I derive my bookishness from my mother’s side of the family, the Frankau gang, as I call them. They originated in the German town of Frankenau and came to this country in the 1840s as tobacco merchants. My great grandfather, Arthur, married Julia Davis, a friend of Oscar Wilde and the author of a number of ‘advanced’ novels under the name of Frank Danby. Their son, Gilbert Frankau, inherited and bankrupted the family business just before the First World War, having been let down by his supplier in Germany. After military service, Gilbert wrote Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, a bestselling novel of the First World War. Gilbert’s sister Joan, was the only blue-stocking in the family. She went to Cambridge where she married Stanley Bennett, the Chaucerian scholar, known as ‘Backstairs Bennett’ for his skill in pulling strings. One of their daughters married the bibliographer Philip Gaskell. My mother, Ursula, and her sister, Pamela, both became novelists and it was through Pamela’s acquaintanceship with Christina Foyle that I got my first job in the book trade.
I was born in 1936 in Farnborough. My father was an officer in the Hampshire Regiment. I hardly knew him as he was away fighting in my childhood, and then he divorced my mother. During the war we lived with my grandfather in Windsor. I had a room in the attic, which had been my father’s when he was a child. Above the bed there were rows of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and I quickly developed a liking for second-rate literature and a taste in books described by my headmaster at St George’s School as ‘unsatisfactory’. My maternal grandfather, Gilbert Frankau, wanted me to go to Eton where he had been. It was across the river from my prep school, where I’d had quite enough of the Thames Valley. I thought that I might get out of going to school altogether if I refused to go to Eton. My plan didn’t work and I was sent to Cheltenham, where my father had been. It was a good school with plenty of opportunity to express one’s personality. I did a lot of acting, and began to cultivate a certain willowiness, topped with an interest in the occult.
When my friends went to Oxford, I realised that I should have worked harder at school. However, I got a job at Foyles, Pamela Frankau having eased the preliminaries, and discovered that muddling with books enabled me to pretend to be an academic. My aunt could love and hate with quixotic panache, writing scurrilous rhymes about her victims, of which Christina Foyle was one:
Poor little Christina Foyle,
She never quite comes to the boil.
She froths and she bubbles,
She hisses and steams
But the kettle-lid only comes off in her dreams.
I was put in charge of the occult section as none of the other staff would touch it, having recently become evangelical Christians during Billy Graham’s first crusade to London. As a boy I had been a keen conjurer and interested in all aspects of magic, much to the distaste of my aunt who sent me to be exorcised by Dom Illtud Evans, who appears in James Lees-Milne’s diaries as a heavy-smoking, rather drunken priest.
After leaving Foyles, I did my National Service. While I was stationed on the east coast of Scotland, I discovered The Quest for Corvo in Crail public library, and was instantly hooked by A.J.A. Symons’s biography of Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo. I came out of the Army in August 1957 and immediately auditioned for RADA in time to start the autumn term. During my audition, I realised that I was no longer interested in the stage and that I wanted to be a bookseller. I spent most of my term at RADA in the British Library, which was just around the corner in those days. None of my family was keen on the idea of a stage career, and a sigh of relief went up, not least from the head of RADA, when I returned to the book business.
In January 1958 I joined the Times Bookshop in Wigmore Street as a general assistant. The Times Bookshop and Library had been a very grand establishment, but was beginning to lose money seriously. The combination of a bookshop and a library in the same premises wasn’t working. People would find a book that they liked in the shop on the ground floor and then borrow it from the library upstairs. Harrods also combined a bookshop and a library but their customers would borrow a book and buy a grand piano on the same visit. My first job was in the basement sorting out the ex-library stock. We didn’t have ladders and were expected to ascend the shelves by climbing them, removing a few books from each shelf to make space for a grip like alpine mountaineers. Within a few months a vacancy came up in the publicity department. The job involved preparing catalogues of exhibitions, which were held in the shop. My first exhibition was a display of books to celebrate the Poet Laureate John Masefield’s eightieth birthday.
