London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1940. First, limited, numbered, and finely bound edition. Quarter Leather. This is a magnificently well-preserved copy of the first limited, finely bound, and numbered edition of the inimitable Gertrude Bell's First World War despatches to the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Bell’s despatches had previously been published only in the Arab Bulletin.
The volume is handsomely bound in quarter morocco with raised spine bands bordered by blind rules over pale yellow-cream linen-covered boards with blind rule transitions. The contents, printed on mould-made, watermarked paper feature untrimmed fore and bottom edges, and gilt top edges. The book was originally issued in a plain glassine dust wrapper and gray card slipcase. This limited edition of 500 copies was published by Golden Cockerel Press, who commissioned the fine binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe of London, as evidenced by “BOUND BY S & S LONDON” stamped on the lower front pastedown. This copy is hand numbered “59”.
This is a lovely edition, but most often found with grubby cloth boards and significantly faded leather. This copy is an exception, in better than near fine condition. This is the first copy we have ever offered retaining the original jacket and slipcase – the presence of which explains the exceptional condition. The binding is square, tight, and beautifully clean with no reportable wear. The linen covers and adjacent green quarter leather are simply immaculate – compellingly bright. The only part of the binding that shows any toning is that unprotected by the slipcase; even so, the spine is only very faintly toned, only a small triangle at the spine head showing any appreciable toning. In short, overall presentation is as good as we have seen for the edition. The contents are equally impressive – pristine with no previous ownership marks, no spotting, and no age-toning. The gilt tip edge is vividly bright, the untrimmed fore and bottom edges bright and clean. The original glassine dust wrapper is age-toned, brittle, and in two pieces, the faces and flaps intact, the spine fully separated and with substantially less than half of the spine still present, the fragments thereof clinging to the respective halves of the wrapper. The original gray card stock slipcase is complete and fully intact, toned and with an unidentified sticker fragment adhering to one of the sides.
Bell’s despatches published within span 5 October 1916 to 24 July 1917 and are preceded by an introduction by Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, former Director of the Arab Bureau. Kinahan writes of Bell “…she had arranged to send from time to time reports on what was happening on the other side of the Arab World. The reports contained in this book, which were published in the Arab Bulletin – the secret intelligence summary of the Arab Bureau – were the result… each was complete in itself, whether it described a system, an individual, or a phrase in tribal history… officialdom could never spoil the freshness and vividness of her style or the terseness of her descriptions. Throughout them all can be seen the breadth of her knowledge and her sympathy and understanding for the people whom she loved so well.”
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868-1926) was the intriguing and influential adventurer, scholar, writer, and diplomat who, like her contemporary T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia” did much to frame and shape the Middle East during and after the First World War. Raised amid industrialist family wealth, Bell lost her mother at age three, increasing a “sense of independence and self-reliance” perhaps already inherent to the “physically restless and intellectually gifted” child. By her mid-twenties the unmarried Bell discovered intellectual and emotional fascination with the Middle East. “Outstanding literary and linguistic skills” coupled with “determination, bravery, physical strength, and endurance” invigorated contributions to travel literature, translation, archaeology, and architecture, eventually evolving into engagement in the region’s socio-political currents.
By the First World War, Bell became “a voluntary agent of Britain’s interests in the Middle East” and assumed her defining role – as “a woman trying to break one of the most challenging barriers of her time: the physical conquest of the desert and the decoding of the moral and ethical code of its inhabitants.” (ODNB) Bell’s linguistic and tribal knowledge made her indispensable to the Arab Bureau (the Cairo intelligence office of the British government during the First World War), contributing articles to the Arabian Report and the famous Arab Bulletin.
After the First World War, Bell remained an influential figure, helping persuade Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to maintain British presence in Iraq, helping secure the throne for the King of Iraq, and facilitating the Anglo-Iraqi treaty. One of her last accomplishments was helping fund a national museum in Baghdad, which was installed in a permanent building in 1926, the year she died. Like the contemporary figure to whom she is often compared, Lawrence of Arabia, Bell was disappointed in some of her hopes for the region and died comparatively young. Bell was portrayed in the 2015 film Queen of the Desert. Item #006403