Book Excerpt

(Wise, Thomas J.).


New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, (1992). 8vo. cloth, dust jacket. xiv, 317 pages. First edition. The book forgery of Thomas James Wise, disclosed in 1934 in John Carter and Graham Pollard's An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, is perhaps the most notorious literary scandal of the 20th century. Wise, a bibliographer and book collector with the highest international reputation, was revealed to be the perpetrator of a stream of forgeries... READ MORE

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The terrible two-handed engine that brought about Wise’s downfall was driven by two young booksellers, Graham Pollard and John Carter. Graham Pollard was born in 1903: he came of a distinguished academic family and spent some time reacting against it. At Oxford, he claimed to have beaten Evelyn Waugh for the half blue at spitting (target at ten feet). He held party card No.1 of the Young Communist League of Great Britain; he edited the magazine of the University Labour Club; and in one of a series of murals by Oliver Messel, Pollard was represented in a punt accompanied by a load of bombs. He spent much time in bookshops and while he was at Oxford C.H. Wilkinson brought T.J. Wise to see his collection. It included one of only three known copies of George Crabbe’s first book Inebriety, Ipswich, 1775, which Pollard had bought for two guineas. It has a note in Crabbe’s hand but lacks the title page: Wise’s only comment was to reprove Pollard for buying imperfect books. After coming down, he bought a share in Birrell and Garnett’s bookshop, soon to move to Soho, and settled into a rather bohemian life as an antiquarian (or perhaps second-hand) bookseller. Pollard’s regime was to work late into the night, sleep late, lunch at Chez Victor, and arrive at the shop at about 2.30 p.m. He had various political irons in the fire: he edited The Distributive Worker (which is what booksellers are) for the Communist Party and had a hand in redesigning the Daily Worker. He was beginning  to acquire that knowledge of obscure parts of book trade history and economics (he insisted on the second) for which he would become famous in bibliographical circles. He also had various academic projects in hand, proceeding at his usual ruminative pace, one of which led him into collaboration with John Carter.

John Carter was born in 1905 at Eton into a family who had many connections there but not much money. Jake – as he was called – went to Eton and Kings on scholarships and obtained a double first in Classics. He was always  an elegant figure with an eyeglass and a patrician look about him: it was perhaps rather a surprise that he opted to join Scribners bookshop rather than the diplomatic service. He quickly rejuvenated their moribund antiquarian department with new ideas and his excellent taste. He had a determined intelligence and in those days took little on trust. He began to consider the case of the Reading Sonnets, his initial curiosity stimulated by that same Mudie of Quaritchs who had worked on Forman’s probate valuation. ‘It’s a book we don’t much care for’, Mudie replied when pressed for a copy of the Sonnets. Not another word would he say and Carter began to wonder why. A.E. Housman had been an inspiration to Carter at Cambridge and the pupil adopted some of the master’s critical acumen and lack of respect for tradition. Housman’s characteristic paper The Application of thought to textual criticism ends thus: ‘Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding in your head.’ Carter and Pollard amply qualified.

The former began some preliminary investigations into the accepted history of the Reading Sonnets which seemed to lead to disquieting conclusions. Pollard had been reading up Ruskin in preparation for a bibliography; he had ploughed through Cook and Wedderburn’s thirty-nine volumes and duly noted the two fakes that they had unmasked. Carter and Pollard were on gossiping terms as most antiquarian booksellers are in their small world. They met at a bookseller’s party early in 1931 and the Reading Sonnets and the Ruskin fakes were aired in the same conversation. It had not escaped notice in the trade that Gorfin’s infrequent catalogues (he issued his last, No. 38, in 1930) always contained long runs of nineteenth century pamphlets. Someone else mentioned this, fished his catalogue 38 out of the waste paper basket and gave it to Pollard. It was the first intimation that Browning and Ruskin were not isolated fakes but a group to which the catalogue provided a rough and ready guide. Several recent sales at Hodgsons with long runs of the pamphlets also added to the list. Carter and Pollard soon agreed a collaboration and set to work.

