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2006-03, 349, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review: ‘True to the Letter.’

True to the Letter. 800 Years of Remarkable Correspondence, Documents And Autographs.

By Pedro Correa Do Lago.Thames and Hudson. 288pp. $90.00

The hands that signed the papers could be a subtitle for this extremely attractively presented  volume which reproduces correspondence, documents and autographs from a chronological span of over eight hundred years. The book is based on the collection of Brazilian, Pedro Correa Do Lago, President of the National Library of Brazil Foundation, who has been collecting autographs for over thirty-five years.

True to the Letter offers a fascinating, profusely illustrated, glimpse into the lives and minds of one hundred major figures in the worlds of literature, art, music and politics. The letters, sketches, signed photographs and working drafts, many published here for the first time, provide fascinating insights into those figures.

Correa Do Lago notes that autograph collecting is not a new pastime/ obsession. Cicero and Pliny the Younger apparently owned quite remarkable collections. Pliny (61–113 AD) apparently complained that it was difficult to collect letters by Julius Caesar because of their rarity! Correa Do Lago began his own collecting at an early age and, as many do, wrote to famous people, in this case, J R R Tolkien and Francois Truffaut. Tolkien’s secretary replied  in the negative, saying that Tolkien, even at that time in the early 1970s, was swamped with requests but Truffaut sent him an illustrated, personalised version of L’enfant Sauvage. After this, there was no stopping Correa Do Lago! Coming from a Brazilian diplomatic family he clearly had sufficient funds to assemble a rich collection through a range of specialist firms such as the British manuscript dealer John Wilson.

Correa Do Lago in his introduction, “A Passion for Autographs”, notes that most collectors specialise in a subject or a type of autograph. His collection ranges both in format and content much more widely. He ranges from medieval Kings through to the Beatles, and includes many of the outstanding figures in Western history, literature, the sciences, music and art. Figures represented include Queen Elizabeth I, Louis the Fourteenth, Peter the Great, Napoleon, Rubens, Pancho Villa, Mahatma Gandhi and Mick Jagger. Each entry provides fascinating details and full illustrations, as in a letter in which Gandhi foreshadows his death; a document signed by Elizabeth I on the first day of her reign, where she omits the ‘R’ for Regina; a loving note from Trotsky to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; a 1766 letter from Casanova and a note from President Kennedy’s accountant querying Kennedy’s expenditure in 1955 and Kennedy’s reply.

Most of the documents are illustrated by portraits or photographs of their writers, and each is accompanied by a supporting essay revealing the circumstances in which it was written. Full transcriptions and translations of the originals are supplied at the end of the book.

True to the Letter is far more than a collection of autographs but, even at the basic signature level, autograph collecting today has become a serious financial business and many celebrities would not respond today as Truffaut did. Sport memorabilia has become very lucrative for those who sell it. Dealers have even been hiring school children in Manchester on a daily basis to ‘stalk’ Manchester United soccer players! The soccer club has now issued an edict for their players not to sign autographs individually.

Even literary figures are stalked as Stephen King has unfortunately found out. The late James Herriott of All Creatures Great and Small fame actually lost the use of one hand through signing books and had to learn to sign with the other hand! Terry Pratchett often judges the success of his tour by the length of his signing queues but then  he says an unsigned Terry Pratchett is worth more than a signed one!. Margaret Atwood is even threatening to sign books electronically which can hardly be the same thing as meeting her.

True to the Letter is not just a sumptuous coffee table book but also a major reference work in its own right. Correa Do Lago is sceptical about the current boom in popular music and film star autographs where forgeries are rife, even when they are accompanied by certificates of authenticity. Correa Do Lago mentions that many are signed by secretaries. Almost all the signed portraits of Jean Harlow were actually signed by her mother! The words here must be ‘caveat emptor’ unless the dealer is of proven reputation.

True to the Letter is certainly true to its signatures and buyers can check their own purchases, while marvelling that such a remarkable collection could still be amassed in private hands in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Colin Steele.

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