Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Rimington-Wilson's Chess Manuscript (part 2)

My posts on the Rimington-Wilson chess manuscript have proved quite popular. Its tangled provenance and the question of whether it was penned by Oliver Goldsmith, as was once thought, make an engaging biblio-mystery.

The story of the manuscript appears in two essays: "The J. W. Rimington-Wilson Library (part 1)" and "More on Rimington-Wilson's Chess Manuscript." I have received quite a few emails, primarily from members of the EXLIBRIS listserv, adding new color and detail. Let me summarize the story so far, with a bit more precision about chronology, and then add new material suggested by EXLIBRIS readers. The summary:
  1. Bolton Corney (1784-1870), a literary critic and antiquary, owned a manuscript translation of Vida's 1527 poem Scacchia Ludus (The Game of Chess) said to be in the hand of Oliver Goldsmith. Corney  wrote and edited a number of books, the most relevant of which is Goldsmith's Poetical Works, Illustrated, with a Memoir (1846). (ODNB). Corney's book does not contain the chess poem, although it mentions a fragmentary translation of another poem by Vida.

  2. The manuscript is described by John Forster in his Life of Goldsmith (1848) based on Forster's examination of the Corney copy. I quoted the description extensively in the last blog essay, noting that the description seemed a bit strained as to authenticity. One EXLIBRIS reader suggested that Forster was not concerned with authenticity, but whether the manuscript was "an original work by Goldsmith or a work which he merely transcribed." Rereading the passage, I find myself agreeing with the reader. In any case, it seems reasonable that Bolton acquired the manuscript after the work he edited in 1846, but before Forster wrote about his copy in 1848.

  3. In 1871, after Corney's death, chess collector J. W. Rimington-Wilson purchases the manuscript from the London bookseller F. S. Ellis. Rimington-Wilson dies in 1877. The chess collection, including the Vida manuscript, stays in the Rimington-Wilson family, passing to son Reginald Henry Rimington-Wilson. (1852-1927).

  4. In 1926,  Katharine C. Balderston writes A Census of the Manuscripts of Oliver Goldsmith attributing the Vida manuscript to Oliver Goldsmith. She is unable to trace the manuscript prior to the ownership of Bolton Corney.

  5. R. H. Rimington-Wilson dies in 1927 and his nephew, Captain H. E. Rimington-Wilson, orders the sale of the library by auction at Sotheby's in February 1928. The Vida manuscript is the most important lot in the sale, with a reproduction of the first page appearing on the cover of the catalogue. Two letters from Ellis to J. W. R-W relating to the sale of the manuscript are included with the lot.

  6. The London bookseller Maggs purchases the manuscript at the R-W sale for £5600. Maggs is acting on behalf of the Philadelphia book dealer Charles Sessler. 

  7. Sessler sells the book to composer Jermone Kern for $32,998.10. 

  8. The manuscript is offered at the legendary Kern auction at Anderson Galleries in January 1929. The New York Times reports that someone named Perkins purchased the lot for $27,000, but he returns  it to Kern, claiming that it was not in the hand of Oliver Goldsmith as claimed. 

  9. Kern attempts to return the manuscript to Sessler. Sessler refuses to return the money, claiming that the manuscript is in the hand of Goldsmith. Kern brings suit in the Federal District Court of Philadelphia for return of the the sale price. 
Now for two new bits of color, both relating to the Kern sale, from two EXLIBRIS readers. 