Carter’s file on the Reading Sonnets grew and grew and looked more and more convincing. There was no presentation copy (privately printed books tend to have a higher level of inscription than those published commercially); no copy in Browning’s library; no copy in an old binding; no copy with any signature inscription or mark of provenance before about 1900; and the account of the history of the book given by Gosse was contradicted by Browning’s own letters. This was all very well: but it was negative evidence. Pollard’s researches into the history of the book trade were able, after hours of research, to provide some positive evidence. After sifting through many obscure technical manuals he was able to chart the chemical history of nineteenth century paper more fully than had been done before. There was no copy of the Sonnets in any public collection in England and the enquirers could hardly go to Heath Drive and ask for a paper sample. They obtained their tiny piece from Flora Livingston, of the Widener Library, ‘I have had the courage to trim off a little slip of paper from the bottom of a badly folded leaf of the Sonnets. It will never show, and if it does no one will know the who or the why’ she wrote (6 April 1933). She was not a friend of Mr Wise, having clashed with him over several bibliographical points.

Chemical analysis of the paper showed that it contained an unmistakably significant proportion of chemical wood pulp. Since, however, this constituent was never used in England until 1874, it followed that the Reading Sonnets could not have been printed before that date. It was absolutely impossible that the book could have been printed in 1847. Once the forgery group was investigated as a whole, several other cracks appeared in its façade: wrong texts, wrong publishers’ addresses, illustrative blocks copied when the originals could have been used, and so on. Armed with the growing dossiers, Pollard and Carter confronted Gorfin. They were able to realize, after a few minutes’ conversation, that Gorfin was not himself the forger and (probably) did not know what he was selling. He confirmed that he was the consigner of the recent sales at Hodgsons which had contained runs of the pamphlets: and he astonished Carter and Pollard by stating that he had bought the whole lot from Thomas James Wise. What was more, he could prove it. He had a small notebook with jottings of purchases and a linen bag with his cheque book stubs from 1909–12, some twenty years before. From these could be constructed and proved the astonishing quantities of the pamphlets which Wise had sold. The fact that Gorfin had kept the evidence for so long is remarkable: few part-time booksellers can be bothered to keep twenty-year-old cheque stubs. Perhaps in his heart of hearts he did have doubts about the propriety of the whole affair. The Gorfin revelation gave a new focus to the enquiry. Carter had already written to Wise asking about the Reading Sonnets (19 December 1932) and this sighting shot had elicited a letter parading only the familiar history of the book.

Pollard knew a great deal about the history of type, that is, the printed letters used in books since the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. But almost all of the historical material available to him dealt with the aesthetics rather  than the economics of type design: it obviously had little or nothing to say about the undistinguished nineteenth century typefaces in which the forgeries were printed. The Reading Sonnets was the key piece, but, as we have seen, was not available to the enquirers. Pollard asked Stanley Morison, the great typographer who was due to visit New York, to look at the Pierpont Morgan copy. He wrote to Pollard pointing out two special features of the type, firstly a kernless ‘f’ and secondly an alien question mark.

I may be all wrong but I have not noticed the broken backed f as early as 1850 and if I had been asked I should have said that it was evolved in order to prevent broken kerns occurring on high speed presses of which there cd. have been few in Reading or anywhere else in 1847. [January 1932]

Pollard plunged into typographical history at the St Bride Printing Library, off Fleet Street; the best collection on the subject in the world.

A kerned letter is one in which a portion of the face of the letter extends beyond its body, e.g. the overhanging top on an ‘f’. This thin projection, the kern, is both exposed and fragile. When composing machines for setting type came into use in the second half of the nineteenth century, it often broke off. This inconvenience created a natural demand for a kernless type. Graham examined some 170 nineteenth century specimen books and could find no kernless types before 1880 and a rapid increase in them after that date. This is a general argument and is, in fact, not entirely correct though it sufficed at the time. The kernless ‘f’ and ‘j’ were a special feature of the Reading Sonnets type. The other was the alien question mark which clearly did not belong to the fount. The enquirers now had Wise in their sights and were able to find the Reading Sonnets fount with both the special peculiarities in a legitimate Wise production which had the imprint of Richard Clay and Sons. Everything now clicked into place. The matrices from which the type was cast were supplied by P.M. Shanks & Co; cast by Richard Clay and called their Long Primer No.3. In about 1877, they altered the ‘f’ and ‘j’ to eliminate the kerns and about the same time they lost or broke the proper matrix for the question mark. They cast round for an alternative and came up with the question mark from the predecessor of Long Primer No. 3, Miller and Richard’s Long Primer No. 28. The introduction of this mixed fount can be dated to the month by Macmillan’s Magazine, also printed by Clays. There it was first used in April 1877.

