Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Scarcer Than A Battleship In A Bathtub

by Stephen J. Gertz

A copy of James Ralfe's Naval Chronology of Great Britain in the original parts has come to market. A book of incredible scarcity in its original twelve installments 1818-1819, only one copy has been seen at auction within the last fifty-three years, in 1960, according to ABPC. The chances of seeing another in the original parts anytime soon are slim to none. The rare 1820 three-volume first edition in book format is commonplace by comparison.

It's a foundational historical account of British naval and maritime events from the beginning of the Napoleonic wars in 1803 through the War of 1812 to the end of 1816, illustrated with sixty magnificent hand-colored aquatint engravings. James Ralfe (fl 1818-1829) was a respected naval historian.

As such, it is an invaluable reference on the British Navy during the period under review, with the plates based on drawings by officers, many of whom were participants in the naval battles:  T. Sutherland, F.C. Lewis, D. Havel and others after T. Whitcombe, J. Beresford, W.A. Armstrong, J. Gore, and W. Hill.

"The object of this work is, more particularly, to perpetuate the names of those individuals who have, by their talents, courage, and professional abilities, increased the honour and reputation of the British Navy, and secured the peace and independence of the Country.

 "It will form a complete Naval History from 1802 (the time at which Captain Schomberg's Chronology terminates) to 1817, under the form generally acknowledged to be the most convenient for an historical work of reference. From the arrangements which have been made, it is expected that the work will answer every purpose of information not only to gentlemen of the Navy, but to those who feel an interest in the naval events of the last fourteen years; while the correctness of the drawings, the superior style of the engravings, and the neatness of execution, will render it worthy of the attention of every lover of the fine arts. Indeed, throughout the greatest pains will be taken to make this publication of the utmost utility, and deserving of general patronage" (rear wrapper).

Amongst the splendid hand-colored aquatints are images of the Battle of Trafalgar, the bombardment of Algiers, and more.

As if this copy in original parts wasn't special enough, it possesses important bibliographical points, not the least of which are early watermarking of the plates (1819; early issue) and printed plate inscriptions, i.e. "from a sketch by...,"  "from a plan by...". According to Abbey, plates later colored lack these inscriptions for genuine hand-colored plates, i.e. colored at time of issue. "Genuine colored copies are rare" (Tooley). The rear wrappers  state "Price to Subscribers 10s 6d plain, and 15s coloured."

This copy was stashed in the 1940s and forgotten in the vault of a bookselling firm in Europe until recently. While complete with all plates and the subscriber's list, the wrappers were distressed to one degree or another and those parts which bore the worst wear along the spine or edges, wrapper losses, loose plates, etc. were restored by master book conservator Bruce Levy who did an astonishing job that is almost invisible to the untrained eye.

The sinking of the H.M.S. Miasma, Trafalgar Motor Lodge, room 24, lavatory.

Pardon me. Battleships in bathtubs are not as scarce as I thought. But I think it safe to say that Ralfe's Naval Chronology of Great Britain in the original parts is almost as scarce as an aircraft carrier cruising the Sahara in search of Australian grass parakeets.

RALFE, Mr. J[ames]. Naval Chronology of Great Britain. Or, an Historical Account of Naval and Maritime Events, From the Commencement of the War in 1803, to the end of the year 1816: also, Particulars of the Most Important Court-Martial, Votes of Parliament, Lists of Flag-Officers in Commission, and of Promotions for Each year: The Whole forming a complete Naval History of the above Period. Illustrated with Numerous Engravings. London: Whitmore and Fenn, 1818.

First edition, early issue with plates watermarked 1819. Twelve original parts, 1818-1819, in tall octavo (10 1/8 x 6 7/8 in; 256 x 175 mm). Sixty "genuine" hand-colored aquatint plates (with printed inscriptions, i.e. "from a sketch by...,"  "from a plan by...,"), including frontispiece, with original tissue guards. Original buff printed wrappers, restored and/or renewed.

Abbey, Life 342. Tooley 392. Sabin 67602. Howes R21. Cf. Prideaux, p. 348 (book edition).

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

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