Books that define America: the collection of William S. Reese
Four Christie’s specialists choose their favourite lots from three upcoming auctions of works owned by the leading bookseller
‘I always had a concept, as a person dealing in Americana, that I was selling evidence in one form or another,’ William S. Reese once said in an interview for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America.
The leading collector and dealer in Americana of his generation, Reese spent most of his life (1955-2018) scouring the country for such evidence of American history and culture. The personal collection he built over the decades contains records of some of the key moments of the nation’s founding, the landscape it would take shape in, and the people who would define its character.
More than 700 works from Reese’s collection are coming to auction at Christie’s New York. Two live auctions will be held on 25 and 26 May, accompanied by an online sale from 19 May-2 June. Christie’s Books & Manuscripts specialists Christina Geiger, Peter Klarnet, Heather Weintraub and Rhiannon Knol have chosen their highlights from the sales.
Birth pangs of a nation
Published in Boston in 1694, less than a century after the printing press came to North America, A Narrative of the Planting of the Massachusets Colony anno 1628 is a look back at the challenges of the British settlement. It was written by a local merchant, Joshua Scottow ‘at a crucial moment when the colony was beginning to look back at its own history and to think about how they wanted to shape their own narrative’, says Knol, Specialist in the Books & Manuscripts department.
The colony had recently lost its charter and been reincorporated with other parts of New England as one province under tighter supervision from the British Crown. ‘This is the dramatic context in which Scottow was writing — a colonial settlement that was, on the one hand, isolated, but on the other was intertwined with the political and social upheavals occurring back in England,’ she says.
Scottow was present for many of the colony’s early troubles, including political and religious conflicts, wars with Native Americans and, most notoriously, the Salem witch trials, which ended only a year before the text was printed. ‘It tells us not only about what happened, but what a resident of the colonies thought and felt about the events,’ says Knol.
Scottow composed his text in the form of a jeremiad — a distinctly Puritan lament about the downfall of society — but readers today might be surprised by his pragmatic view of the trials. ‘He seemed to view the witch craze not as an outside attack by satanic forces but as a sign of the moral failure of the colonists,’ says Knol. ‘His account, although still quintessentially Puritan, reveals the complexity of the issues facing early settlers, something I think is often lost when we talk about the period. He is a Puritan who defends accused witches; a proud American who is not proud of some of the things his settlement has done.’
Several generations later Massachusetts would become a major centre of a growing movement to overthrow British rule. Three works offered in two lots at the auction relate to a defining event in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War: the so-called Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770, when nine British soldiers fired on an angry crowd of colonists, killing five men.
Printed and widely distributed just weeks after the event, Paul Revere’s dramatic engraving, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, ‘is perhaps the most famous piece of political propaganda in American history’, says Peter Klarnet, Books & Manuscripts Senior Specialist. ‘The image, published in a newspaper, was also sold as a print, often coloured, and was said to have hung in every New England farmhouse.’
Revere’s image, based on a sketch by Henry Pelham, paints the British troops as the aggressors, although the colonists seem to have instigated the confrontation, and it ‘helped to galvanise colonial resistance’, says Klarnet.
While Revere’s image was made for an American public, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston was intended for British consumption. The pamphlet’s authors, James Bowdoin, Samuel Pemberton and Joseph Warren, ‘attempted to keep copies from circulating in Massachusetts so as not to prejudice prospective jurors. John Adams served as the defence attorney for the six accused soldiers during their trial in late 1770. Four were acquitted and two charged with manslaughter’, says Klarnet.
Containing eyewitness testimony, it was printed to counteract narratives of the violence offered by the royal governor and British officers. Reese’s copy is accompanied by a three-page letter to Sir Fletcher Norton, the Speaker of the British Parliament, signed by the authors. The last signer of the letter, Dr. Joseph Warren, was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.
King of the birds
As America’s borders expanded in the early 19th century scientists and artists rushed to record the new wildlife and landscapes. One of the most famous of them was the naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851), who in the 1820s began a lifelong mission to draw all the birds of North America.
The original double-elephant folio edition of The Birds of America, printed in the UK, was distributed without any text, to avoid British copyright law. This would have required Audubon to give copies to nine depository libraries. So, starting in 1831, Audubon published the five-volume Ornithological Biography to accompany the images, edited by a Scottish naturalist, William MacGillivray.
Reese acquired Audubon’s autograph manuscript of the text for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo at a Christie’s auction in 1977, when he was only 21 and still an undergraduate at Yale University. ‘It was part of a group lot of Audubon manuscripts in our inaugural books and manuscripts auction in New York,’ says Christina Geiger, head of the Books & Manuscripts department.
As well as one of his first professional acquisitions, The Birds of America was one of Reese’s personal favourites. ‘Since I was a little boy, my entire career path has been shaped by John James Audubon,’ Reese wrote. ‘Many tens of thousands of books later, Audubon has remained close to my heart.’
The manuscript is notable for starting with a description not of the bird illustrated, but of Audubon’s personal thoughts about creating art from nature. ‘The writing is just so typical of Audubon’s boundless enthusiasm for the wilderness and the animals in it,’ says Geiger.
Another ambitious artistic project was launched later in the 19th century on the West Coast, where California’s State Viticultural Commissioners wanted to raise the reputation of its homegrown wines. The result was Grapes and Grape Vines of California, a folio edition of 10 full-colour plates of watercolour paintings by the artist Hannah Millard (1827-1900).
The book was published in San Francisco in 1877, a little over a century after the region’s first vineyard was planted at the Mission San Diego de Alcalá. ‘A century, however, was nothing as far as the wine industry was concerned, and attitudes towards Californian varietals were dismissive,’ says Heather Weintraub, Specialist, Books & Manuscripts. To rectify this snobbery, Millard, a New York-born artist who taught drawing in San Jose, was dispatched to paint the grapes.
The book is the first colour-plate book published in California. To reproduce Millard’s lifelike paintings in detail the printer used a labour-intensive method known as oleography, which requires a separate lithography stone for every colour used. That meant that up to 28 impressions might be needed to produce a single print. As a result, Millard’s images burst from the page.
While the book’s quality is self-evident, what is most interesting about Reese’s complete copy is its scarcity, says Weintraub. ‘There are no records of this book at auction, which is nearly unheard of.’ A dealer catalogue from 1954 suggests the reason for this is that ‘many copies were broken up to decorate the walls of numerous old saloons in San Francisco and elsewhere’.