One day there was a knock at the door and there stood Harry Pratley, President of the ABA, asking if I would do the publicity for the antiquarian book fair. I produced the catalogue and, in the process, met a great many booksellers. It was extremely helpful as I had already begun collecting books, and was gathering material for a bibliography of the works of Montague Summers. The hippies had put paid to my plans for an Aleister Crowley bibliography by seizing on his books and reprinting them in all sorts of clandestine forms that resisted researches into their origins and their print runs.
I continued to produce exhibition catalogues for the Times Bookshop with increasing extravagance. Things came to a head shortly after an exhibition of private press books, for which I had borrowed material from various sources. When my boss received the enormous bill for printing the catalogue, he took it to a board meeting where the Chairman, Hugh Astor, declared that the answer was surely to open an antiquarian department and sell the sort of book that we had been borrowing for our displays. I still have my letter of appointment as buyer of the antiquarian department from 1 January 1961 at a salary of £900 a year. I had for a long time thought of mounting an exhibition of rare books on the occult but it was not until 1965 that I persuaded the Times Bookshop to put it on. Previous exhibitions had been on the stodgy side. The directors were keen to avoid anything disreputable, especially at a time when the newspaper was initiating a series of advertisements with the slogan, ‘Top People Take The Times’. The Times’s chairman, John Walter, when asked at a board meeting if we might paint our name on the shop blinds so that passengers on the tops of buses would know a bookshop lay beneath them, replied, ‘I wasn’t aware any of our customers travelled by bus’. The directors also weren’t aware that the shop had become quite well known to collectors of the arcane, not to say the improper. The astute collector could always find among the Arthur Rackhams and bound sets of Surtees some rather disreputable nugget such as Swinburne’s Whippingham Papers.
In the event the exhibition was named ‘Witchcraft’ and proved quite a crowd- drawer. The Beatles came – all but Ringo, perhaps not to be accounted ‘booky’. Their visit had been arranged by Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher, whose father had a distinguished collection of T.E. Lawrence, which we had recently valued for quite a lot of money. I think Jane must have advised McCartney to invest some of his new-found wealth in antiquarian books. Coincidentally the Beatles’ recording studio at Abbey Road has a Corvo connection in that the house once belonged to Arthur Maundy Gregory, a great Corvo collector, best remembered for selling honours under the Lloyd George government. We had Paul lined up to buy our signed copy of Ulysses but he didn’t take the bait, telling me very sensibly that he liked to lend his books, which put him off buying anything very valuable.
On his first visit to the shop, McCartney’s eye was caught by a Beardsley item. He had never heard of Aubrey Beardsley. He bought the book and shortly afterwards an art nouveau design of indisputable provenance adorned the cover of the Beatles’ album ‘Revolver’. The revival of interest in Beardsley was in full swing after Anthony D’Offay bought the libraries of André Raffalovich and John Gray, publishing a catalogue in 1961 of books and autograph letters mainly of the 1890s. Gray was a friend of Beardsley and the inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian Gray
In 1964 my bibliography of Montague Summers was published by Nicholas Vane, who had published the centenary edition of the letters of Baron Corvo. Meanwhile I had started to contribute to The Book Collector, and the pseudo- academic in me was greatly enjoying the role of bibliographer. My first piece for the journal was an article on Edward Cracroft Lefroy for the series on ‘Uncollected Authors’. Lefroy was one of the Victorian poets of homoerotic verse whose works I had been collecting for some years. Lefroy was related to Jane Austen and perhaps this connection amused the Editor of The Book Collector.
