London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1937. First edition, first printing. Hardcover. This is the British first edition, first printing, increasingly scarce thus with a clean, unfaded binding protected by a first printing dust jacket. Great Contemporaries is Churchill's much-praised collection of insightful essays about 21 leading personalities of the day - including the likes of Lawrence, Shaw, and, most famously, Hitler.
This copy is very good in a good plus dust jacket. The blue cloth binding is clean and tight, with deep, unfaded blue hue, no color shift between the covers and spine, and vivid spine and front cover gilt. Trivial shelf wear appears primarily confined to the spine ends and corners. The contents remain respectably bright with a crisp feel, though with intermittent spotting throughout and to the page edges. The blue-stained top edge retains strong, uniform hue. Differential toning to the endpapers corresponding to the dust jacket flaps confirms what the binding already testifies – that this copy has spent life jacketed. Four inked lines on the front free endpaper recto read “Comprado [bought] en London Oct 7 1937 | Park Lane Hotel 12 Oct 1937 | Ramon de la Vota”. The only other previous ownership mark we find is the number “1384” in a different hand inked and circled directly above.
There were six printings of the first edition between October and December of 1937, but from the second printing on there are differences to the dust jackets, rendering the first printing dust jacket elusive. This first printing dust jacket is unclipped, retaining the original lower front flap price. There is a loss at the spine heel to a maximum depth of 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) with lesser losses to the upper hinges and flap fold extremities. The jacket shows moderate overall soiling with mild, even toning to the spine. The dust jacket is protected beneath a removable, clear, archival cover.
The character sketches herein offer remarkable portraits of both their subjects and the author. Churchill's piece about Hitler can be a shock to the modern ear, as it underscores his ability to write a balanced appraisal of his subject while expressing his earnest desire to avoid the war that he would fight with such ferocious resolve only a few years later. Neville Chamberlain, perhaps Churchill’s most vexing political opponent at the time, wrote to Churchill on 4 October 1937 to say: “How you can go on throwing off these sparkling sketches with such apparent ease & such sustained brilliance… is a constant source of wonder to me. But the result is to give great pleasure and entertainment…” It was written with what has been called "penetrating evaluation, humor, and understanding." Churchill's balanced and nuanced perspectives contrast favorably with those of more polemic writers – both then and now.
In the course of sketching the character of his contemporaries Churchill necessarily reveals much of his own character and perspective. Churchill's portrait of T.E. Lawrence, published here just a few years before the Second World War, might well have been written about the author rather than by him: "The impression of the personality of Lawrence remains living and vivid upon the minds of his friends, and the sense of his loss is in no way dimmed among his countrymen. All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them. Here was a man in whom there existed not only an immense capacity for service, but that touch of genius which everyone recognizes and no one can define." (Great Contemporaries, p.164) While some of the subjects of Churchill's sketches have receded into history, many remain well-known and all remain compellingly drawn.
Reference: Cohen A105.1.a, Woods/ICS A43(a.1), Langworth p.178. Item #006913