The publishing history of this work, which in its ‘British Catalogue’ lists thousands of stars and was at the time the most extensive and comprehensive list available, is an unusual and contentious one.
Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley (who eventually succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal) arranged publication in 1712, but it was against the compiler’s wishes.
Fearing unauthorised amendments, Flamsteed managed after the death of Queen Anne in 1714 to retrieve three-quarters of the 400 copies printed and destroyed them.
“I made a sacrifice of them to heavenly truth,” he is reported to have said. He subsequently disposed of any other copies he came across and it has been suggested that as few as 60 have survived.
This example, in a contemporary binding of panelled calf bearing the gilt arms of Queen Anne to the covers, was last seen at auction in 1935, when Sotheby’s sold books from the library at Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory.
In 1725 Flamsteed’s own revised version of Historia Coelestis… was published, this time edited by his widow, Margaret.
Other higher-priced highlights of the Forum sale included an incomplete copy of a famous collection of Botanical Plates… by Robert J Thornton that came to be known as ‘The Temple of Flora’.
No two copies seem to have the same make-up in what is a famously difficult work to bibliographically define, but some copies have presented 30 or more plates and this one ran to only 20 of the mezzotint and/or aquatints that were both printed and hand-finished in colour.
Nevertheless, it sold for a much higher than predicted £24,000. Copies with a higher plate count have made more than twice that sum and one copy has twice reached six figures.
Sporting 31 plates and six portraits, a copy offered at Sotheby’s in 1987 as part of the De Belder library reached £170,000. However, prices achieved in that auction reached exceptionally high, sometimes never to be repeated levels, and when that copy from the Marquess of Northampton’s library came back to auction in 2006, the price was a mere £100,000.
A small group of topographical works of Irish interest in the Forum sale attracted a £7000 bid for a copy of Jonathan Fisher’s A Picturesque Tour of Killarney, a large oblong folio of 1789 presenting 20 sepia-tinted aquatints, plus a map of the lake and its environs.
Bid to £2600 was an 1824 first of Dennis Sullivan’s Picturesque Tour through Ireland, an oblong quarto work with 25 hand-coloured aquatints.
The other Potter magic
Children’s books sold at Forum included a couple of appealing Beatrix Potter items that were first owned by Francis William Clark, who was just two when he was sent a 1912 first of The Tale of Mr Tod.
Francis was, however, the dedicatee. He was the son of BP’s cousin, Caroline Hutton, whose husband was Laird of Ulva, and the book’s printed dedication reads “For William Francis of Ulva – Someday!”.
Mr Tod sold at £1900, but bid to £2600 – again slightly less than had been hoped – was a really superb first of The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse inscribed to Francis “…with love from Beatrix Potter”. Twenty-three years ago it had made almost the same sum, £2500, at Christie’s South Kensington.
Caroline Hutton lived at Harescombe Grange, near Gloucester. Some years earlier, she had related to her cousin a curious local tale involving a tailor, John Pritchard, that BP later reworked as The Tailor of Gloucester – the book that she often claimed to be her own favourite.