My parents were English but I was born and brought up in Scotland, where my father had a small engineering works in Lanarkshire. I went through school life in a slight daze. It transpired that I have dyslexia, and Asperger syndrome, which gives you a different way of looking at the world. People with Asperger’s often have a tendency to collect things, even if it’s only car registration numbers. I’ve been collecting 78 r.p.m records since the age of seven, and now have around 20,000. Much of this collection will eventually go to the British Library to fill gaps in their sound archive. I’m interested in the preservation and documentation of sound recording, particularly the changes in musical performance practice and our reaction to them. The question of why something is considered normal in its time but abnormal in another is something that fascinates me. This applies equally to the performance of a Beethoven string quartet and to the spoken word. Recordings of Shakespeare exist from the 1890s, and the declamatory style of the actors has changed so much in the last century that they would be laughed off the stage today.
Book collecting is also driven by fashion, apart from a certain number of key works that will always hold their own. Many of the books that I sold when I started out in the business thirty-five years ago are considered to be old dogs today, while items that were sold in bundles are now thought to be the high-water mark of saleability. As recently as the 1970s, a book in its original boards was not thought to be as desirable as a nicely rebound volume – well, in Glasgow at any rate.
Having left school in 1976 without any qualifications, I went straight to the employment bureau in Hamilton, where I was offered two jobs based on my interest in collecting. I could either work on a removal van or be a porter for the local auctioneer. I chose the porter’s job with Edmiston’s in Glasgow for the salary of £750 a year. There was a sale every Wednesday and the pace was relentless. The porters did everything from sweeping the floor to cataloguing the general sales. We often had to deal with the contents of whole houses and to handle the detritus of human life, which might include a bloodstained mattress from someone’s death bed. It certainly gave me a vivid awareness of the cycle of life and death, and the enduring nature of objects compared to our transient existence. It gave me a feeling for the object as something that possesses its own life, in most cases considerably longer than mine. Some dealers have difficulty in parting with their books; I’m only too glad to handle them and to learn something from each item. I don’t need to possess the object itself (excepting records of course).
The books would arrive in tea chests and I was given the job of putting them out on trestle tables for Charlie Douglas to go through them. Charles Edmiston Douglas was the owner of the company and a descendant of one of the founders. It was very much a local sale room. Most of the dealers came from Glasgow or Edinburgh – Mrs McNaughtan, or young Miss Strong, Cooper Hay for John Smith, James Thin, Ian and Senga Grant and Bruce Marshall were all regulars at our sales. Some of the dealers were very elderly and a few had been to the final sale of the contents of Hamilton Palace sold by Christie’s in the palace itself in 1919. I remember one old boy, who had been paid off by the Army after the First World War, spent all his money on a lot containing silver plate. It’s incredible to think that Hamilton Palace plate was being sold from a barrow in the streets of Glasgow.
A couple of years after I joined, the firm was taken over by Christie’s and was re-named Christie’s & Edmiston’s. The first time that I took a sale I was so nervous that I had to go to the doctor for some kaolin and morphine, a bucket kindly placed under the rostrum stool by my colleagues. Although I have a near-photographic memory for books and can remember something from thirty years ago in minute detail, I have no memory for names. Before the paddle bidding system was introduced, I would make a diagram of where people were sitting, and then they would move somewhere else and I had no idea who they were.
We worked closely with the book department in London, and Hans Fellner would come up to Scotland when we had an entry to an important library. Hans Fellner had run his own book business in Museum Street for twenty years before joining Christie’s in 1976. He had suffered a heart attack and it was thought that a regular salary might be less stressful for him than self-employment. Hans was my mentor. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for all that he taught me. Everything I learnt from my time as an auctioneer fitted me for that task only, but it did not prepare me for the book trade. Auctioneering is a much more rough- and-ready approach; you learn an enormous amount from the quantity and variety of material that passes through your hands, but you don’t learn much finesse. Bookselling is all about finesse. Hans Fellner taught me how to look at a book. If you have seen a copy a hundred times before, you should look at it again and never think that you know everything about it. He had enormous humility and was always ready to listen to the opinions of less experienced booksellers who might have noticed something that he had missed.
In 1983 we had an entry to the library of Sir Ivar Colquhoun of Luss. The books were in exceptionally fine condition, kept in Chippendale-style bookcases in a room that had never been gas-lit. Candles were used at Rossdhu House until the installation of electricity. The library had been virtually untouched since the eighteenth century, although a few books had found their way on to the market. The Rothschild collection of eighteenth-century printed books and manuscripts contains volumes from the library of Sir James Colquhoun (1741-1805). When the Colquhoun library was sold on 22 March 1984, it was the biggest book sale in Scotland up to that date.
The library at Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle was another time capsule in the Highlands. I was asked to do the valuation. Carnegie did not believe in inherited wealth and on his death in 1919, his 30,000-acre estate in Sutherland was left in trust for his daughter to be sold once she had no need for it. It was used occasionally for only a few weeks at a time over the next sixty years. Meanwhile the house was kept immaculate and heated all year round. Carnegie asked Lord Acton, who had recently been appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, to choose the books which were purchased for the library at Skibo by Hew Morrison, head of the Carnegie Library in Edinburgh. Carnegie wanted to have the best, not necessarily the first, edition of the books recommended by Lord Acton, and to have used copies to give the impression of a working library. He was very disappointed to find that the books on his shelves had been rebound by Henderson & Bisset of Edinburgh in leather on the instructions of Morrison, to whom Carnegie wrote a wonderfully acrid note: ‘I asked you to get the best editions of a list of books Lord Acton would furnish you. I never said one word to you about changing the bindings of these gems, never. I now learn that you have spent more money on bindings than the precious gems cost.’
