The atmosphere grew tense as the price rose higher and higher, quickly surpassing five figures. But listening over the phone to the sale at the world-renowned London auction house Bonhams, Professor Jessica Malay held her nerve to secure what has now become the jewel in the crown of a university collection of rare Ted Hughes books for a cost of £11,875.
For the substantial outlay, Professor Malay had won a unique book from Hughes: A Bundle of Birds contains 23 poems and was handwritten by Hughes and specially bound by his son Nicholas in 1982 as a gift for the Yorkshire poet’s sister Olwyn.
The book, which was won at auction in March, has become the latest addition to the University of Huddersfield’s archive of rare, precious and fascinating editions of the works of Ted Hughes. Academics at the university now believe the collection, which has more than 90 items, is the most comprehensive public collection of Hughes’s limited editions in the world and it will officially be launched in the autumn.
Dr Steve Ely, who directs the Ted Hughes Network at the university, says researchers led by Professor Malay have quickly established what is a “unique archive and a unique repository for research” after beginning a global search for rare editions of his work last year. “There may be private collectors who have it all but we think we have the most publicly,” he says.
Hughes is one of Yorkshire’s most famous sons, a literary giant of the 20th century who was married to Sylvia Plath and was made Poet Laureate in 1984.
Born in Mytholmroyd in 1930, from the age of eight Hughes was raised in Mexborough in South Yorkshire and spent much of his childhood exploring nature in the Yorkshire countryside – something that remained an influence on his poetry that took him to Cambridge and America.
Hughes, who was Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998, was published by the major company Faber & Faber, but also issued much of his writing in what were often exquisitely designed and illustrated editions by small presses and publishing companies – the objects the University of Huddersfield is now engaged in collecting.
Dr Ely, who wrote Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough, says the new collection builds on the work of Ted Hughes Network that was founded in late 2016 with the intention of establishing itself as a centre of excellence for Hughes-related teaching and research.
“We realised in terms of his limited editions there didn’t seem to be anywhere in the world that had everything,” he says.
“We have got probably the most comprehensive collection of Ted Hughes’s limited editions and small presses in the world. We started collecting less than a year ago so it is very new.
“We know one or two people who are closely connected with Ted Hughes and the Hughes family and alert us to a lot of these things. Jessica Malay is connected with rare book dealers and they alert us when things go up for sale or auction.”
He says when the university became aware that A Bundle of Birds was due to become available at auction, money was made available from the university’s research fund to bid for it.
“With A Bundle of Birds, we went for that because it is unique. It is a simply a one-off,” he says. “Jessica Malay secured some special funding. Before this, the most we have paid for a single volume was about £1,500. Some of the things, if they come up, we will have to break the bank – there things that come up so rarely and are produced in such limited editions.
“We have got 90 per cent of the existing limited editions. Some were published in runs of just 50 and were quite expensive at the time. Professor Malay has been the real driver. We wouldn’t have this collection if it wasn’t for Jessica.”
He says the money being put in by the university should prove to be a good investment by building up a globally renowned archive. Dr Ely is putting together a research proposal to examine the themes of Hughes’s limited-edition works which he hopes will shed new light on his approach to poetry.
“By acquiring these limited editions, we are looking at the heart of Hughes’s creative processes.
“We hope that academics will become aware we have got this collection and I hope the Hughes-interested public in South Yorkshire and the Upper Calder Valley will come and see it and that as a university we start to further develop our reputation as a centre for excellence on Hughes and more people will want to come and do MAs and PhDs.”
Ahead of the official launch of the archive later this year, a group taking a final-year module named Public Humanities have curated an exhibition titled Ted Hughes: You Are Who You Choose To Be at the University’s Heritage Quay archives centre which runs until July.
Dr Ely says the pace of acquisitions is slowing down as it becomes something of a waiting game to get hold of items held in private collections.
There is one Hughes book in particular that the university is keen to secure – a 1990 publication of 20 poems entitled Capriccio.
“This is the apotheosis of small press and limited editions and was done with his long-time collaborator, the artist Leonard Baskin,” Ely explains. “It includes 20 poems from Hughes and 20 illustrations from Baskin.
“The book is about a yard wide and two-foot across bound in expensive leather. It was published in a limited edition of 50 and sold to fine art market collectors, mostly in the US.
“We are told that is likely to be the most difficult one to acquire because of its rarity. It is going to cost probably close to £20,000.”
Among the items already in the collection is a giant version of his book Cave Birds that was illustrated by Baskin and commissioned by the Ilkley Literature Festival in 1975, as well as complete sets of works from Hughes published with the Morrigu Press and the Rainbow Press.
Efforts are even under way into acquiring copies of the Mexborough Grammar School magazine The Don & Dearne, in which his earliest published writings appear.
Dr Ely says he has loved the poetry of Hughes since coming across it as a schoolboy. “There is something about Hughes’s poetry which is authentic, in the sense he wrote exactly how he wanted without any regard for fashion. There is a power in the writing that enables you to gain insights into human nature. There is vast erudition in Ted Hughes.
“This guy has digested the whole of English literature and the power of the canon is experienced through Ted Hughes.”
Mexborough connection should not be forgotten
Steve Ely says Ted Hughes’s connection with the once heavily industrial town of Mexborough where he spent most of his childhood is often overlooked.
He says while Hughes’s work is more associated in the public mind with Mytholmroyd and the Upper Colne Valley, his years in South Yorkshire were when he actually became a poet.
“That was where he published his first poem,” says the professor at the University of Huddersfield, which appropriately is located nearly halfway between Mexborough and Mytholmroyd.
“The popular view of Hughes is this Heathcliffian figure on the Moor but there is a lot of DH Lawrence in Ted Hughes and I think that is the Mexborough influence.”