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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Shelf Life 3

View the contents of the entire display case for this weeks Shelf Life, follow the link below:

This week's shelf-life should actually be called display-case-life, as it is that of a rather large and splendid case, referred to by Sotheran's staff as Linnean Case, because of its provenance,  the Linnean Society. It should house natural history items, but 'for historical reasons' it serves the Travel Department in displaying unwieldy, aesthetically pleasing and unusual items. The Linnean Case stretches over 230 cm from the centre of the shop towards the Children's Book Department and standing in front of it, from left to right it contains a rather curious mix of books and objects, beginning with what I jokingly used to call Stanley's salad servers. I almost forgot that tiny volume which sits in the corner, a little manifestation of European orientalism.

Above these two rather diverse objects, we see an almost fully opened and rather beautiful Swiss panorama on display, produced at a time when Alpine tourism took off. Above two books of North American interest are propped up against the back panel of the display case. Further along to the right of this back panel are Churchill's My African Journey with the author next to a dead rhinoceros on the illustrated cloth binding. Another journey, this time an imaginary one, conjured up by a Victorian Liverpool 'inventor,' accompanies the truly colonial Churchill. In addition to the first-mentioned item, the Linnean Case holds two further 'non-books,' a signed photograph of the the great Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, which might accompany one of the about a dozen of his books we acquired fairly recently and which can be found on our website. The other object is an extremely rare plate depicting an important 19th-century Navy vessel, when she was moored in Dartmouth as a training ship. More diverse material can be explored in this display case, such as a Russian version of - again - Stanley's adventure book My Kalulu, a Samoan dictionary, and as a highlight at the far end of the case, a splendid, large and rare work on Indian Zoology, published to depict all hitherto unillustrated animals of the Sub-Continent. On our journey from salad servers to Indian wildlife we encounter mementoes of the Crimean War, a celebration of the British and Allied victory over Napoleon with hand-coloured aquatint plates, the first exhibition catalogue of the first Zionist book and poster designer, a Polar rarity, and many more books, only related to each other by proximity in this display case.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Shelf Life 2

Our second Shelf Life feature sees us opening the door of the science cabinet and taking a look at the top row of books. There, in the middle, is a run of books that, taken together, tell a story of intellectual revolution, argument, friendship and rivalry centred around the learned societies of nineteenth century Britain.

What we might call the era of evolution – the period in which science has largely rejected the Biblical Creation – can be said to have started in 1858, with the delivery of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s joint paper to the Linnean Society. This event was the catalyst for a radical adjustment in how people see the world, and it is only fitting that we try to stock works by these two great men. After recent catalogue sales, we are without copies of Darwin’s two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, but we do have a lovely early edition of his book on insectivorous plants and a number of reprints and biographical works that represent his enormous contribution to modern thought. As he did in life, Wallace has receded into the background, for now at least -   we often have his books in stock, and his influence is seen in Hickson’s A Naturalist in North Celebes, in which the author retraces some of Wallace’s steps through the Malay Archipelago.

Yet it continues to be Darwin who is the icon of the theory of natural selection, and this is reflected in titles by John Fiske, an early American disciple of evolution, and by Edward Aveling, the son-in-law of Karl Marx who co-opted Darwinism to the socialist cause (and also caused scandal in the Marx family through his womanising and spendthrift ways, though that’s quite another story). It seems right that they should be rubbing shoulders with Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publisher who paved the way for the theory of natural selection with his Vestiges of Creation, which propounded an early version of evolution. So professionally dangerous were his ideas that his books on the subject were published anonymously during his lifetime, and therefore on this shelf he is incognito.

His reticence is understandable when we look at the neighbours to the right on the shelf. William Buckland and John Kidd, both stars in the Oxford firmament and guardians of geological and biological science, are here represented by their contributions to the Bridgewater treatises, works commissioned in the 1830s to uphold the Biblical view of the Creation through science. Beyond them lie four even more problematic characters: Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Winchester who led the Church’s attacks on Darwin; Philip Gosse, the wonderfully talented naturalist whose strict beliefs led him to concoct a theory that saw God placing fossils in the earth to make it look older than it really was; Richard Owen, the difficult man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, founded the Natural History Museum, and regarded Darwinism as a personal slight; and the Swiss Louis Agassiz, another hugely gifted naturalist and geologist who dismissed natural selection as humbug.

A modern book by Adrian Desmond, Darwin’s biographer, on dinosaur anatomy divides this quadrumvirate from another mid-nineteenth geologist, Gideon Mantell. This is perhaps just as well, for Mantell fell foul of Richard Owen in the fight to claim precedence as Britain’s foremost palaeontologist. Owen took the credit for Mantell’s discovery of the iguanodon and spent the rest of his career dismissing the other man as mediocre, even after Mantell’s early death in 1852. Such personal conflict was common in the intellectual circles of the time; there were many battles being fought on many fronts, scientific, religious and personal. Yet from that time of uproar great advances emerged, and these can be seen in the work of scientists who came afterwards, such as Archibald Geikie, who continued the work of Darwin and Lyell into the early twentieth century, and Alfred Kinsey, whose controversial studies in the 1940-50s on human sexuality were born out of a Darwinist desire to examine and understand Man as an animal.

Right at the end of this section is a reminder of where it all started. Before Darwin, before Owen and Buckland, there was Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern biology, and here we have his autobiographical sketches, in his native Swedish, to show us that this very British revolution of ideas had its origins far across the sea.

For full descriptions of these books, please follow the link below:

Monday, 1 December 2014

Shelf Life 1

Welcome to Shelf Life - a weekly blog featuring a randomly chosen shelf from the inside of the world's oldest antiquarian bookshop Henry Sotheran.

The aim is to give a glimpse of what is in the shop and why we think it is interesting.

Shelf Life 1 features the top shelf in a large walk-in cupboard on the right-hand side of the shop with a full height glass door.  Affectionately known in the shop as the Grand Cabinet (pronounced a la francais) this is in fact the original lift shaft from the interior of our early premises on Piccadilly itself.

List of Books in Shelf Life 1

The books in the Grand Cab come from various departments but tend as a rule to be either more expensive, more fragile or simply things that we don't quite know where else to put.

The range is typically Sotheranesque and eclectic.  Charles Dickens first editions jostle with Kylie Minogue, facsimiles of the Gutenberg Bible and illuminated manuscripts rub shoulders with a book on military camouflage. There's a little bit of 1920s French erotica, some signed Walter Mosley detective fiction, a few Rubaiyats of Omar Khayyam, and amongst all this Spike Milligan and Barry Humphreys vie for position with a John Martin illustrated edition of Paradise Lost. To top it off there is an album of original photographs which form part of a diary kept by a young New Yorker on his tour of Europe in 1913, including an account of his voyage over on the Carpathia, only a  year after she had collected survivors from the Titanic.

Sotheran's is proud to be a shop where you can come and browse books and prints from a very wide selection of subjects and at a similarly wide choice of prices.  Not everything costs hundreds of pounds - indeed prices start from about £10.  Something for everyone - we hope.

Shelf Life will try to show you a weekly snapshot of the shop.  We hope that you find something of interest in each shelf. 

This shelf was chosen by Andrew McGeachin

Next week Chris will be sharing his selection for Shelf Life 2.