R.B. Cunninghame Graham

Collecting R B Cunninghame Graham

nicholsonn01pic1.jpg I’ve collected books for years. Hermann Hesse, J.B.Priestley, Harold Nicolson. The basis of my collection is the character of the writer even more than the quality of the writing.

My current passion in book collecting is R.B, Cunninghame Graham. Traveller, historian, politician, horseman, flamboyant individualist. A man of spectacular range and energy. He fascinates me.

I discovered his writing through this set of circumstances: six years ago I went to Spain to train Andalusian horses, the most magnificent horses in the world; a year and a half later, I made the journey back from Andalusia to Edinburgh on horseback. At this time, I came nicholsonn01pic2.jpg across a copy of Tschiffely’s Ride, the account of a Swiss schoolteacher’s journey on horseback from Buenos Aires to Washington that set a world record in 1924. An outrageous feat. Ten thousand miles through deserts and over snow peaks.

Another of Tschiffely’s books, Bohemia Junction, provided my first real introduction to Cunninghame Graham. I then bought Tales of Horsemen, a compilation from various sources published by Canongate in 1981. His writing interested me so much, I decided to try to make a complete collection of his books in first edition. Why first edition? There’s something exciting about having a book as it first appeared. I also like the idea of the value attached to these books. In five years, I’ve managed to get thirty first editions of the books he wrote. To my mind, they still bear the burden of being an incomplete collection.

I’m particularly pleased to have the scarce A Brazilian Mystic: Being the Life and Miracles of Antonio Conselheiro published by Heinemann in 1920. But I’m still looking for The Dream of the Magi published by Heinemann in 1923. Leslie Chaundy’s bibliography describes it: ‘F’cap 8vo, pp. 44, blue boards, with white buckram back, lettered along the spine in gilt; an oblong white label pasted on front cover has the title and author’s name printed on it in dark blue, within border. Two hundred and eighty copies printed, of which two hundred and fifty were for sale. Each was numbered, and signed by the author’. I wonder how many of these are still in circulation, selling at a price I’m prepared to pay? None of his books had a wide sale when they were published, none are common now second hand.

Cunninghame Graham’s books chart his life, and so his first book is crucial to the collection: Notes on the District of Menteith. For Tourists and Others, Adam and Charles Black, London, 1895. My copy has grey paper covers, some were issued in a cloth binding; the 1924 Limited Folio De Luxe edition is probably the most valuable book I have, worth £100 – but it means a lot to me because it’s signed by Graham and also includes a signed etching by D Y Cameron of the Lake of Menteith. That’s where Graham came from and that’s where he’s buried.

His father’s family were Scottish aristocracy; his maternal grandmother, Dona Catalina Paulina Alessandro de Jiminez, gave birth to his mother off the coast of Venezuela. The Essential R.B. Cunninghame Graham selected by Paul Bloomfield and published in 1952 contains a genealogical table, for those who are interested.

In 1870 when he was only seventeen, his family sent him to Argentina to seek his fortune as a rancher. He never made much money, but he found the love of his life, horses and open spaces. Much later, during the First World War, he accepted a commission from the British government to buy up thousands of the horses that he loved and send them to the battlefields in France. At the crunch, King and Country came first.

In spite of his privileged background, he was a firebrand socialist, who wasn’t afraid to denounce the British establishment. In 1886 he became MP for North West Lanarkshire. The Times described the new MP as ‘the aristocratic socialist and cowboy dandy’. He liked to wear a swirling black cape and broad-brimmed black hat, and to ride to parliament on a black horse. Both Socialists and Conservatives tended to treat him as a political maverick. Although he was to become a founder member of the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1890, and much later in life was active in the formation of the Scottish Nationalist Party, he’s very little known for these things.

nicholsonn01pic3.jpg As a writer, he deserves most recognition for Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco, Heinemann, 1898. It really should be republished. I’d like to do it myself, 1000 copies, leather bound. For me it’s the definitive travel book of Morocco. In the introduction, the author says ‘nothing so spurs a man upon a journey as the cautions of his friends. Dangerous. Impossible. When you get there nothing worth seeing, and the like all show you plainly that the thing is worth the venture’. That’s what he was like.

He had an illuminating correspondence with writer friends Joseph Conrad and W H Hudson who both admired him as a man and as a writer. Conrad’s letters to him were published by the Cambridge University Press, London, in 1969. Perhaps Conrad was right when he told him, ‘You’re a Hamlet choosing to be a Quixote’.

Alexander Maitland’s book about Graham’s marriage, published by Blackwood in 1983, suggests another side to the man. A spiritual dimension. His wife Gabriela was a mystical woman with experience of healing, who devoted much of her life to writing a biography of Santa Teresa, with whom she identified strongly.

Everything and everyone in the compass of Graham’s life intrigues me. I sometimes toy with the idea of selling my collection. But I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life. There are so many hours and special trips and meetings associated with the compiling of these books.

Copyright Jennie Renton.