First, Travis McDade, Curator of Law Rare Books at the University of Illinois College of Law pointed me to a brief first person account of the Kern sale by Robert Coates called “Books at a Million” in the New Yorker of January 19, 1929:
A copy of Goldsmith's "Vida's Sacchis, or Chess," starting at ten thousand dollars as we prepared to go, had reached twenty-five thousand before we found our gloves. Only the experts know why some items sell for larger amounts than others. Rosenbach's [about whom more below] interest in a book or manuscript, however, usually sends it pretty high before it is sold. Thus he had to go to seventeen thousand five hundred for a thin, faded green volume written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she was eleven years old, a price three times as much as was paid for a first edition of Boswell's "Johnson," with autographed letters of both Johnson and Boswell thrown in. (page 9)
Second, Stephen Tabor, Curator of Early Printed Books at the Huntington Library, pointed me to Rosenbach, A Biography, by Edwin Wolf 2nd and John F. Fleming (1936). A. W. S. Rosenbach (1876-1952) was a flamboyant Philadelphia book dealer who helped develop the collections at the Huntington and the Folger and was a bookseller to J. P. Morgan. He was a major bidder at the Kern sale where prices reached "dizzy heights." While Rosenbach apparently did not bid on the Vida manuscript, the biography notes his involvement:
Goldsmith shared in the boom. Of course excepting the so-called autograph manuscript of a translation of Vida's Scacchis, or Chess. Sessler had bought it for Kern at the Rimington Wilson sale at Sotheby's a year earlier for almost $33,000, but at $27,000 Owen Young beat out Sessler for it. After the sale and a converstaion with the Doctor [that is, with Rosenbach] he returned it to Anderson's as "wrong." Dr. Rosenbach was convinced that it was not in Goldsmith's hand, and although Miss Balderston, the greatest Goldsmith expert, had nodded in its favor before the sale, she was convinced afterward that she had not studied it carefully enough. The manuscript was returned to Kern and in the middle thirties, he was still trying to get it reinstated as genuine. (pages 310-1)
It is unclear why the New York Times reports the purchaser as Perkins, while here the purchaser is said to be Owen Young. 

The Rosenbach biography is anecdotal rather than scholarly. As Wolf notes in the preface,
Some of the stories Dr. Rosenbach told about himself are included here to give a Rosenbachian flavor to the book. Like most folk tales they have been passed down from mouth to mouth and may have been altered in the telling, but like most folk tales they are revealing of the circumstances in which they were reputed to have taken place. (pages 7-8)
With that caveat, the biography indicates the indirect involvement of Balderston and Rosenbach at the Kern sale and shows the manuscript still in Kern's possession in the mid-1930s. Oddly, Kern who sued Sessler claiming the manuscript was not in Goldsmith's hand, was claiming it to be genuine in later years.

Many questions remain:
  • Where is the manuscript now?
  • What was the resolution of the litigation between Kern and Sessler? 
  • Is the manuscript in Goldsmith's hand?
I do think it will take research in Philadelphia to extend the story and answer the nagging questions.Until then, we can trace the manuscript from Bolton Corney in the 1840s to the collection of J. W. Rimington-Wilson and on to Jerome Kern as late as the mid-1930s. Can we add to this 90 year history?

Monday, February 11, 2013

More on Rimington-Wilson's Chess Manuscript

In the essay "The J. W. Rimington-Wilson Library (part 1)," I wrote about the February 1928 Sotheby's sale of the Rimington-Wilson chess library. The most interesting lot was a manuscript said to be in the hand of Oliver Goldsmith, a translation of Vida's 1527 poem Scacchia Ludus (The Game of Chess). The London bookseller Maggs purchased the lot for the astonishing sum of  £5600. 

I wondered where the manuscript was today and was interested in learning more generally about finding aids for 18th century manuscripts. I posted a query to the EXLIBRIS listserv, and members there helped me trace the manuscript for another year. In January 1929, the manuscript was sold in the major sale of the Jerome Kern collection at Anderson Galleries. The Vida manuscript sold for $27,000 (see American Book Prices Current, VOL. XXXV, available for download).

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Tedeschi, Rare Books Librarian at the Dunedin Public Libraries in New Zealand. Anthony writes a charming and recommended blog on rare books and special collections in Australasia—Antipodean Footnotes. Anthony pointed me to a June 17, 1930 headline in the New York Times that both added detail and intrigue to the manuscript's provenance. The headline read "NEW YORK COMPOSER SUES BOOK DEALER" and the sub-head continued "Jerome Kern Seeks Return of $32,998.10 Paid Philadelphian for Translation by Goldsmith." Intrigue indeed.

