Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Forgeries and first editions

In 1934 a book was published concerning rumours that a privately printed first edition of Mrs Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese" dated 1847 was a forgery. An increase in the value of books to collectors in the late 1800s meant that a first edition could get a good price, and literary forgers turned their hands to creating rare versions of published works. Entitled “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets” and written by Graham Pollard and John Carter, it was hailed in the popular press at the time as being a piece of detective work worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

"Sonnets from the Portuguese" was first published in 1850, but in 1894 a man named Edward Gosse claimed they'd first been printed privately in 1847 and given to friends. Twenty copies of this edition exist and the circumstances regarding their origins were described by three authorities on book collecting: the aforementioned Edward Gosse, and also H. Buxton Forman, and Thomas J. Wise.

However, certain aspects of these volumes aroused suspicion which grew steadily over the years. For a start, none of the “1847” editions of "Sonnets from the Portuguese" had any hand-written message from the Brownings, which they'd certainly add if they were meant as gifts. Plus, it was strange that in the 1913 sale of Mr Browning's books, he had not apparently kept a copy for himself.

Also, there is not one mention of "Sonnets" in Mrs Browning's correspondence until 1850, when she calls them "some new poems" which makes no sense if she'd already had them privately published and given to friends.

Further detective work was needed to support this (and other) circumstantial evidence. By analysing the paper, they found it wasn't made of rags (as a pre-1860 book would be) but of wood pulp, and since it was chemically treated that would put it's probable date of creation around forty years after its apparent publication date.

And the typography used was a mixed font in a style that didn't exist before 1883, and the authors were able to trace it back to the printers who'd created it: R. Clay and Sons. Indeed, the authors found several other “first editions” using this particular font. However, this company did not keep records earlier than 1911, and they would not necessarily be suspected of wrong-doing, since they would have assumed the commissions were for facsimiles, as they'd done previously for the Browning Society, and the Shelley Society.

Illustration showing the old-style overhanging f with the newer version

By now, with the evidence from over a dozen likely forgeries all printed at the same company, it was likely that this was all the doing of one man. Choosing their words carefully, the authors come to the conclusion that whoever it was, they'd been able to pass off fake first editions to T.J. Wise over fourteen years. The book chides Mr Wise for taking these all without carrying out any reasonable inquiries into their origins.

And this is the theme for the rest of the book. As the authors discuss each case, the name Wise keeps cropping up and the reader is unable to finish the book without concluding that T.J. Wise, a great authority on books, was either hopelessly gullible or the forger himself.

In 1933, before the book's publication, one of the authors, Pollard, had gone to visit Wise to explain their suspicions. Carter could not go, since he and Wise had had a previous debate about the life of Byron, and Wise was not the kind of man to take advice from a junior without holding a grudge. Wise did not try to argue against the evidence but couldn't bring himself to agree to Pollard's conclusions.

After this meeting, Wise sent a telegram to a man named Gorfin, inviting him to meet for lunch. Some years ago, Gorfin had bought a number of these now-suspect editions, and Wise offered to reimburse him if he would later testify that he hadn't bought them from Wise but instead from a man named Harry Buxton Foreman.

What Wise didn't know was that Gorfin had already spoken to Pollard and Carter and, while Gorfin didn't have the courage to say this to Wise face to face, he did turn down the offer. In the end, Gorfin sought legal advice and finally got his reimbursement without any strings attached and the volumes were delivered to Wise's lawyers where they were destroyed.

But this was only the start of Wise's counter-attack. He was a man of high esteem, with some powerful friends on both sides of the Atlantic. The publishers of “An Enquiry...” soon found themselves on the receiving end of some friendly advice from influence people regarding the validity of “these wild young men”, and about the risk of libel.

The publishers were especially aware of the risk of libel since, even if they won a case against Wise, the costs would be very high. However, they decided that if Wise was the forger then he would not dare go to court, and these feelings were heightened by the episode with Gorfin and also of Wise's visit to the printer of the forgeries. Mr Wise asked that Mr Clay should give evidence that they weren't printed for him. However, although the ledgers were destroyed, Mr Clay's memory was not, and he remembered clearly that they were for Mr Wise, and would not back down.

