Louisa May Alcott discoveries for Auction at Bonhams

The most important collection of papers & Portraits to come to the market in 30 years – which includes two American discoveries- will be sold at Bonhams in London on March 29th as the Roy Davids Collection.

Roy Davids was for many years the Head of Books at Sotheby’s. He is a published poet and was a very close friend of the British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, who was married to Sylvia Plath.

Among the astonishing collection of 500 rare finds are two American items of note, a previously unknown portrait photograph of Walt Whitman, (1819-1892) the American poet, taken in 1871; and a letter from from Louisa May Alcott the much loved author of Little Women. Alcott letters which allude to Little Women are rare finds

Estimated to sell for £3,000 to £4,000, the Whitman portrait is a vintage photograph, albumen print, cabinet-size photograph, head and shoulders, possibly by V.W. Horton of J. Gurney & Son of New York, signed and dated (‘Walt Whitman 1871’.

‘THIS HEART’S GEOGRAPHY’S MAP’, Whitman called a photograph of himself in Leaves of Grass. The present image is not among the 130 taken between 1848 and 1891 compiled by Ed Folsom and reproduced on the website of the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska, to date the definitive collection — but it should be noted that ‘most of them are of necessity copies of copies’. An image (O53) shown on the site is slightly different, though clearly taken at the same sitting and signed with initials and also dated 1871; it is attributed there to ‘V.W. Horton (?) of J. Gurney & Son.’ Almost certainly caught in sequence in the two images, Whitman is wearing the same clothes and the same wispy lock of hair is standing out on the right-hand side of his face.

Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1886) established his photography gallery at 189 Broadway, New York, in 1840, one of the first such establishments in America, and later moved to 707 Broadway.

Whitman was a strong advocate of photographs, preferring them over painted portraits. ‘I find I often like the photographs better than the oils—they are perhaps mechanical, but they are honest. The artists add and deduct: the artists fool with nature…I think I like the best photographs best.’ He would often comment about how photography was part of an emerging democratic art, how its commonness, cheapness, and ease was displacing the refined image of art implicit in portrait painting: ‘I think the painter has much to do to go ahead of the best photographs.’

‘No man has been photographed more than I have,’ he once claimed, rightly at the time, as regarded American literary figures; it is therefore significant to find a new, or slightly different, image of him. He would have celebrated that it was in close sequence with the other photograph of him by Gurney. ‘Whitman’s generation was the first to be able to watch itself age’; he liked that photographs tracked a life in time and was a process of continuity and change – as he said, photography had a ‘knack of catching life on the run, in a flash, as it shifted, moved, evolved…The human expression is so fleeting— so quick—coming and going—all aids are welcome….’ ‘I guess’, he concluded, ‘they all hint at the man.’

Lot 2 in the sale is from ALCOTT, LOUISA MAY (1832-1888, American author), a signed letter (‘L. M. Alcott’), to Mr [Rev. John George] Wood, an English writer on natural history, written partly in the style of and with direct allusions to her celebrated book Little Women; she sends him the latest photograph of herself using the name of her alter ego in Little Women and Jo’s Boys (‘…Not very good, but better than some other attempts to make a young & blooming creature of old Aunt Jo…’). It is estimated to sell for £2,500 to £3,000.

She provides news for his young children in pastiche of Little Women (‘…Tell the young people that Scrabble was my good friend till my other pet, Thomas Pip, the cat, ate up the too confiding fellow to my great grief. Later a tiny mouse used to amuse me at night by sitting on the rug before the wood fire, washing its face & nibbling crumbs, or sitting pensively staring at the blaze lost in deep meditation. The dear little thing brought up an interesting family in the toe of my fur lined slipper, & often led the three mites out at night to gambol before me, to my great comfort & delight as I lay awake with neuralgia in my head. Another minute a fly was my companion & was amazed to find how much character Buzz possessed, & mourned his loss when he froze to death during my absence…’); expresses a desire to visit ‘old England’ again soon (‘…It would give me great pleasure to visit you & add more English boys & girls to the nosegay of young friends whose regard I value highly…’).

Alcoptt asks him to forward her love to all her friends ‘not forgetting the toads & other pets’; and comments on the difficulties she has with writing [which partly accounts for the rarity of autograph letters by her] (‘…You see by my bad scribble that the cramp has disabled my thumb & I do without it. I have tried a type writer, but it did not please me, & I hope by the treatment I am now trying…to recover the free use of my hand after ten years of slowly increasing weakness & pain. A blow on the elbow added to the trouble, so I am learning to use the left hand…’), 4 pages, octavo, Boston, 8 April, no year [but to judge from the mention of her pet fly Buzz and her wish to visit England again, after 1870]


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