It showed some shortcomings of condition, but a 1773 first of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral offered as part of a June 8 sale held by Cotswold Auction Company (22% buyer’s premium) sold at £16,500 – a sum only slightly bettered at auction on a couple of occasions.
In the frontispiece portrait the writer is described as “…Negro Servant to Mr John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England”, but she is nowadays quite rightly defined in other terms.
As the cataloguer pointed out, with the appearance of this volume Phillis became the first American slave, the first person of African descent, and only the third colonial woman to have her work published.
Born in West Africa, she had been sold into slavery when just seven or eight years old, but the Wheatley family, in whose household she worked, came to recognise her talents and encouraged her writing.
In 1773, aged just 20, Phillis travelled with her master’s son to England, where she found a publisher for her poems and made several important contacts. The Wheatleys then released her from enslavement and she married John Peters, a grocer, but in the following years she lost three children and eventually died in poverty, aged just 31.
This first edition of her poems was published by Archibald Bell, a London bookseller, but as the imprint states, it could also be purchased from Messrs Cox & Berry of Boston.
Dedicated by Wheatley to the Right Honourable Countess of Huntingdon…, this copy is bound in full contemporary calf gilt. It shows some offsetting from the frontispiece to the title, and some internal foxing, but its principal shortcoming, if such it may be termed, is in the pictorial frontispiece, where a tear has been expertly repaired and restored.
The auction house noted that this copy may once have been found at Bowden Hall at Upton St Leonards in Gloucestershire, nowadays a hotel.
Le Carré trio
Sold for £1600 in Cheltenham was something very different: a lot that offered signed copies of three of John le Carré’s novels. These were The Honourable Schoolboy, a 1977 first printing in unclipped dust jacket, Smiley’s People of 1980 and Single & Single of 1999.
A copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493, the sale’s most highly valued lot, did not find a buyer.