The Fortune Press
When bibliographer and antiquarian bookseller Timothy d’Arch Smith asks ‘What connection has … Wallace Stevens with a pornographer?’ his intended answer is R. A. Caton, the ‘elusive, secretive, diffident’ publisher of the Fortune Press, based at 12 Buckingham Palace Road, London, who published the first (pirate) edition of Stevens on British soil. Caton founded and ran the press singlehandedly from a young age. Not especially aware of, or concerned with, issues of copyright he ran almost immediately into difficulty due to his ‘slavish imitations’ of certain Nonesuch Press editions he admired – Plato’s Symposium, Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche and Johannes Secundus’ Kisses published by Nonesuch in 1925 and 1926.
Nonesuch and Fortune editions sit side by side in a handsome cabinet in our Lower Library housing 380 volumes of fine private press publications from the collection of Johnian Rollo Brice-Smith (1886-1964). Indeed, the Fortune editions look quite the part in their pretty dustjackets and gold-embossed ivory bindings. However, this happy congruity does not belie the tempestous relationship between the two presses, or Caton's typically erratic approach to publishing.
The Nonesuch Press (unaware that Fortune consisted of Caton alone) denounced the firm as ‘thieves and pirates’ and demanded the books be withdrawn. This left Fortune in considerable financial trouble, which was partly salvaged by Caton’s ‘brisk traffic in black-market tickets for Wimbledon’ and his involvement with the Parisian bookseller, Groves & Michaux (whose distinguished catalogue included such titles as 'Jack Casanova, its most wonderful nights of love' and a pirated edition of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover, my skirmish with the Jolly Roger'). Fortune’s casual dealings with illicit material led to Caton’s implication in an Obscenity Trial in 1934, which resulted in seven of his books ordered to be burned.
Writing in 1966, Philip Larkin (published a number of times by Fortune) termed Cation a ‘bum-hunting old relic of the Twenties.’ He and another of the press’s ‘clients’, Kingsley Amis, rather delighted in fictionalising the ‘Caton mystique’ – Amis wrote him into four of his novels as a thinly disguised rogue. The temptation to dismiss Caton as an entertaining but peripheral ‘relic’ is to a certain extent unfair, exemplified not least by the fact he was publishing Larkin, Amis and Stevens (though they were never paid for their work). Indeed, due to prudent stockpiling of paper during the war years he had a distinct advantage over other firms and was thus almost the only publisher willing to take on new poets, compiling an impressive list of new work from 1939 to the early 1960s.
For a more indepth and entertaining account of Caton's Fortune Press see d'Arch Smith, Timothy. R. A. Caton and The Fortune Press: A Memoir and a Hand-list. London, Bertram Rota, 1983.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 21 March 2014 by Charlotte Hoare, Library Graduate Trainee 2013-2014.