Book lovers’ banquet: first editions owned by Charlie Watts

The Rolling Stone’s rocking collection of books ranges from a rare copy of The Great Gatsby inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald to an edition of Dylan Thomas’s 18 Poems — containing the words ’my own copy’ but presented to two different girlfriends

Charlie Watts at home in 1966. Photo: © Gered Mankowitz / Iconic Images

Charlie Watts at home in 1966. Photo: © Gered Mankowitz / Iconic Images

It could be said that there are two basic species of collector. On the one hand, there are ‘completists’ who aim to amass perfect sets within their field of interest: an artefact from every Apollo mission, say, or a print of all known Ravilious woodcuts. On the other hand are the ‘eclecticists’, who are curious about all aspects of human creativity and endeavour, and so will happily acquire a dinosaur skull or a Chinese jade Buddha just because it might look well on their Danish sideboard.

The sale of the library of the late Charlie Watts, a deeply thoughtful bibliophile as well as one of the world’s great rock drummers, shows that he was both types of collector at once. ‘He used to say how proud he was of having first editions of everything P.G. Wodehouse wrote,’ says Christie’s Books and Manuscripts specialist Mark Wiltshire, who has catalogued Watts’s books ahead of their sale on 28 September 2023 (additional works will be offered in an online auction, from 15 to 29 September). ‘He also had almost every work by Evelyn Waugh and Agatha Christie — all prolific writers, so that is a lot of rare books.’

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Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh, 1928. Presentation copy of the first edition, inscribed by the author to Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland: ‘for Vyvyan with best wishes from Evelyn’. Sold for £20,160 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

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Carry On, Jeeves!, P. G. Wodehouse, 1925. Presentation copy of the first edition, inscribed to his first biographer, David A. Jasen: ‘To David from Plum P. G. Wodehouse’. Sold for £6,048 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

The eclectic in Watts, meanwhile, sought out individual volumes with a past. ‘Nearly every book holds a surprise inside,’ says Wiltshire. ‘It has been enormous fun investigating the stories behind the authorial inscriptions. Even if this library had not belonged to a Rolling Stone, it would still be counted the best modern collection to come to auction in the past 25 years.’

Paul Sexton, author of the highly acclaimed biography Charlie’s Good Tonight, believes that Watts’s fascination with the printed word sprang from the same source as his love of music. ‘He was always a voracious reader,’ says Sexton. ‘And that would have started when he became obsessed with jazz in his teens. I’m sure he memorised all the notes on the back of the albums that he bought in the 1950s.’

‘Charlie Watts seems to have had an instinct for intriguing copies. If he couldn’t get the finest condition, then he went for the finest inscription’ — specialist Mark Wiltshire

So it is apt that the most highly valued book in Charlie Watts’s collection is a presentation copy of The Great Gatsby, that American hymn to the Jazz Age. Watts’s first edition has a warm, encoded inscription in Fitzgerald’s florid hand: ‘For Harold Goldman, the original “Gatsby” of this story, with thanks for letting me reveal these secrets of his past. Alcatraz Cell Block 17’.

‘Alcatraz’ is Fitzgerald’s joking term for the MGM movie lot, where he and Harold Goldman both worked as screenwriters, and ‘Cell Block 17’ is a nod to the number of his office there. The inscription is a cocktail made from the same mix of glitter and disillusion as the story. It is a comment both on the book and on Fitzgerald’s own rootless and discontented life.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925. Extraordinary first edition presentation copy inscribed by the author to ‘the original “Gatsby”’. Sold for £226,800 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

The Jazz Age in the US coincided with the golden years of detective fiction in Britain, and Watts’s collection is rich in English crime novels from the 1920s and 1930s. Agatha Christie leads the way — and her many tales of rural homicide and genteel skulduggery sat on Watts’s shelves alongside spy narratives by writers such as Eric Ambler and John Buchan, and the hard-boiled American fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

There are two curious period pieces in the collection, a pair of books entitled Ask a Policeman  and The Floating Admiral. They are the work of the ‘Detection Club’, a loose affiliation of novelists — among them Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie — who produced these murder mysteries by penning a chapter each, then passing the manuscript on to the next author.

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The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett, 1930. The first edition in the iconic dust-jacket of one of the most influential detective novels of all time. Sold for £27,720 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

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The Thirteen Problems, Agatha Christie, 1932. Rare first edition with dust-jacket of the first published appearance of Miss Marple. Sold for £60,480 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

The novels are ensemble pieces, in other words. That is something very rare in imaginative writing, but almost universal in rock music and jazz. In the Detection Club books, we see writers acting like musicians, working collaboratively to create a satisfying and harmonious end product.

For Watts, part of the attraction of interwar fiction was surely the design of the books themselves. Many of his best acquisitions retain their original dust-jackets, which makes them considerably more desirable from a bibliographic point of view, and doubly intriguing as art objects. Watts studied graphic design at Harrow Art School before he joined the Stones, and so knew how the elements of a printed page — the running heads, the font, the folios — speak with the accent of the decade in which they were made.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902. Presentation copy of the first edition, inscribed by the author on the title page: ‘I perambulated Dartmoor before I wrote this book, A Conan Doyle’. Sold for £214,200 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

As an aficionado of crime fiction, Watts naturally collected Sherlock Holmes. His copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles  contains one of those surprises that Mark Wiltshire so often encountered. Arthur Conan Doyle rarely let slip anything personal in his dedications, but Watts’s copy contains a laconic remark written by the author: ‘I perambulated Dartmoor before I wrote this book.’ That slightly rueful statement suggests Conan Doyle did not entirely enjoy his work trips. Watts, who knew all too well what it meant to be on the road and far from home, would have sympathised.

Intimately revealing in a different way is a copy of 18 Poems, the first published work by Dylan Thomas, who was Charlie Watts’s favourite poet. Thomas has scrawled the words ‘my own copy’ inside the front cover — but at some point decided to give ‘this pawky book’ to his girlfriend, Pamela Hansford Johnson. Evidently, she returned the volume to him when they split up. So Thomas scribbled out his affectionate inscription — perhaps shortly before he re-gifted the book to a later girlfriend, Emily Homes Coleman, whose name he has written beneath the black cloud of crossings-out.

18 Poems, Dylan Thomas, 1934. First edition, first issue of Thomas’s first book: the poet’s own copy, with authorial inscriptions presenting the book at different times to two separate love interests. Sold for £16,380 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

That book happens to be slightly battered, and its dust-jacket bears the marks of age and use. Undoubtedly ‘my own copy’ was riffled and re-read by the poet as well as the two sweethearts who briefly owned it. Those scuffs amount to a kind of venerable patina.

‘Watts seems to have had an instinct for intriguing copies,’ says Wiltshire. ‘If he couldn’t get the finest condition, then he went for the finest inscription.’ And that seems astute. The whole point of a signed book, after all, is that it has been held in the hands of the original artist. It literally bears the fingerprints of greatness.

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And all these books bear Charlie Watts’s fingerprints, too. Everyone who met him in life agrees that he was a truly likeable man — self-effacing and gentlemanly in a very English way. Strands of a specifically English genius run through the authors that he favoured most: the wit and wordsmithery of Wodehouse; the steely common sense of George Orwell; Graham Greene’s gift for ambiguity and uncertainty; Waugh’s prickly class-awareness.

It’s all there. You could get a good sense of what it meant to be a 20th-century Englishman by reading the first editions in Charlie Watts’s wonderful library.

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