Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Corvo at Bonhams

I'm very grateful to all those who have pointed out the two lots in Bonhams 22nd November sale which related to Corvo and I thought, what better place to pass on the information but here. The auction is from the stock of Michael Silverman, one of the most respected dealers in autograph material and manuscripts, who died in May. These two lots are both of exceptional interest, although the second, with its provenance being traced through A J A Symons and Maundy Gregory, two of the greatest of all early Corvines, is probably the more desirable of the two. The Holywell letter has an academic interest as there is a period of a month or two before the moment when Rolfe rocked up in the Workhouse, when it is not clear what was going on in his life, and this letter adds just a little bit to our appreciation of his biography at that point.

The first lot is catalogued as:

Lot No: 150
Autograph letter signed ("Frederick William Rolfe"), to the Rev W.E. Scott-Hall, pleading desperately for his help, written on small irregular sheets of paper ("...You must excuse the scraps of paper on which I write. I have no other. Nor a stamp. I am completely stranded for the time..."), with autograph envelope (unstamped but postmarked) addressed to "The Rev W.E. Scott-Hall/ Staverton Fields/ Oxford", 3 pages, spindle-hole through letter and envelope where originally filed, a few very slight fox-marks but overall in fine and fresh condition, oblong (irregular) 8vo, Hotel Victoria, Holywell, 31 December 1898

Footnote:'ALONE, NAKED, AND WITHOUT A FRIEND': a last desperate plea from Frederick Rolfe, 'Baron Corvo', before entering the workhouse. Corvo had arrived at Holywell, near Chester, in 1895. Here he had painted a series of sacred banners for the local church, under the aegis of Fr Charles Beauclerk, a Jesuit priest who was trying to turn St Holywell into the 'Welsh Lourdes'. However in November 1898 a series of articles appeared in the Aberdeen Evening Gazette vilifying him and his murky past, which were reprinted in the Catholic Times and distributed throughout the country. For this, Corvo held Fr Charles responsible. On 9 January 1899 a destitute Corvo entered the Holywell Workhouse: 'He was broken in spirit and numbed in mind and body. The workhouse was the acme of his pain' (Miriam J. Benkovitz, Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo, 1977, p. 103).

Just before entering, he wrote this letter, by way of final appeal; although Corvo's invitation to join his feud at the end of the letter may not have appealed greatly to Scott-Hall (indeed most offers of help ended in the hand being bitten, as Fr Charles could have testified): "I am paralysed for the moment and my perceptions have been dulled by this long-enduring agony... I would gladly come to you if you will not be ashamed of my horrible appearance. I am clean, although in rags. I have not the smallest idea of your position or of the kind of establishment you keep. It maybe that you would not care to take the trouble; but I remember well what kind of man you used to be; and that is why, in my dire necessity I have asked you to be a friend to me now. The best thing I can do is to put myself in your hands... Something must be done, immediately: for, at any moment I may be without a roof to cover me. The most direct way would be for you to bring me to Oxford for a few days... Yes. I have always heard that England is a free country, and I never would have believed that a Jesuit could succeed in taking away an Englishman's liberty. Yet that is precisely what my persecutor is doing. Actually he menaces my life as well as my liberty. When he cursed me, he swore to ruin me, to make me suffer, to prevent me from ever earning a living, and to have me hounded out of the town. And he is doing that exactly. What can I do, alone, naked, and without a friend, against that? Yet, at the present moment I can expose and crush him, (I speak seriously,) if only I can have your help... I am in your hands".

Estimate: £1,000 - 1,500, € 1,200 - 1,700

The Second Lot:

Lot No: 151•
Autograph manuscript of part of his Venetian tale "Cascading into the Canal/ by / Frederick of Venice'', comprising four leaves (of eight), including the first and last, the first bearing the title "Cascading into the Canal/ by/ Frederick of Venice" with in the top left-hand corner his return address "From Mr Rolfe/ Palazzo Mocenigo Corner/ Campo San Polo, Venezia", dated in another hand in pencil, 1 October 1909; bound with a preliminary leaf inscribed by A.J.A. Symons: "Baron Corvo/ Original Manuscript of/ Cascading into the Canal" and by him in pencil: "Sheets 1, 3, 6 & 8 only", 4 leaves of ruled paper written on one side only, mounted on stubs and sewn into linen-backed decorative paper wrappers (probably by the Curwen Press, c.1930), with preliminary leaf of ruled paper inscribed by Symons, bookplate of J. Maundy-Gregory, folio, Venice, 1 October 1909

Footnote:'MY SPARE SANDALS (POMPEIAN PATTERN, VERMILLION)': part of a Venetian tale by Baron Corvo, bound and annotated by A.J.A. Symons, author of The Quest for Corvo, for Lloyd George's notorious honours broker, Maundy Gregory (for whose own part in the tale of how Symons uncovered the facts of Corvo's life and his improbable passion for collection Corvine rarities, see Chapter XX, 'The End of the Quest' of The Quest). The story was published as 'On Cascading into the Canal' in Blackwood's Magazine for July 1913; and in this form was reprinted in Three Tales of Venice (1950) by the Corvine Press, a copy of which is included in the lot (Woolf A11; no. 78 of 140 copies).

The manuscript paints a mockingly bizarre self-portrait of its author and his life in Venice, recounting not only his own accidents ("....I was splendidly retrieved from the flood, & set on foot in my own boat, still immutably solemn, though weeping water in streams from every fold of my habiliments. I slowly wiped my eyeglass on the cushions & stuck it in its place...") but those that happened to others, such as an English artist friend whom he was serving as gondolier: "with puffed cheeks, shut eyes, & a meek splosh, my master cascaded into the canal... A barcheta, rowed by friars minor from San Francesco in Deserto, went by with solemn & most unfranciscan disgust. Blessed Father Francis would have joined in our merriment: they did not even proffer Extreme Unction. Insued a most astounding toilette. I hanged my paron's wet garments on my lofty forcola to drain; & lent him my spare sweater (fearfully & wonderfully decolletè it was), & my spare sandals (Pompeian pattern, vermillion), & my white linen hat in place of which I wound a white silk neck-square round my head, making myself look like an erudite but honest Jesuit posing as one of Brangwyn's brigands, so my master declared... And, in this garb, he demanded his tea Рa hilarious meal consisting of cucumber & egg sandwiches, with a red wine & cigarettes; &, afterward, we turned & went back with the tide, passing through the small canals which extend inward from Rio dei Mendicante was a voyage richly pimpled all over with chuckles on the part of both of us. I know that we presented an exposition as startling as a carnival: but the dear Venetians understand that the English (though quite admirable) are stark mad, & the spectacle of one in two coats, a low-necked sweater, vermillion sandals, & a white hat, & of another coifed like a pirate & doing gondogliere, simply struck them speechless. No one even spat over a bridge on us. No one even tittered when we reached the palace, & my paron had to skip pink-leggily over a barge of ice-blocks which was moored to his own watergate". See illustration on preceding page.

Estimate: £2,000 - 3,000, € 2,300 - 3,500

Such interesting Corvine autograph items don't often come up for sale and it will be interesting to see how they go on this occasion.

1 comment:

J said...

It's better for me not even to THINK about this auction...

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