Other printers used the Shanks type: but the particular mixture used in the Reading Sonnets with kernless ‘f’ and ‘j’ and an alien question mark was only used by Richard Clay. The enquirers remarked of this special hybrid type that it was apparently in use as early as 1842 and as late as 1893, and at such widely divergent places as London, Manchester, Kendal, Reading, Edinburgh, Woolwich and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not only had they proved another sixteen pamphlets to be misdated and therefore forged, they had also nailed the original printer of the fakes. The firm of Clays admitted that this evidence proved they had printed the things: but they had pulped most of their records and had no documentary evidence for whom they were printed. The evidence from paper and from type was extended, but remained the same in principle. The enquirers had come up with a list of some fifty pamphlets which could be condemned on one count or another and were clearly a homogeneous group. By this time they thought Wise was the culprit but could not prove it. Pollard wrote to Wise suggesting a meeting, which took place in October 1933. As he went into Wise’s study to confer with the great collector, surrounded by his famous library, Mrs Wise warned him ‘You must not excite him’. But everything Pollard said was exciting and Wise’s colour got higher and higher. Mrs Wise, behind his back, made desperate signals to go easy, but Pollard remorselessly continued. When he reached the crucial subject of typefaces, Wise began to shout incoherently. The interview was over. The enquirers did submit a list of pamphlets for details of provenance, but it was never filled in.

Pollard had taken care to say nothing of Gorfin. Wise panicked and immediately sought his aid. Their relationship had distanced almost to nothing since the days before the First World War when Wise  had encouraged him in Charing Cross Road. Gorfin was rather  a nominal bookseller, working during the day as a greengrocer’s assistant and latterly as clerk to a corn factor. Wise did not know where to find him and sent urgent letters to old addresses, even dispatching Mrs Wise in a hired car to run him to earth. What followed is best described in Gorfin’s own words.

On or about the 13th October 1933 I received a letter from Mr Wise, dated 12-10-33, inviting me to call on him on Tuesday the 17th instant, an appointment altered by a subsequent wire (10a.m. 16-10-33) to an invitation to lunch. This appointment I kept, and was informed by Mr Wise that trouble had arisen respecting some of the pamphlets that I had bought from him: that he had had a visit from a Mr Pollard on October 14th: that a number of these pamphlets were stated by Mr Pollard to be fakes, and that it was my indiscreet marketing of them in numbers that had led to an investigation being made as to their origin, and to the assertion that they were spurious. He suggested that something would have to be done and proposed that I should agree to the destruction of all the copies still retained by me, and that, "as they are now mere waste-paper", he should compensate me for their loss to the extent of £25 or £30, and that I should make the statement that I had had them from Mr H. Buxton Forman (not from Mr Wise, as was in fact the case), and that he (Mr Wise) and H. Buxton Forman’s son (H.B.F. being then dead) would substantiate the statement in question. This I at once definitely declined to do. I had intended telling Mr Wise at this interview that I had been in touch with Mr Pollard and Mr Carter, but Mr Wise was in such an excited state, and I was so shocked by his changed appearance and evident condition of ill-health that I considered it better to defer doing so. I  therefore wrote on October 18th to Mrs Wise, giving her the full facts of the case, explaining that I had been in communication with Mr Pollard, explaining also how I came to be in communication with him, finally leaving it to her to "convey the information to him as and when you think best". At our interview on the 17th I had told Mr Wise that whilst definitely declining to agree to his proposal, I regarded it as necessary to take time to consider my position. Mr Wise asked me to let him know what I had decided by 4.30 o’clock on Thursday, October 19th, when I was again to call upon him at 25 Heath Drive. However, I had so definitely decided that his proposition was impossible and considered that no good could come of further discussion on the line proposed, that I wired on the morning of the 19th as follows:– (10.15 a.m. Thursday "Impossible agree HBF proposal. Herbert" To this wire I received one in reply:– (11.52 Hampstead) "Wire received anyhow we expect you to tea" To this I again wired:– "Position impossible seeking independent advice do not expect me to tea Herbert.” On Friday morning I received the following wire, handed in at Hampstead at 10.5 a.m.:– "Mr Wise cannot travel please come today your reputation and pocket perfectly safe Mr Wise has already stated that the goods were bought from Forman and sold to Gorfin." To this I wired a reply:– "Wire received arriving 3.30 to 4 o’clock, Herbert." At this interview Mr Wise adopted at first an extremely spacious attitude. It was  so unfortunate that we had seen so little of one another these late years. Why was it, &c. If we can once get over the present little difficulty there was no reason whatever why we should not again do good business together. He would be quite willing on his part to pay me back whatever sum it was I had originally paid him for the pamphlets, £400 wasn’t it, and as I seemed not to like the idea that I should say I purchased them from H.B.F., that little difficulty could be surmounted by our agreeing that, although I actually paid him (Mr Wise) for the various items, it was fully understood all the time that he was acting as the agent of Mr Forman in the matter, and that the pamphlets were actually coming to me from Mr F. though through Mr W. This again I objected to. I informed Mr Wise that I had purchased all the pamphlets from him direct, that I had accepted his statement regarding their origin, viz. that they had been found in sheets upon the demolition of a publisher’s warehouse and that he (Mr Wise) purchased the sheets in bulk: that I had always regarded them as perfectly genuine and that I would subscribe to nothing but the plain unvarnished truth respecting them or my acquisition of them. The potential value of the property, I continued, was something like £2000, had they been genuine – as I had every reason to believe them to be when I bought them from him that I was now fully convinced in my own mind that the author of their existence was none other than himself, and that I considered I had been disgracefully treated in the matter. Mrs Wise was present at this interview, had indeed been at this and upon previous occasions. She suggested that perhaps Mr Wise could give me books of a value to satisfy me, to which I replied that I did not want books but considered myself entitled to the value of the property which his (Mr Wise’s) action had destroyed. To this Mr Wise replied he had not £2000 nor in fact even £200, and then made a remark to the effect that "he could of course get young Forman to sell some of these – waving his hand towards the cases – but it did not seem as though it were any good paying me anything at all, seeing that the pamphlets were now just so much waste paper", to which opinion Mrs Wise agreed, and Mrs Wise  then left the room. Mr Wise then made a remark about blackmail whereupon I indignantly rose to leave, protesting against so outrageous a suggestion. We had some further conversation and I took my leave, as there seemed to be  "no object in discussing the matter further". Mr Wise then asked me whether I was going away to "stir up further mud". I again protested that “the mud was all of his making and had been stirred up by him”, and I left. Mrs Wise  met me in the hall and followed me out to the gate, despite the unpleasant weather. Her last words to me were, “You will come, Herbert, if I want you?”

