It was a ‘white-glove sale’ with all lots getting away at Dominic Winter (20% buyer’s premium) for the Library of Christopher Foyle OBE (1943-2022) of Beeleigh Abbey, Essex.
Estimated at £352,000-523,000, the resulting total on September 27 more than doubled its low estimate, making a hammer total of £848,000 (£1m including premium).
The Foyle name has been synonymous with books since the foundation of the eponymous London bookshop on the Charing Cross Road by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle in the early 20th century.
In 1943, with the business flourishing, William purchased the former medieval monastery of Beeleigh Abbey, near Maldon, and set about building an impressive library of books and manuscripts. He also ran an antiquarian book business from the property.
After William’s death in 1963 the abbey and library passed to his daughter Christina, who continued to run the business until her death in 1999. On instructions left by her the house and library were to be sold. In July 2000 Christie’s held a three-day auction of William’s library which realised an impressive premium-inclusive £12.6m.
Dominic Winter noted in its catalogue introduction that ‘in a private arrangement with [Christie’s] auction house prior to the sale, a significant portion of the original collection was acquired by William’s grandson Christopher, nephew of Christina’. Christopher and his wife Catherine ‘were also able to buy the abbey itself and so not only did Christopher revive the Foyle’s bookshop brand but rebuilt the book collection.’
The Dominic Winter auction, therefore, included books from William’s library that had not been offered in the Christie’s sale and others that Christopher had bought which reflected his own interests.
The sale offered a wide range of works ranging over eight centuries, including illuminated Books of Hours and manuscript texts from the 13th to 15th centuries, incunabula and early printing, documents relating to English history and literature, autograph letters, first editions of English Renaissance texts, classics of literature in fine bindings, and works with notable provenance and inscriptions.
Auctioneer Chris Albury said there was global interest and an unusually full saleroom of bidders. He also wondered beforehand which item would take the top spot and said “it was always going to be between the oldest [a 13th century manuscript Bible] or the newest [an EH Shepard drawing of Winnie the Pooh] and in the end the oldest won!”
The 13th century manuscript French Bible on vellum was the first lot offered and quadrupled its low estimate to sell for £42,000.
It was described as a fine example of a typical ‘Paris’ Bible. Due to the development of extremely thin vellum and small script ‘it became possible for the first time, in the early decades of the 13th century, to produce a complete Bible in a single easily portable volume’.
The second and third spots in the sale were also for French illuminated manuscripts, although this time of the 15th century: one being a manuscript history of France formerly in the collection of the great 19th century bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps which sold for nearly 20-times its low estimate at £39,000; the other was an illuminated Book of Hours described as ‘typical of Rouen illumination the late 15th century’ which sold for a mid-estimate £34,000.
Fall of Calais
Among the collection of documents was a significant letter by Mary I (1553-58), Queen of England. The letter was an urgent appeal by the queen for reinforcements to be raised for the defence of Calais. Unbeknown to Mary, she signed this letter Mary the Quene on the very day that the city fell to the French: January 7, 1558.
Estimated at £15,000-20,000, this royal letter sold above estimate at £22,000 (£26,400 including premium), which was comfortably above its previous record in the William Foyle sale of 2000 when it made £18,800 (including premium).
Due to the location of Beeleigh Abbey, both William Foyle and his grandson Christopher had an interest in collecting books and manuscripts with an Essex connection. Among such items was a small quarto manuscript volume containing documents by and about Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601), with a series of documents recording the offences of Essex that led to end of his close relationship with Elizabeth I and ultimately to her signing Essex’s death warrant.
In 1599, after returning from Ireland the Duke of Essex was brought before a specially constituted court which offered three specific charges against him. Accounts of the charges and trial are scarce and as the catalogue noted, ‘all material relating to his arrest and trial is of special interest on account of the paucity of the material available’.
The volume also contained several personal letters from the courtier and diplomat Charles Cornwallis (d.1629), and an epitaph on King James attributed to George Morley. This volume estimated at £1500-2000 sold for £8500. Also offered was a portrait of the 2nd Earl of Essex after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger which attracted a number of bidders, the winning bid being seven times the top estimate at £7000.
Other Essex material included a volume of 27 English Civil War pamphlets, one of which was unrecorded, documenting military events, particularly relating to the siege of Colchester in 1648. This sammelband guided at £5000-8000 sold above top estimate at £9000.
The 18th century historian and antiquarian Phillip Morant authored two notable works on Essex: The History and Antiquities of Colchester, published in 1748, and a two-volume county history published in 1762-68.
The Foyle copy of this latter work was extra-illustrated and extended to five volumes, plus a manuscript index volume. The extra illustrations included some 36 antique maps, 20 watercolours and drawings and 750 portraits, views and other prints; this fine set sold for a mid-estimate £5600. A manuscript volume of arms and pedigrees of Essex families from the Visitation of Essex in 1634 generated interest at an estimate of £400-600 and realised £2600.
An early manuscript life of St Placid, written in Italian and dated August 15, 1562, and possibly written in Venice, due to its fine contemporary Venetian red morocco binding attracted much interest.
Its provenance included Don Diego Pignatelli (1855-1938) and the volume had been shown in an exhibition of historical bindings in Florence in 1922. Estimated at £1500-2000, it sold for £11,000.
Published 50 years earlier was a first edition of John Capgrave’s Nova legenda Angille, printed by Wynken de Word in 1516; this volume contained all the woodcut illustrations which are often lacking and drove the bidding to a triple top-estimate £9500.
Literary highlights included a presentation copy of Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, 1866. This fine copy with the two volumes in their original publisher’s gilt cloth bindings were inscribed to Collins’ friend, the actor and playwright François-Joseph Regnier (1807-85). Attractively estimated at £400-600 there was fierce competition and the hammer finally fell at £9000.
The Foyle copy of Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire originally came from the library of the landowner Philip Gell (1723- 95), and was untrimmed and in its original boards; although volume 1 was a second edition, the remaining five volumes were all first editions and the set sold for £7000 (estimate £2000-3000).
Last, but not least, the final lot in the sale was a pen and ink drawing by EH Shepard of Pooh and Piglet which had attracted much pre-sale publicity. The original book illustration had been drawn in 1925 and this was a later version signed and dated 1958; estimated at £20,000-30,000 it sold close to the high estimate at £27,000.
The second part of the library of Christopher Foyle will be offered on January 31, 2024.