Firsts Book Fair on Saxon Henry

Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair

Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair is a first-edition feast for book collectors.
Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair is a first-edition feast for book collectors.

The 2024 edition of London’s Rare Book Fair, aptly titled Firsts, runs from the 16th to the 19th of May at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. This year, the theme for Firsts is “The Art of the Book,” which will be on full display as over 100 international dealers gather to display an exceptional list of books that are as much art as they are tomes to be slid into shelves. I always love being in Chelsea when I’m in London and the thrill of strolling through the flower-filled neighborhood this time of year would be made even more exciting knowing I’d be able to attend this event. 

A Rare Book Fair for the Ages

The theme of Firsts 2024 is The Art of the Book.
The theme of Firsts 2024 is The Art of the Book.

Illustration and illumination will be front-and-center in each of the booths—from bejeweled bindings to pop-up books and Japanese woodblock printing to illuminated Qur’ans. Organizers dub the event an opportunity to experience visual arts meeting literature, the rare titles including calligraphy, cartography, typography, photography, and printmaking. The art of paper manufacturing and bookbinding itself will also be at the heart of the show. “Book design represents shifting tastes and conventions through the centuries and across cultures,” the organizers say, “as well as revealing socioeconomic factors which influence their production.”

The books for sale at Firsts make the rare book fair a must-attend event.
The books for sale at Firsts make the rare book fair a must-attend event.

Pom Harrington, the chairman of the fair, adds, “Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair is the once-a-year showcase for the very finest stock from the British rare book trade, as well as some of the best offerings of the rare book world globally. Staging the fair within a strikingly modern setting at Saatchi Gallery has proved a resounding success in allowing rare books to take their rightful place alongside decorative arts and antiques. Now in its 67th edition, Firsts has cemented its position as an unmissable event on the international rare book fair calendar.”

The Taylor Institution Library is one of 26 in the group of Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. Image courtesy Oxford. 
The Taylor Institution Library is one of 26 in the group of Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. Image courtesy Oxford. 

This year’s partner is the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, the renowned institution a legal deposit library for a mind-blowing 400 years (for us Americans!). A printing machine from the libraries will be one of the bigger objects on view and in action at the fair. Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, says about the partnership, “We could not be more thrilled to partner with Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair, for the first time. The Bodleian Libraries is home to more than 23 million items, including some of the world’s greatest treasures of rare books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, music, and ephemera. Throughout the weekend attendees will have the chance to learn more about our work in acquiring, preserving, and gaining new understandings of old books with cutting-edge technology. We will also give a special opportunity to become a Friend of the Bodleian, receiving exclusive access to our events, exhibitions and to become a part of the Bodleian community.”

Attending Firsts is a rare opportunity to see some of the world’s most valuable books.
Attending Firsts is a rare opportunity to see some of the world’s most valuable books.

Visitors to this rare book fair, will be able to attend talks and tours, which will be aimed at new collectors and bibliophiles of all ages, as well as new book dealers. Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon will talk about their recently published book Write Cut Rewrite: The Cutting Room Floor of Modern Literature; David Pearson will explore themes from his 2022 book Speaking Volumes: Books with Histories; Peter Dazeley, the celebrated photographer and author of Monochrome, will be chatting with Antiques Roadshow’s Matthew Haley about his platinum prints; and Nicholas Perkins, who curated the acclaimed exhibition “Gifts and Books at the Bodleian Library” in 2023, will explore some extraordinary gift books in this talk.

Clare Marshall from Marshall Rare Books will explore the popularity of color plate natural history books at Firsts, London’s Rare Book Fair.
Clare Marshall from Marshall Rare Books will explore the popularity of color plate natural history books at Firsts, London’s Rare Book Fair.

Tours will include one by The Book Collector on the art of dust jackets; Clare Marshall from Marshall Rare Books will explore the popularity of color plate natural history books; Les Ashton will focus on a selection of modern firsts, presenting what makes them a highlight; and Andrea Mazzocchi from the long-established dealer Bernard Quaritch will delve into the fundamentals of rare book collecting. A few exceptional highlights include a beautifully illustrated Art Nouveau book from 1900—Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Kaiser und die Hexe—of which only 200 copies were printed. It will be offered for sale in Michael Schleicher’s stand. 

Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene will be on view in the Peter Harrington Rare Books booth at Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair. 
Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene will be on view in the Peter Harrington Rare Books booth at Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair. 

Peter Harrington Rare Books will be showing an attractive edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queenepublished in 1897, which was decorated by Louis Fairfax-Muckley. They’ll also be showing a book I would absolutely love to see: an 1893 edition of Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley (The artist was one of the key players in my essay “A Decadently Yellow London”). Also at Firsts, Camden Lock Books, known for offering a wide range of miniature books, will bring a beautiful English Bijou Almanac for 1841 to their booth. It was poetically illustrated by the Hon. Mrs. Norton and only 14 seem to be in existence around the world.

An 1893 edition of Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley will also be for sale in the Peter Harrington Rare Books booth.
An 1893 edition of Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley will also be for sale in the Peter Harrington Rare Books booth.

Paul Foster is bringing a title that is sometimes described as the first interactive book ever published, as Le Livre Joujou by M. Bres was the first to use movable tabs. The version Foster will have on view is the third issue from circa 1875, which has 13 hand-colored illustrated plates with pull tabs to change the image. Among the artists’ books at Shapero Rare Books will be a superb example of Juste Présent, a collection of Tristan Tzara’s poems with illustrations by his long-term collaborator and friend Sonia Delaunay. Published in 1961, a period where Delaunay returned to the styles of the early years of her career, it is signed by the author and artist, and includes an additional signed etching hand-colored in gouache by the artist in the original lithographed chemise and slipcase. 

Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbook, which will be for sale in the Beaux Books booth at Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair, is Beaton’s second book published in 1937. 
Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbook, which will be for sale in the Beaux Books booth at Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair, is Beaton’s second book published in 1937. 

Beaux Books will be exhibiting first-edition copies of books authored by Cecil Beaton and will also display several with original jackets by Beaton, alongside posters and ephemera. These would be on my list of must-sees for sure. You can see the full list of exhibitors on this page of the event’s website and you can purchase tickets here. My fascination with book collectors took on new meaning when I was researching the essay “Where Serendipity Was Born” in my book Lives Illuminated, which is now available for pre-order on Bookshop.org and Amazon. The narrative was inspired by a visit to Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham. In researching the 4th Earl of Orford’s life, I found Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, whom George E. Haggerty said gathered together “the most astonishing collection ever amassed by a single individual” in his 2001 article titled “Walpoliana” in the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies. Lewis brought so much more depth to Walpole’s story that it remains one of my favorite explorations. 

An image of Mick Jagger in Cecil Beaton’s Diaries, which is being brought to the fair by Beaux Books.
An image of Mick Jagger in Cecil Beaton’s Diaries, which is being brought to the fair by Beaux Books.

Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include Lives Illuminated, The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, Four Florida Moderns, and Collaborations: A Houston Penthouse

6 Replies to “Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair”

  1. I know: reminds me of one of our favorite documentaries! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Bethanne!

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