Saturday, 6 October 2012

You wait decades for a rare Saki dust jacket to come along...

The Unbearable Bassington — art by Harry Rountree

There was much excitement on this blog a few weeks ago when I discovered a previously unrecorded dust jacket for a book by one of my favourite authors, H. H. Munro, better known as Saki. As this post lamented, I missed out on buying it, though the seller did send me some photos. The (wonderful) design turned out to be by the noted woodcut artist John Hall Thorpe

I'd surmised that this evidently extremely rare jacket must have been included with a later printing of the short story collection in question, Beasts and Super-Beasts, so I decided I'd have a quick look on ABE to see if there might be any of his other books where the reprints had dust jackets too... and yes folks, I found one. In 1924, the final Saki collection, The Square Egg, was published. The first edition came with a plain, text only wrapper (which I have), but I now know that a couple of reprints that came out at the same time — or at least, in the same year — were given pictorial jackets: the Hall Thorpe Beasts and Super-Beasts, and the thing of beauty pictured above, The Unbearable Bassington, featuring an illustration by Harry Rountree.

He certainly looks pretty unbearable, doesn't he?

(Please excuse the reflection on the photos, but the jacket came nicely presented in a mylar protector which would be tricky to take it out of!)

Saki's short stories are rightly more celebrated than his two novels (Bassington and the Germans-invade-England satire, written on the eve of WW1, When William Came), but people are still discovering and enjoying The Unbearable Bassington, and it's hardly been out of print, even as a separate edition, since it was first published in 1912.

The jacket artist Harry Rountree has quite a pedigree it turns out. A New Zealander who came to the UK as a young man (just like Hall Thorpe, except he was Australian), Rountree had a long and distinguished career as an illustrator, as this heartfelt tribute by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. reveals. The Bassington jacket was probably just 'another job' for him, but produced to his usual very high standards nevertheless. I love it.  

So when did Rountree paint this piece? Was the illustrated dust jacket only included with the 1924 reprint of Bassington, to give it another 'push', and a little bit more visibility on the shelves? The copy above (and yes, dear reader, I managed to buy this one!) is a 1924 reprint. The novel had already been reprinted in 1912 (3 times) and 1913 (twice). I think it had this dust jacket design from the outset, and I'll tell you why. Look at Harry's signature above. It's hard to see in the photo, but after the last E is a full stop, and then, after that, there's a 12: for the year, surely. So one can assume that somewhere, someone might still have a first/first in dust jacket. I've certainly never heard of one, let alone seen one...

The artist William Stout is a Rountree fan, and appears to have written a book about him, though I can't find any copies for sale; perhaps he's still working on it. I wonder if he's aware of the Bassington jacket?

Also in 1912, Rountree painted the illustrations for the first printing of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, when it was serialised in The Strand. Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. is lucky enough to own the original of one of them, and here it is, complete with a '12' after his signature.

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