The text of the article highlights the path from Rimington-Wilson to Kern and beyond:
Jerome Kern of Bronxville, N. Y., composer of "Show Boat" and other musical plays, brought suit in the Federal court here today against Charles Sessler of Merion, well-known book dealer, asking for the return of $32,998.10, the purchase price of Oliver Goldsmith's translation of Vida's "Game of Chess."
Mr. Kern declares he bought the manuscript, which is composed of 679 lines of 34 pages, from Mr. Sessler on the latter's representation that it was in Goldsmith's handwriting. On Jan. 29, 1929, he contends, he learned that the handwriting was not Goldsmith's and says that the manuscript therefore is "of no value whatever." In his complaint the composer asserts that he has demanded the return of the money on several occasions, but that Mr. Sessler has refused to refund it. 
The Philadelphia dealer in February, 1928, purchased through an agent in London the purported manuscript of the translation at a reported price of $28,000 and sold it to Mr. Kern. Early last year the composer included it with the rest of his notable private collection of rare books and manuscripts which he placed on the auction block. The collection netted him almost $1,8000,000. 
The manuscript, which was catalogued at the sale as the longest poetical manuscript by Goldsmith known to exist, went for $27,000 to a bidder whose name was given out after the sale as Mr. Perkins. The bidding had opened at $10,000. 
Mr. Sessler said that the purchase of the manuscript at the auction returned it to Mr. Kern, but the Philadelphia dealer declared he personally still believed it was in Goldsmith's own handwriting.
So, it appears that Maggs was acting on behalf of Sessler at the Rimington-Wilson sale and Sessler sold the manuscript to Kern.

With the authenticity of the manuscript called into question, I returned to the Sotheby's catalogue for the Rimington-Wilson sale for their description and provenance:
THE LONGEST POETICAL MANUSCRIPT BY OLIVER GOLDSMITH KNOWN TO EXIST. Katherine C. Balderston in her Census (New York, 1926) records only three others; two copies of The Capitivity and the rejected Epilogue to She Stoops to Conquer. The manuscript now offered is longer than all these together it was formerly in the possession of Bolton Corney, and was described by Forster in his Life of Goldsmith, 1848, but remained unpublished in its entirety until 1855, when it was included in Peter Cunningham's edition of the Works. Corney died in 1870, and the manuscript was sold by Mr. F. S. Ellis to Mr. J. W. Rimington-Wilson in the following year. Miss Balderston was unable to trace its history beyond Bolton Corney. Two letters from Mr Ellis relating to its sale are included with the lot.
We can delve a bit deeper, looking at the description by Forster in his Life of Goldsmith:
[I shall describe] Vida's Game of Chess in the English heroic metre, as it has been found transcribed in the writing of Oliver Goldsmith by my friend Mr. Bolton Corney, whose property it is and who kindly permits my use of it.
It is a small quarto manuscript of thirty-four pages, containing 679 lines, to which a fly-leaf is appended, in which Goldsmith notes the differences of nomenclature between Vida's chessmen and our own. It has occasional interlineations and corrections, but rather such as would occur in transcription than in a first or original copy. Sometimes, indeed, choice appears to have been made (as at page 29) between two words equally suitable to the sense and verse, as "to" for "toward;" but the insertions and ensures refer almost wholly to words or lines accidentally omitted and replaced. The triplet is always carefully marked and though it is seldom found in any other of Goldsmith's poems, I am disposed to regard its frequent recurrence here as even helping in some degree to explain the motive which had led him to the trial of an experiment in rhyme comparatively new to him. If we suppose him, half-consciously it may be, taking up the manner of the great master of translation, Dryden, who was at all times so much a favourite with him, he would certainly be less apt to fall short in so marked a peculiarity than to err, perhaps, a little on the side of excess—though I am far from thinking such to be the result in the present instance. The effect of the whole translation is really very pleasing, and the mock heroic effect appears to be not a little assisted by the reiterated use of the triplet and  alexandrine. As to any evidences of authorship derivable from the appearance of the manuscript, it is only necessary to add another word. The lines in the translation have been carefully counted, and the number is marked in Goldsmith's hand at the dose of his transcription. Such a fact is of course only to be taken in aid of other proof; but a man is not generally at the pains of counting,—still less, I should say, in such a case as Goldsmith's, of elaborately transcribing,—lines which are not his own.
Forster is at pains, it seems to me, perhaps due to his friendship with Corney, to describe the manuscript as authentic. His comments about such details at the marking of triplets and the counting of lines are rather strained.

I am still hopeful of locating the manuscript.I have found no online information about the litigation between Kern and Sessler, nor are there digital copies of Philadelphia newspapers available from that time. So more digging is required. Anthony had some other suggestions for further research. He notes that the Sessler papers are held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with a finding aid for the archive online. There is a substantial Kern archive at the Library of Congress, although that appears to relate only to his music.

Next time I'm in Philadelphia....

A page from the manuscript

In the mean time, the Sotheby's catalogue of the Rimington-Wilson catalogue included a reproduction from the Vida manuscript, which I include here with the thought that someone may be expert in identifying Goldsmith's handwriting.