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Eighteen Nineties & Decadent Movement

The Eighteen Nineties, or 1890s if preferred, is a fascinating era, for book & art collectors of course, but also for historians and those with an interest in societal changes. Nestled in the tale end of the Victorian period, the Eighteen Nineties on one hand saw a return to traditional practices of book production, embodied most splendidly perhaps by William Morris's Kelmscott Press, with the book being re-explored as an object of beauty; on the other hand, the 1890s saw a counter-culture emerge seemingly in spirit the (possibly inevitable) response to the overly worthy strictures & aspirations of Victorian society more generally.

This counter-culture is often defined by two Movements in the UK during the Eighteen Nineties: the Decadents, associated with excess and artifice; the Aesthetics, who sought to enshrine the beauty of all artist representation, over the socio-political for example. The period is perhaps most famously characterised by Oscar Wilde, whose arrest, arraignment and court cases in the Eighteen Nineties almost risked over-shadowing his remarkable literary output, and Aubrey Beardsley, an illustrator whose art evolved in tandem with the decade. The controversy surrounding the lifestyle of the former and the oft-challenging art of the latter led at its peak to outbursts of public anger, with for example the publisher's of Beardsley's Yellow Book having their building in London pelted with mud & stones.

Collecting Eighteen Nineties books

Many of the writers from this period are not so well known any more, but their first editions were often produced in small print runs or limited editions, and can still be highly sought after. The private press books from this epoch, i.e. Kelmscott, Vale, Eragny and (just about) Doves, can be extremely valuable, especially when in the smallest, special limitations (Kelmscott's Chaucer on vellum for example, a $1,000,000 book these days in theory). But there are often larger limitations more readily findable. 

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  1. 8vo (210 x 140 mm); frontispiece portrait of the author 'from the painting by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895'; contemporary full purple calf by Bayntun-Riviere, with double gilt panels, floral hand-tooled spine, gilt dentelles, marbled endpapers and all edges gilt, spine and top edges of upper board faded, a few minor scuffs to boards, otherwise very handsome and internally fine.

  2. First edition, sole impression, one of 200 copies on 'small paper', from an overall limitation of 225; small 4to (220 x 170 mm); printed in black, green & sepia on Arnold's handmade paper, some with the Vale Press watermark, pictorial title-page and 9 full-page illustrations in sepia, decorative initials printed in green, all by Charles Ricketts, original vellum with gilt designs by Ricketts to covers and spine. Housed in a quarter morocco slipcase. Rockwell Kent designed bookplate to front paste down, very light spotting to some pages, boards a little bowed as usual, gilt to spine rather dull. Very good.

  3. Numbers 1-8 (complete), 4to (27 x 20.5 cm); illustrations by Beardsley, Conder, Shannon, Rickets, Beerbohm, Sickert and others, advertisements, Christmas card loose (as issued); literary contributions from Yeats, Conrad, Shaw, and others, publisher's first state blue cloth gilt by Beardsley, tiny dent to spine vol. 2, else near-fine.

  4. First edition, one of 50 large paper copies; small 4to, (23 x 18 cm); [7], 132, 14 [publisher's ads], [2] pp., pages uncut; publisher's straw coloured buckram with gilt decorations by Charles Ricketts, gilt lettering to spine, spine and part of both covers slightly unevenly darkened, very slight wear at head and foot of spine; presented in red cloth drop-back box with black title piece lettered in gilt, a very good copy.

  5. First edition, one of 150 copies only; large 8vo (268 x 175 mm.); 5 plates by Charles Ricketts, internally very good; original burgundy morocco, elaborately ruled & blocked in gilt to a design by Ricketts, with his monogram to the foot of upper & lower panel, a little rubbed at spine-ends, but really an exceptional copy, top edge gilt, others uncut.

  6. Number 147 of 210 copies on hand-made paper, this unnumbered; 8vo; title printed in black & red, browning to free endpapers; publisher's blind-tooled green cloth, corners bumped and slightly worn, spine lettered in gilt, top edges gilt, others uncut.

  7. 12 issues (complete); large 8vo (234 x 155 mm); plates, illustrations and advertisements; publisher's pictorial wrappers, first part rather worn and dust-soiled with upper wrapper detached, another issue browned and worn at spine with upper cover detached, otherwise a very good set.

  8. First Burton edition, one of 1,000 small paper copies; 8vo; engraved frontispiece by William Blake, title-page printed in red & black with device, browning to free endpapers; publisher's parchment-backed boards, somewhat rubbed and marked, spine browned, uncut.

  9. First edition, number 35 of 350 copies for England; small 4to (190 x 135 mm); pictorial title, part-titles, end-piece and decorations by Walter Crane; publisher's parchment-backed blue boards, spine tanned, a sharp copy, partly uncut.

  10. First edition; 8vo; 2pp. advertisements, some toning to endpapers; publisher's paper-backed boards, dust-jacket, browned and chipped.

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