I went to view Skibo in midwinter. I had come by train from Glasgow and the train deposited me at the wrong station so I had to walk, or rather crawl, in the pitch-black darkness along the tracks to the modest little hotel at Invershin. Major Spowers, who had come up from Christie’s in London for no good reason but to have a look, arrived in style by plane and taxi from Inverness. To the surprise of the management and the handful of guests, the Major came down to dinner wearing dinner jacket and dress medals. He spoke very loudly and drank copiously thus finishing off my very modest budget for the trip. He was an impressive figure and it’s easy to see that many clients would have loved his manner.
At the time of the recession in 1991, Christie’s reduced its staff in the Scottish office by almost half. I was given the option of moving to London where I joined the general valuation department and also worked in the book department. It took me many years to come to terms with London after my little Glasgow world. In 1992 it was suggested that I might be the person to run Pickering & Chatto for its new owner. Bill Lese, a retired American businessman, had bought the company from William Rees-Mogg. I consulted Hans Fellner who advised me not to take the job, as he believed that the stock had little value and that the overheads of a big shop in Pall Mall would be crippling. When Lionel and Philip Robinson moved into the same premises in 1930, they did so not for selling, but principally for buying; the shop was in the right location to meet owners of country houses as they came and went from their clubs in St James’s. I knew that the great days of Pall Mall as a centre of the book trade had long gone but, typically enough, I believed that everything would be fine and took the job.
Bill Lese liked the idea of a big shop and was prepared to put a certain amount of money into the business. The staff worked their guts out but the overheads were just too high and the company almost went bankrupt. My colleagues had had enough and quite rightly too. Susanne Schulz-Falster, Amanda Hall and Becky Hardie all left Pickering & Chatto to set up their own book businesses. The time had come to leave Pall Mall and move into office premises. I looked at a map and decided that I should try to find somewhere in Conduit Street, as it was ideally situated in relation to Maggs and Quaritch, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and Bernard Shapero. Together with my colleagues Ed Smith and Deborah Coltham, we got Pickering & Chatto back on its feet again. And then one day in 1998 in walked Percy Barnevik.
Percy Barnevik, the Swedish businessman, was putting together a library in Stockholm and had the vision and the wealth to pursue it. Barnevik was like a whirlwind going through the London antiquarian trade. He was a man in a hurry and you had to be able to convey information very quickly. He would ask, ‘Why should I buy this book?’ and you had to give the answer in a few persuasive words. It reminded me of Edwin Wolf’s biography of Dr Rosenbach in which there are many wonderful examples of Rosenbach’s ability to persuade others to share his enthusiasm for great books. Pickering mainly bought incunabula for Barnevik’s collection. The business that we did with him helped us to strengthen our core areas of social sciences, the humanities, medicine, English literature and to develop in other directions.
I think of Pickering & Chatto as dealing in books without pictures, and Marlborough Rare Books as a business of books with pictures. It was therefore a logical move when the opportunity arose in 2005 for the two firms to come together. Bill Lese wanted to retire from the business and Jonathan Gestetner was looking for ways to develop Marlborough Rare Books. When Mickie Brand retired and Ian Marr left in 2005 to set up his own business, Marlborough was rather short of staff. As Jonathan is a great salesman and Pickering had plenty of cataloguers, the two firms could make a perfect fit. I remember walking along New Bond Street with Jonathan discussing how to join the two companies when we spotted a two-pence coin on the ground. When we both reached for it, I knew that we could work together.
It was agreed to keep the two trading names of Marlborough Rare Books and Pickering & Chatto, but we are in fact one company – rather like so many businesses today, which own a number of different brands. I became manager of both companies, and Pickering moved in 2006 from Conduit Street into Marlborough’s premises in New Bond Street. We have retained the identity of the two companies with their different cataloguing styles and subjects. Pickering has been selling to institutional libraries since the nineteenth century and now it’s a question of finding the gap on the shelf. This is aggravated by the fact that many libraries are combining their resources and won’t buy a book if a copy is available in another library in their geographical area.
The heyday of the bookshop was not in the distant past, but in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s during the displenishing of the great country-house libraries. Those books have gone into institutional and private collections and we have to make money from an ever-decreasing amount of ‘fresh’ material. Dealers are now looking at books more in the round, and seeing how they link with other subjects and their place in the society that produced them. We have to be more speculative in what we buy and perhaps, in this process, lift a book from one category to another. Booksellers at the top of their game create new markets and then move on. It’s important to develop your interests and to avoid selling the same material, as your descriptions will inevitably be copied in the race to the bottom on the internet.
In the days when J.R. Hartley was telephoning bookshops in Yellow Pages looking for his book on fly-fishing, he had to buy the first copy that he found as the search might have gone on for twenty years. Nowadays the search takes twenty seconds. All the J.R. Hartleys have found their books and much of what is left is almost unsaleable. Therefore we have to pay much more attention to what makes a particular copy stand out. Today it’s the minutiae that will sell your copy, and the microscope’s magnification is getting larger.
Interviewed for The Book Collector in Autumn 2013