So, unable to prevent publication, Wise and colleagues tried damage limitation. They wrote to the Times Literary Supplement (published on 24 May 1934, before the release of “An Enquiry...”) specifically focusing on the argument over when Robert Browning first saw the sonnets his wife wrote. And they also created a new history of those editions in Wise's possession, saying that they hadn't come from W.C. Bennett but from Harry Buxton Forman (a book collector who'd died in 1917). As it later transpired, relatives of Mr Bennett had learnt of the impending publications regarding the nature of the Sonnets, and had contacted Wise threatening legal action if he did not withdraw the story that he received them from the late Mr Bennett. Concerning the date of the paper, Wise claimed that wood pulp had been used to make paper since 1801, and as to the typographic claims he left that to those with “a more microscopic eye than I can boast.”

Some people have remarked that the letter implied that Wise did not fully understand the evidence against him, and so when Pollard replied, he was easily able to knock their arguments aside. There was one other reply to this letter. Maurice Buxton Forman (son of the enigmatic Harry) wrote to support Wise's version of events regarding buying stock from his father.

Then, on 30 June 1934, the Daily Herald ran an interview with Mr Wise, saying that only eight of the accused books were forgeries, and that he suspected Richard Herne Shepherd. This story ran the day after The Times ran an article on the book “An Enquiry...” praising it's thoroughness. Other news outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, followed suit and although no one named the forger, the conclusion was clear.

Wise returned to the pages of the TLS and wrote another letter (again with the help of colleagues) reaffirming the role of Harry Buxton Forman, and repeating his suspicions about Herne Shepherd. Now Mr Gorfin went public with his version of events, saying that in all his dealings with Wise, he had never heard Forman's name until the meeting with him after Pollard had spoken to Wise about their evidence.

On 19 July, Pollard and Carter had a meeting with Wise's representative, Frederick Page, concerning three minor mistakes in the book that Wise seemed to think required a retraction in the TLS. During this meeting it became clear that Mr Page was having serious doubts about his close friend's innocence. During this meeting Carter and Pollard explained their case in detail, leaving Mr Page quite convinced of the weakness of Wise's position.

Wise began to retreat to silence, having lost the unquestioning support of Page, and having been told by his solicitors that the book was not libellous. The last public comment was from his wife, writing to the TLS, saying that his doctor had strictly forbidden him “to carry on any public correspondence or controversy”. T.J.Wise never admitted any wrong doing, instead preferred to put the blame on Shepherd and Forman.

The smoking gun, as it were, was found in 1935 amongst the proof sheets of an article written for Literary Anecdotes. These proof sheets had been bought by Carl H. Pforzheimer of New York after the Buxton Forman sale in 1920. In among these sheets was a written exchange between Forman and Wise discussing printing a new 1871 Tenyson. But although Pforzheimer showed this to Carter, he asked that it not be published without his permission. Wise died in 1937, before this document was publicly known, so we will never know his reaction to it.

And the ironic thing is that T.J. Wise's forgeries have, themselves, become collectors items. Now, I wonder if there's anyone out there trying to forge a forgery...


Carter, J., Pollard, G. (1934), “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets”, Constable and Company Ltd.
N. Barker, J. Collins. (1983), “A Sequel to An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets”, James Price Publishing Ltd.

“Biographical notes: Mrs Browning's “Sonnets 1847””, Times Literary Supplement, 24 May 1934
“First edition forgeries”, The Times, Friday 29 June 1934
“First edition forgeries”, Times Literary Supplement, 5 July 1934
“Nineteenth Century Forgeries”, Times Literary Supplement, 12 July 1934
“First edition forgeries”, Times Literary Supplement, 19 July 1934
“First edition forgeries”, Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 1934
“Nineteenth Century Forgeries”, Times Literary Supplement, 23 August 1934
“Mr T.J. Wise”, Times Literary Supplement, 30 August 1934

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