I worked in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum for twenty-three years. In addition to my work as a curator, organising exhibitions, writing catalogues, guides and lecturing, I was in charge of buying books for the departmental library. The Department now has 50,000 books and is recognised as containing the finest library of its kind in this country devoted to prints and drawings. I bought almost every book for that library, so, although I’m new to bookselling, I’m certainly not new to the book trade.
I believe that we should not follow the same occupation all our lives, and I did not like the idea of staying on in the same institution until retirement – an idea that does not appeal to me anyway. Booksellers do not retire and have the opportunity to go on doing something that is serious and worthwhile for as long as possible. Of course any change can be uncomfortable – even disturbing. I have been a full-time bookseller for almost a year and a half and obviously the learning curve is still very steep. It seems extraordinary that there is no formal training. I wonder what happened to the diploma in bookselling? I would certainly have considered doing it.
As I have not been going long enough to join a book trade association, I am exhibiting at fairs that I can get into. The hit-or-miss nature of selling at fairs can be rather frustrating. Many of my books do not look of immediate interest on the outside and I gather this is not ideal for a ‘bookfair’ book. I have also come across an expectation among some visitors that everything should be very cheap, with no thought for the time and effort spent in finding the books. Certain aspects of bookfair behaviour have been described to me as the Three Ps: Pick it up, Put it down and Piss off. Luckily, my wife comes with me, and she is a very equable person – much better equipped than me to deal with the rough-and-tumble of trading.
One can learn a lot at bookfairs simply by watching other dealers – looking and listening. I am very open about asking for advice and wanting to learn from my colleagues – not in the sense of just copying, but trying to glean what I think is good. This certainly applies when I read dealers’ catalogues. My first catalogue came out recently, and took an immense amount of nervous energy. I have produced exhibition catalogues at the British Museum. But the approach is rather different – I was not aiming to sell the material. I was simply attempting to engage the viewer and, in my first book catalogue, I have tried to engage the reader – to describe material in an attractive way and, I hope, to employ the same scholarly approach. A bookseller must endeavour not only to find interesting material, but also to explain why it is interesting.
Doing my first catalogue as a bookseller was rather like going to the bottom of a very large class. Whereas before I was Paul Goldman of the British Museum, now I’m just plain Paul Goldman. And yet it’s not as simple as that, as anyone familiar with my museum work will come to my catalogues with a certain expectation. This gives me a feeling of responsibility and some anxiety.
Bookselling encourages individuality; there are different ways of doing it well. Robin de Beaumont has been very influential on my bookselling – I admire his scholarship and his achievement in pioneering renewed interest in Victorian book illustration. It’s a complex and fascinating field that I tried to explore in Victorian Illustrated Books. 1850–1870. The Heyday of Wood-Engraving, published by the British Museum in 1994. The book contains a checklist of Robin’s collection that he gave to the Department of Prints and Drawings. In surveying the period, I was able to pursue a number of themes that greatly interest me – in particular the relationship between the image and the text. This is actually the subject of the course that I am currently teaching part-time at London University for the MA in the History of the Book. I was first attracted to Victorian book illustration as fantastic examples of draughtsmanship. It is unfashionable to say so today, now that we live in a world of colour – on television, in advertisements and all around us – but I must admit to a great liking for black and white.
Until quite recently, book illustration tended to receive a low level of scholarly interest. Tennyson thought illustrations completely futile and questioned what they contributed to his poetry. But from the artists’ point of view, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, book illustration was something to be taken very seriously. Perhaps because they were essentially literary artists, the Pre-Raphaelites treated book illustration as being of equal importance to the text. The major artists took their role far beyond book decoration. They engaged with the text and there is a great sincerity about the best of their work, which resulted in some wonderful achievements.
William Allingham’s The Music Master, 1855, is a good example of a book in which we can see the shift from decoration to art. The illustrations include Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘The Maids of Elfen-Mere’, described by Burne-Jones as ‘the most beautiful drawing for an illustration that I have ever seen’. Of course there is a vulgarity and sentimentality about some Victorian illustrated books. But I personally enjoy the vulgarity as a sign of robust confidence. As for sentimentality, many books of this period could be called sentimental today. But now sadly the word has become degraded: there is a crucial difference between sentimental and sentiment.
However I cannot deny that the books often let themselves down by poor production. Unfortunately the widespread use of gutta-percha coincided with this period of book production. Regarded by the Victorians as a miracle super glue, this perishable material was used on everything from bookbindings to electrical insulation. The paper was often acidic which resulted in foxing and staining. Indeed, as objects Victorian illustrated books can be quite unsatisfactory and puzzling. Who was meant to read them – and where?
These (often) bulky objects were quite unsuitable for train journeys, and we must remember that this is the period of the development of the rail network (that we used to have) when every station had a bookstall. My own belief is that many of these books were ‘coffee table’ books, not intended for hard use. Frequently they were given as prizes which was of course their salvation, as very few people read books that they have won as prizes.
What excites me is that there are still discoveries to be made, items still to be recorded. In my book on Victorian Illustration, published by Scolar Press, 1996, I was able to trace a hundred books that were not recorded in Forrest Reid’s wonderful work on the Illustrators of the Sixties, 1928. Reid gave his own collection to the Ashmolean Museum, where I put on an exhibition last year. Although I discovered him through his interest in art, Forrest Reid was in fact a well-known novelist in his day – a friend of E.M. Forster and Walter de la Mare. When he died in 1947, he was regarded as one of the finest writers of the English language and all his novels were in print with Faber. Today none of his novels is in print with a mainstream publisher, and I hope that the exhibition and accompanying book may have done something to rescue a most interesting man from oblivion.
My interests are not limited to Victorian illustrated books, and my catalogues will also cover English literature, art reference and books on music, especially singing. I also like books with associations – one can learn so much about a previous owner simply by looking at, for example, a bookplate. Although we live in a visual world, bombarded by images on all sides, we need to learn to see. Education in this country is very poor on visual appreciation – we look, but how much do we actually see?
I have a great love of objects – pictures, books, and artefacts – and I cannot understand why some people dismiss them as ‘inanimate’. It is for us to animate them. A book will not yield up its secrets without our engaging with it. It is what people do with these objects that really matters. Of course a lot has been written on the subject of the collecting instinct. Undoubtedly the process of ‘controlling’ objects has something to do with insecurity. There is so little in our daily lives that we can actually control. (Have you heard Lionel Blue’s joke about how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.)
But material can be ordered in such a way that it makes better sense, adds to our knowledge. This is the creative side of collecting and the function of a museum and, on a small scale, the private collector. By supplying material and opening up new avenues, booksellers can fulfil a serious role. Ultimately we have the opportunity to give pleasure and this is surely one of the most worthwhile aims in life.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in February 1999