A significant part of one of the greatest recent collections of colour plate travel and costume books was offered at Christie’s (26% buyer’s premium) on July 13.
The King Street sale of the Norman Bobins collection – 336 lots covering country sports, horse racing, naval and military subjects, voyages and travel, costume and satire – followed on from the sale of Bobins’ American colour plate books sold in New York in June.
Christie’s titled the sale The Magnificent Library of Norman Bobins: Part Two, the Colourful World.
Bobins, a resident of Chicago, was inspired to start his collection some 40 years ago as he found it combined four of his passions, namely history, art, travel and books.
The collecting focus was on the beautiful illustrations in these books and the artists and engravers who produced them.
Through them we can see the development of colour plate books from the mid-18th century through to the end of the 19th century, from hand-coloured copperplate engravings and aquatints to the birth of lithography and to chromolithography.
Echoes of Abbey
The Bobins library has echoes of the colour plate collection formed by Major JR Abbey in the 1950s, which was purchased en bloc by Paul Mellon and is now housed at the Yale Center for British Art.
Abbey’s focus was on English books illustrated with lithographs and aquatints published 1770 to 1860 and he produced three scholarly catalogues which are now an indispensable work of reference.
Bobins also had his collection published in a series of five richly illustrated catalogues from 2005 to 2022 titled The Exotic and the Beautiful.
A large part of Bobins’ collection was sold in 2015 to the collector Sri Prakash Lohia. That collection (including the former Bobins titles) now amounts to some 2000 titles, all of which have been digitised in high resolution and are freely available to view online.
Unlike Abbey, Bobins did not restrict himself to English colour plate books and the top lot of the King Street auction was a splendid hand-coloured copy of Jacques Rigaud’s Recueil choisi des plus belles vues des palais, des châteaux et maisons royales de Paris et des environs from c.1720-38, depicting the grandeur of French royal real estate.
Only one other hand-coloured copy has sold at auction in the past 40 years. The Bobins copy took £80,000 hammer, which was considerably less than when it sold previously in 2011 for €264,000 (including buyer’s premium) at Alde in Paris.
Go on a voyage
The best-performing books in the sale were those illustrating travel and voyages. Books relating to India and the former Ottoman empire were particularly popular.
Bid to a triple-low-estimate price of £35,000 was a series of 12 hand-coloured Views of Calcutta by William Baillie (a book not owned by Abbey), showing many of the newly built colonial neo-classical buildings of the city.
This large folio size set of prints was published in Calcutta in 1794, which may explain its scarcity, and only two other sets of these prints have appeared at auction in recent decades.
Another set of prints of India which are not recorded in the standard references comprised six large views of Seringapatam by Robert Home published in 1796, which sold for £10,000 to the same phone bidder.
Reduced versions of Home’s views had been previously published by Robert Bowyer in 1794 in Select views in Mysore, the country of Tippoo Sultan. However, these large folio format views are similar in scale to the aquatints published by Thomas and William Daniell in their Oriental Scenery (1795-1807).
Home had embarked on his artistic career in 1791 in Madras painting theatrical scenery where he met the artists John Smart and William Hickey.
According to the ODNB, Home then, “having sought and secured permission to accompany the grand army to Bangalore during the Third Anglo-Mysore War”, reached the troops on March 5. He remained with them until early April 1792, “sketching captured forts, officers, and the local countryside”.
A phone bidding battle resulted in a bid of £42,000 for a copy of Eugene Burnouf and Eugene Jacquet’s L’Inde Francaise ou collection de dessins lithographies representant les divinites, temples, costumes, physionomies, meubles, armes, [etc], the first major French work on India.
Originally published in parts, this was the first edition in book form and contained 144 hand-coloured lithographic plates illustrating divinities, sacred rites, scenes of daily life, costumes and professions.
The result was over five times the pre-sale low estimate and an auction record for the work. The previous top sum had stood since 2005 for the Robert and Maria Travis copy sold at Sotheby’s for a premium-inclusive £8400.
Perhaps the largest and heaviest set of books in the sale was Werner and Gleig’s monumental publication Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Holy Places published in parts from 1865-66. The Bobins copy was complete, containing 32 chromolithographic plates with the original wrappers for all 10 parts bound into two elephant folio-size volumes.
Werner’s depictions of Jerusalem are particularly noted as he was one of few non-Muslims to gain access to paint inside the Dome of the Rock. The work features two plates of the interior showing worshippers at prayer. This is the only complete copy that has appeared at auction in many decades and sold for £48,000 – a higher price than it made at Sotheby’s in 2017.
A notable result of £10,000 – 10 times the low estimate – was achieved for an incomplete set of W Hyde Parker’s A series of sketches in the Black Sea (c.1853), with nine of the 11 tinted lithographic plates depicting the various areas of the Black Sea at the outbreak of the Crimean War.
Captain Parker, who commanded HMS Firebrand, lost his life on July 8, 1854, shortly after the publication of this work, while attacking a Russian fortress at the mouth of the Danube.
It is not often that incomplete books sell well, but if a complete copy is unobtainable then collectors have little choice. The last complete copy recorded at auction was back in 1952.
The Extraordinary Ascent of the Enchanted Mountain, one of the Hymalaya Range, in India, by Sir Edward Stanley, Bart., Eliza and Ellen, his daughters, accompanied by the Count Rugantino is a work of the imagination by Captain RH Peel.
Published in 1835, the 13 hand-coloured plates illustrate a fictional expedition including a cave-dwelling dragon, fantastical beasts and monsters. Several bidders competed for this book which sold for double the low estimate at £6000.
These results would tend to suggest the sale was a great success, and in a large part it was. However, a number of works struggled to find buyers on the day, notably in the section of field sports and for the splendid Russian colour plate books which Bobins had assembled.
Overall, the sale was 68% sold by lot which translates into 230 lots out of 336 sold for a total hammer of £1.4m against a pre-sale low estimate of £1.8m.
Richard Fattorini is an independent consultant in Books & Manuscripts and former senior specialist at Sotheby’s