse Modern Literature

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The Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair14th-15th October 2023

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Location: 301 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109


Join both North American and international rare book dealers for the annual Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. This year promises a diverse selection of books, prints, maps, autographs, photographs, posters, postcards, ephemera, manuscripts, broadsides and fine bindings in what will be the Pacific Northwest’s biggest book event this year.


Satruday, October 14, 10AM-6PM. $10. Sunday, October 15, 11AM-4PM. $10. More book fairs

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Rare Books LA7th-8th October 2023

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Location: Union Station, 800 North Alameda Street , Los Angeles, CA 90012


Presenting the finest antiquarian booksellers, ephemera, and map dealers from all over the world, this exciting event takes place in Union Station’s historic ticketing hall. This is the first year that the Los Angeles fair will take place in Union Station and we at Peter Harrington are excited to be exhibiting our rare books and first editions in such an iconic and architecturally distinct venue. We will be showcasing items with a deep connection to Los Angeles including works by Eve Babitz, Charles Bukowski and Dashiell Hammett. The West Coast’s counter-cultural tradition will also be represented by much sought after items from cult authors Hunter S. Thompson and Philip K. Dick. 


Satruday, October 7, 10AM-6PM. From $20. Sunday, October 8, Preview 11AM-4PM. From $15.   More book fairs

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Frieze Masters11th -15th October 2023

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Location: The Regent’s Park, London


Peter Harrington will exhibit exceptional examples of printing, book design, binding, and illustration from across the world, spanning a millennium from the advent of printing in East Asia through to the 20th century. For over a thousand years, books and other works on paper have acted as a bellwether of continuously evolving artistic and aesthetic currents across the world. For this year’s Frieze Masters, Peter Harrington is delighted to exhibit books and prints that will allow visitors to explore the interactions across three continents between cultural taste, the fine arts, and the representation of the printed word and image.


Wednesday, October 11, 11AM-7PM. Invitation only. Thursday, October 12, Preview 11AM-1PM, General 1PM-7PM. From £145. Friday, October 13. 11AM-7PM. From £75. Saturday, October 14, 11AM-7PM. From £32.
Sunday, October 15, 11AM-6PM. From £32. More book fairs

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45th International Antiquarian Boston Book Fair27th – 29th October 2023

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Location: Hynes Convention Center, Downtown Boston


The 45th International Antiquarian Boston Book Fair returns to the Hynes Convention Center in Downtown Boston. Celebrating its 45th year, this three-day event features fine and rare printed materials from around the globe, including illuminated manuscripts, modern first editions, children’s books, ephemera, photographs, maps and autographs, as well as antiquarian books on a vast array of topics.

More than 100 rare book dealers from Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Serbia, the UK, and the US will exhibit an alluring treasure trove for seasoned bibliophiles and first-time attendees. Whether browsing or buying, the Boston Book Fair offers something for every taste and budget—books on art, politics, travel, gastronomy, science, sport, natural history, first editions, Americana, fashion, music, children’s books, and much more—appealing to a range of collectors and casual browsers.


Hours & Admission
Friday, October 27, Opening Night, 4PM-8PM. Tickets: $25 (available online or at the box office)
Saturday, October 28, 12PM-7PM. Free admission.
Sunday, October 29, 12PM-5PM. Free admission More book fairs

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