As an avid collector of Hugh Walpole books and ephemera it’s always exciting when a once in a lifetime opportunity comes along to acquire personal items owned by the man himself and those closest to him. One of those rare opportunities presented itself last year, and I’ve been meaning to write up the story in a post for a while, so here it is.
Hugh Walpole himself was forever stumbling across fortuitous finds on his own book collecting journeys (look no further than the account of his strangely serendipitous discovery of his hero Walter Scott’s letters during one of his lecture tours in America).
In July 2020 my Hugh Walpole book collection was growing during lockdown (books are such a blessing for good mental health) and I was near to completing the ownership of every book listed in the Bibliography section of the Hart-Davis definitive Hugh Walpole biography, however there were just a few that proved elusive, and some I never thought I’d ever have the chance of holding in my hand.
I was initially trying to track down a copy of Captain Nicholas and found (and won) a first edition on an online auction. Unfortunately after winning the auction the seller had to cancel the order, as it turned out when they went up into the attic to get the book, it had been badly damaged by water. We cordially cancelled the transaction, however as the book was being sold on behalf of a charity I decided to donate the funds for the book to them instead anyway, and source a copy of the book elsewhere. At exactly the moment I hit send on the donation I received an alert from the same online auction site – but not about Captain Nicholas…
The alert was notifying me that one of Hugh’s rarest books ‘Extracts From A Diary’ – a book that had been printed privately in just 100 copies, to be given as a gift to his friends at his 50th birthday party – had just been listed for sale. I headed over to the site to check it out only to discover a string of other Hugh Walpole items had been just listed by the same seller, either bearing a personal inscription in his hand, or items that he had in fact owned himself. Now this was getting very exciting.
And so the once in a lifetime journey began. I eventually won the auction for ‘Extracts From A Diary’ though not without some unexpected competition. I wondered how this rarity could have come on to the market, and after asking the seller it turned out that the descendants of Harold Cheevers, Hugh’s long time companion for the latter part of his life, had relinquished a number of items owned by the family through a local bookseller.
Over the following weeks the rarer listings kept appearing including a copy of the Apple Trees, another autobiographical work by Walpole, inscribed personally to Harold Cheevers, a number of Henry James novels that had been sent to Hugh in Russia during World War One by James’ publisher Martin Secker, two volumes of Cervantes’ Don Quixote from 1831, which I’m sure I’d read he had been reading on one of his train journey’s down to Cornwall. Thankfully despite some strong competition I managed to win them.
Then the rarity dial started rising to 11. Along came ‘A Cottage and A Cow’, a one off handmade book by Hugh himself, dedicated to Harold Cheevers, and documenting the amazing set of serendipitous events that had transpired which led him to discover and purchase his beloved house and home, Brackenburn.
It’s a fascinating read, especially since it was constructed by his own hand by pasting in cuttings from various interviews he had given to country living magazines in the late 1920s. I’ve since been able to see Hugh’s original manuscript for these interviews, courtesy of the Harry Ransom centre at the University of Texas.
My most treasured item I acquired from the bookseller though was a set of drawings in a sketchbook, drawn and painted by Hugh himself. The sketchbook was inscribed to Hugh as a Christmas gift ‘with love from Arthur – Xmas 1926’.
Hugh was in New York in December 1926, where he stayed with his friend Arthur Fowler and his family. Most possibly this was a blank sketchbook that was given as a gift by Arthur Fowler to Hugh – which would explain the Xmas 1926 inscription, and Hugh could well have drawn the sketches at a later date. He was homesick on that trip so perhaps the drawings were all the things he missed back in England.
Hugh originally met Arthur Fowler whilst staying with friends in 1910, and Hugh accompanied Fowler on a trip to Lausanne shortly after in 1910. Arthur Fowler married and moved to New York. Hugh usually stayed with the Fowlers whilst in New York and Fowler began to look after Hugh’s US income. Hugh dedicated Portrait Of A Man With Red Hair to them, and they remained his dear friends for the rest of his life, so it is a privilege to own such a personal item.
The plays Hugh Walpole wrote are also something that are very hard to come by. Amongst some of the other items I acquired was a rare copy of the play The Cathedral, published by Macmillan in 1937. Hugh’s inscription in this copy is to Harold Cheevers again – signing as ‘Hugh Ronden Walpole’ after one of the characters in the play.
These are the notable books amongst many others, some of which Hugh had left little doodles in, of rabbits, birds and other drawings, many of which you’ll see scanned in and used as graphics dotted about this website!
A number of the other books I won in this fortuitous auction were various gifts and Christmas presents to Harold Cheevers, his wife Ethel Cheevers, and their children. I’ll feature some more of the xmas gifts in a special festive post in December, so do look out for it.
The books in the auction sold by a lovely couple, John and Janet Brooman, who ran the Old Saddlery bookshop in Robertsbridge in East Sussex, and I had some wonderful interactions over email with them during the auctions. Janet’s attention to detail with the beautiful packaging for the books made every delivery by the postman feel like Christmas morning. Sadly I heard recently that John had passed away this year, so I’m dedicating this post to his memory.
I’m eternally grateful to John and Janet for being the conduit that connected me to these books when the Cheevers family were relinquishing them. I hope that the sharing of what’s inside them will help other Walpole enthusiasts discover the fascinating personal insights Hugh left through these rare works for generations to come.