Shortly after joining the Times Bookshop I decided to write a book on the Uranians as I chose to call them. This was a group of minor poets active from around 1889 to 1930 who wrote homoerotic verse. Adult homosexuality has little to do with the themes of these poets, and hence the term ‘Uranian’ which was much used in their circles and is free from the misleading nuances of ‘homosexual’ and ‘paederast’. The period roughly coincides with the various movements at home and abroad to change the laws regulating homosexuality. It also encompasses a change in the study of the Classics in public schools and universities, which began to concentrate on the content of the text rather than the language. I used to advertise in The Clique and once a runner came into the Times Bookshop shouting over the startled customers, ‘Who’s been advertising for homosexual poems?’ There was a sinister runner called Michael O’Day, active in the 1960s, with piercing eyes, a large jewelled (probably magical) ring and a shabby but unnerving presence. He deserves to be remembered somewhere. I also put an advertisement in the TLS for Baron Corvo and his circle, to which Victor Hall, a bookseller in Kensington, responded very helpfully. Victor introduced me to the bookshops of Paris and taught me a tremendous amount about the business.
The acquisition of The Times newspaper by Lord Thomson of Fleet resulted in the shop’s closure in 1968. Thereupon I entered into partnership with Jean Overton Fuller, who had been to our private press exhibition in connection with her interest in Victor Neuburg and the Vine Press. Neuburg was a disciple of Aleister Crowley and a minor poet. Jean had come into a bit of money and when she heard that I had been made redundant, she suggested that we go into business together, generously and courageously advancing a few thousand pounds of her own money to finance an enterprise of which the profitability was far from guaranteed. Jean also found wonderful premises for us in Gloucester Place where we opened Fuller d’Arch Smith in 1970, with the reference library of the Times Bookshop which had been given to me. Within the first six months we had the good fortune to buy five tons of books from the Earl of Bradford’s library at Weston Park in Staffordshire.
Jean was a writer and a poet, the author of Madeleine, a bestselling book on Special Operations during the Second World War. She was keen for our business to publish poetry – although not of the Uranian variety – and we held poetry days in the office, when the likes of George Macbeth and Alan Brownjohn would read their work. In the same year that Fuller d’Arch Smith opened its doors, Love in Earnest, my book on the Uranian poets, was published by Colin Franklin at Routledge & Kegan Paul. Colin later told me that he had sent my manuscript to a reader whose report came back with the question, ‘Are you sure this man is not making the whole thing up? I’ve never heard of any of the poets he mentions’.
Jean’s attitude to the subject was understandably unenthusiastic, and she would not have cared for the firm to issue catalogues devoted to what my grandfather Gilbert referred to as ‘amatory unorthodoxy’. In 1972, by which time we had moved to 60 Oxford Street, the bookselling firm of Michael deHartington was conceived for the express purpose of jobbing off the accumulation of Uranian verse collected over the thirteen years it had taken to write Love in Earnest. My partner in this separate business was Michael Ayres, close friend and flat-mate, who had gained bookselling experience at Hatchard’s. Michael came up with the title, a conflation of his own name, the possessive of mine and the second Christian name of the Reverend Travers Hartington Quince, MA, a mythical Uranian poet, dreamed up by our mutual friend Victor Hall.
Business hours were erratically maintained and the office was shut much of the summer while we watched cricket at Lord’s. Although deHartington was only founded to dispose of my personal Uranian library, we had reckoned without the enthusiasm for the subject manifested by our fellow-booksellers – interesting from a psychological as well as a commercial viewpoint. When the business closed its doors in 1974, I continued to trade as Fuller d’Arch Smith. In due course Jean decided to move out of London. She remained a director for a few more years until around 1980 when, after my mother’s death, I was finally in a position to pay back Jean’s investment in the company.
I consider myself fortunate not to depend on bookselling for a living during the age of the internet. Several of my customers have given up collecting as a result of it. Quite simply they miss the thrill of the chase. A budding bookseller might launch his business by persuading his dentist to collect books on dentistry and his butcher to collect books on butchery and his solicitor to collect law books. Today my stock consists of a couple of shelves of books, and material I’m putting aside for a catalogue to mark the centenary of the death of Baron Corvo in 2013. It will be my first printed catalogue since the 1980s. Some academic kindly said that Love in Earnest was a pioneering study, and I would like to be remembered as a bookseller for discovering the Uranians.
Interviewed for The Book Collector Winter 2011