      After taking legal advice I wrote on October 29th as follows:– Dear Mr Wise , Anent our conversation of last Friday week, the 20th inst., and your proposal that, in consideration of my destroying the whole of the forged pamphlets remaining in my possession, you would compensate me in the sum of £400. I have carefully considered the matter and am prepared to accept your proposal. It would of course be understood that I am not expected to state that I purchased the pamphlets from Mr H.B. Forman and that you undertake, as you agreed to do, to accept responsibility for any claim that may be brought against me by former purchasers. Although such a settlement as this takes no account of the serious damage to my reputation that must result and has indeed already shown itself, I am anxious to be clear of the whole very unpleasant business. Yours very sincerely, Herbert E. Gorfin. I next received a letter from Mrs. Wise, written on behalf of her husband, in which he agreed to pay me £400 as compensation, and arranging that I should call on “Wednesday or Thursday next” (Nov. 8th or 9th). At this interview it was arranged that I should deliver the pamphlets to Mr Wise’s solicitor, Mr Gedge of Messrs Gedge Fiske & Co., 10 Norfolk Street W.C.2. The pamphlets were duly delivered and cheque received. At a subsequent date I received a letter from Messrs Gedge Fiske & Co. as follows:– (11th November 1933) Dear Mr Gorfin, I write as arranged to inform you that the whole of the pamphlets which you left with me have been torn up in my presence. Yours truly, (Signed) John A Gedge.

Carter described the affair from the enquirers’ point of view.

Wise bethought him of Gorfin, with whom he had been out of touch for a decade or more, and invited him to tea. He did not know that Gorfin had "come clean" to us, and he broke the news, as he supposed, that there was "some talk going on about some wrong things" among the pamphlets of which he had sold Gorfin so large a number twenty years before. He suggested that it would be best for all concerned if he took back whatever Gorfin had left  "at their market value," which he estimated at a total of £25. Gorfin did not dare tell Wise  that we had already taken down his evidence, but he had enough sense to say he would think over Wise’s offer. He came straight to my office, and he was still sweating slightly: Wise was an extremely formidable character, and although Gorfin was free, white and fifty-five, in that choleric presence he was again the subservient office boy. We advised him to write the truth to Wise if he did not, as he insisted, dare to tell him to his face.

