Brian Alderson is donating his remarkable collection of children’s books to Seven Stories. Here he carefully says goodbye to some particularly precious editions.
In 1898 on holiday on Coniston Water the young Arthur Ransome had a fruitful encounter with the artist and erstwhile assistant to Ruskin, William Gershom Collingwood, and his five children. Collingwood was a keen yachtsman and before long had taught Ransome to sail his dinghy, the Swallow. It was to be an enduring friendship (Arthur proposing serially but unsuccessfully to two of the daughters) and would also involve another visiting family, the Syrian Altounyans, one of whom did marry Dora Collingwood, while five others, including their father, were later to inspire the first of Ransome’s famed sagas of boats, the sea, and the countryside.
The first Swallows and Amazons took some time to get themselves organised. On first appearance in 1930 their story was told in plain text with only a coloured map by Steven Spurrier for endpapers. The next year however he was persuaded to add a set of line drawings (together with a companion set for Swallowdale, the 1931 successor). In America however the Lippincott first edition had gained permission for a set of chapter headpieces and separate endpapers, undertaken, with some repetitions, by Helene Carter.
Come 1932 however the author had tired of poor Mr Spurrier whose work he deemed too predictable and he ventured on doing the job himself, cunningly blaming the resultant drawings on the children themselves – possibly leading to confusion for American readers where, despite Ransome’s amusing explanation, Carter was retained in places. The book was to be the sailing yarns of Peter Duck with Uncle Jim and the children of Swallows and Amazons as fellow sailors to the Caribbees and back.
On publication, as was customary, Ransome was given his share of ‘author’s copies’, and so it occurred that one of the Lippincott copies, in its American board binding , found its way with a gift inscription  in minuscule handwriting: ‘For Ursula and the gang / from a.r.’
This Ursula proves to be the youngest of the Collingwood girls (never, alas, proposed to by Arthur). She had worked as a midwife in London before returning north and by 1932 had married Reginald Luard-Selby, the vicar at Ambleside, with their children making up a small and fairly youthful gang.
I myself was a child reader of Ransome (I remember being wholly oblivious to an evening of V2 bombing raids through absorption in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea) and by a stroke of good fortune much later on picked up an almost complete run of first editions in their jackets. Later on too these were joined by four American editions which included Ursula’s – a treasure whose departure will be hard to endure for signed copies are hardly common.
Brian Alderson is a long-time and much-valued contributor to Books for Keeps, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His most recent book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
These show the two-colour frontispiece by Helene Carter for the US edition of Peter Duck which would not appear in the London edition, and the dust-jacket presumably by a Cape designer which displays many examples of what were to be Arthur Ransome’s first drawings in the style that would be adopted for all the Cape series.
Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale and Peter Duck are published by Red Fox, £7.99 pbk.