Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bernard Leach: My Religious Faith



Regular readers will know that whilst I am very definitely about the books, my husband, R, is a potman - I mean a ceramics nut, not an imbiber of dubious substances. So it's nice when an item like this appears which takes in both our fields of interest.

This is an interesting thing, an 8pp letterpress printed booklet on handmade paper with a Japanese style 'stab' binding. It is titled on the inside, 'My religious faith at the close of 1953" and begins, "To my friends," which could be our first indication of rarity. Bernard Leach was the father of British studio pottery at St Ives but learnt much of his craft studying in Japan. He was a strong advocate for the bringing of East and West closer together and so it is no surprise that the religious faith he is talking about in this text is as a Baha'i, a syncretist, oriental inspired faith.

For the bookdealer though, establishing the rarity of a particular item is important to being able to put a price on something. The availability of online library catalogues is a boon to this process. I can tell you immediately, for example, that The British Library does have a copy, but COPAC, tells me that most of the other major research libraries in the UK don't, including the V&A who would be an obvious place to look for this item. Strikingly, we can also discover quite quickly that The US Library of Congress doesn't have a copy. There is also a worldwide library catalogue called OCLC or Worldcat which, although not the easiest thing to use, so far has yielded just one other copy, and that in New Zealand! On the whole, we are getting the impression that this is quite a rare object. There is a Leach museum in St Ives and they are currently being very helpful, making enquiries on my behalf about this title in the hope that some of the archives they are connected to might have a copy. The Internet also makes it possible to check auction records much more easily that in the past and so, although one has to pay for the privilege, through sites such as American Book Prices Current, that this title hasn't been up for sale as a single item at any point.

All this then has to be melded with what we know of the collectibility of Leach and prices for his other work. A quick search of Abebooks reveals a few salient points. We have signed letters by Leach on sale for £100-150. Signed copies of some of his conventionally printed and published books (usually by Faber and Faber) might go for around the £200. There was one book which is particularly relevant, Drawings, Verse and Belief was first published in a limited edition of 500, signed by the author. It isn't a direct comparison because it was subsequently reprinted so the text is very available; it was a much longer text too, book-length; and the limitation of 500 is, we are beginning to suspect, a lot larger than the number of My Religious Faith ever printed. To come to a conclusion about price, all these things have to be weighed together.

One of the things I sometimes do to get a sense of the collectibility of a particular person or subject is to do a few Ebay searches around the name or topic, but clicking the 'completed listings' box means you can see what has sold. I use this as a fairly broad brush approach, the Bernard Leach items that have sold on Ebay for example are pots, books and catalogues and there's no comparable item ever likely to be sold but scrolling down the page I get a good sense that things related to Bernard Leach do sell and it's clear that people are interested and keeping an eye out for good items.

All this is well and good but I think the defining thing for me about this 'book' is actually its appeal as an object. Bookdealers and collectors are often accused of valuing the book as an object above the text and there's always going to be some truth in that: this is a time when that it unapologetically true. The oriental style of paper and binding tied to the East-West Potter, the Baha'i devotee and craftsman are what make this such an appealing thing.

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