      He did so, and the result was electric. A series of telegrams summoned him "immediately" to 25 Heath Drive, where Wise offered to repay his whole original investment (£400, sixteen times the previous day’s offer) in the now worthless pamphlets, on one condition: that Gorfin would endorse his intended statement that they had all come from Harry Buxton Forman, editor of Shelley and Keats, and a notable book-collector of Wise’s period, who died in  1917. Gorfin declined to support this story, which he then heard for the first time, and again left, promising to consider Wise’s revised offer. We advised him to accept it, accompanying his acceptance with a specific repudiation of the Buxton Forman story, which seemed to him (and to us) to be an alibi for which Wise needed any support he could beg, borrow, or in this case buy; and we recommended that he get a lawyer to draft the letter. He did so; and he got the £400 in exchange for his stock of the pamphlets.

Wise also mobilized his influential friends and an informal defence committee was set up in Oxford. This was headed by (Sir) Humphrey Milford but the active member was Frederick Page, an old friend of Wise whom we have already met. He took it as a matter of course that the enquirers’ left wing conspiracy would soon be shown up. He put his research assistant onto the job of hunting up contemporary evidence for the Reading Sonnets. His first doubts began when Wise insisted that it was a waste of time to look for contemporary evidence: he should attack the enquirers’ evidence from paper and type. As filtered through Wise himself, this was not easy to do and Mr Page did not understand the force of the technical arguments.

Maurice Buxton Forman was still living in his father’s old house at 46 Marlborough Hill. His mother had died in 1932 aged 92 and Maurice was settling into life in England. Wise got in touch with him and told him the balloon was about to go up. By a mixture of bullying, blackmail and old friendship, he readied Maurice on his side for the coming campaign. In January 1933 Wise altered his will. He freed his wife from trustees and gave her financial freedom of action. He also directed that his library should be offered in the first instance to the British Museum at a price to be fixed by Mrs Wise in consultation with solicitors and trustees. This greatly increased the probability of the library passing to the nation at a favourable price. In the autumn of 1933, Wise went to see Clays, specifically Cecil Clay the managing director. He had by now digested the technical evidence provided by the enquirers, made his own enquiries within the firm, and come to his own conclusions. Wise left his wife in the waiting room and went off with Cecil Clay to the boardroom. Wise: ‘Can’t you say you had nothing to do with these things?’ Clay: ‘How can I when you know we printed them for you. Aren’t you rather giving yourself away?’ The interview came to an abrupt end. Wise was still not well – after all he had his 74th birthday on 7 October – and in November he injured his head in another fall.

Meanwhile the enquirers completed and polished their book; an initial draft was headed ‘Wise-cracking’. At the same time Wise’s influential friends went to work. The book was to be published by Constable in England and Scribners in America. The directors of Constable were approached by all sorts of influential people who warned them in the friendliest but weightiest possible way against putting any trust in those wild young men. Carter was much more of an establishment figure than Pollard. He was borne off to numerous lunches with the great and the good. ‘I always wondered when he came back’, Pollard used to say, ‘whether he had ratted on me: but he never did.’

The book Carter and Pollard wrote had a studiously modest title: An enquiry into the nature of certain nineteenth century pamphlets. It is a title which harks back to Malone’s great exposé of the eighteenth century forgeries of William Henry Ireland viz. An inquiry into the authenticity of certain miscellaneous papers 1796. The tradition was continued by James Boaden, An inquiry into the authenticity of various pictures and prints, offered to the public as portraits of Shakespeare  1824; N. Hamilton, An inquiry into the genuineness of the manuscript corrections in Mr. F. Payne Collier annotated Shakespeare 1860; and (to leapfrog a moment) Nicolas Barker, The Butterfly books. An enquiry into the nature of certain twentieth century pamphlets 1987. These last two demolish the forgeries of John Payne Collier and Frederick Prokosch. In Carter and Pollard’s Enquiry all the trails seemed to lead to Wise’s door: but not unnaturally he refused any explanation to the enquirers.They could not name him as the forger because there was no absolute proof: but their indictment was damaging.

Mr. Wise, by his credulity, by his vanity in his own possessions, by his dogmatism, by abuse of his eminence in the bibliographical world, has dealt a blow to the prestige of an honourable science, the repercussions of which will be long and widely felt … like the thirteenth stroke of a faulty clock, which discredits the hours which have gone before, the spuriousness of these books must inevitably cast aspersions on many similar books which are, in fact, genuine. If these, so plausible, so well-established, are forgeries, what can be trust? If Mr. Wise, one of the most eminent bibliographers of our time, can be so extensively wrong, who can we be sure is right? In the whole history of bookcollecting, there has been no such wholesale and successful perpetration of fraud as that which we owe to this anonymous forger. It has been converted into an equally unparalleled blow to the bibliography and literary criticism of the Victorian period by the shocking negligence of Mr. Wise.