Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Book Collectors

David Butterfield

Last year I won the University of Cambridge’s inaugural book-collecting prize, the first such competition to be held in this country. I chose ‘Landmarks of Classical Scholarship’ as my theme, based on a hundred items from my library. Entrants were required to prepare an annotated bibliography up to ten pages in length, and to write a 500-word introduction to the collection. The prize was established by two American scholars, Emily Rose and her husband James Marrow, and named the Rose Book-Collecting Prize in honour of Dr Rose’s parents. The Cambridge prize allowed me to qualify for the international collegiate book-collecting championship, an annual event held under the aegis of Fine Books & Collections magazine in the United States, which I also won. The prize money is quite considerable and I shall of course feed it back into my collecting.

I have grown up mostly in the North West and was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, where I started to learn Latin at eleven and Greek at thirteen. I would often pick up the odd book on the Classics, but primarily for my own reading, and with no bibliophilic interest. Lancashire and Cumbria were hardly prime book collecting ground.  Even my occasional visits to bookshops in Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh hardly prepared me for what I was to find in Cambridge.

In 2003, I went up to Christ’s College to read Classics, and was suddenly introduced to a town with a very active secondhand book trade. Material on my subject was not only readily available but also priced sensibly enough for me to embark on building a large library. I rapidly went from modest beginnings to buying hundreds of books each term. There was a pragmatic element to my first book buying. Cambridge terms are so short that I needed to have a strong working library for the time spent at home in Cumbria where appropriate books were hard to find. I was recently awarded a research fellowship at my college, which ensures me a few more years in Cambridge and, if I live very frugally, the chance to expand my collection.

My specific field of research concerns the textual criticism of Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century BC, who undertook the daunting task of translating often abstruse Epicurean philosophy from Greek into Latin hexameter poetry of a very high artistic standard. The resultant work, De Rerum Natura,is one of the world’s literary and philosophical masterpieces. In the teaching of Classics, a split developed between Oxford and Cambridge in the nineteenth century with, very roughly speaking, Oxford favouring literary criticism and philosophy, and Cambridge pure textual criticism. My interests lie firmly in the latter tradition, with particular emphasis on Latin poetic texts. In historical terms I am certainly studying in the right city, for, if one were to make a list of the ten greatest British scholars in this central area of classical studies, I would venture that nine would be Cambridge men – the exception being Peter Elmsley (1774-1825), of Christ Church, Oxford (also remembered, incidentally, as the fattest undergraduate of his day). For many years Trinity College was the alma mater of the great Cambridge classicists – one has only to think of Richard Bentley, Richard Porson and A.E. Housman – but that tradition has relaxed somewhat over the last fifty years.

Lucretius is one of the three main strands of my collecting interests, and accounts for towards three hundred items in my library. From a collector’s point of view, Lucretius offers just the right depth and breadth. It would be impossible to form a complete collection of editions of Ovid or Virgil, because there is simply too much material, due to the fact that they have always been popular authors. Lucretius’ poem, with its uncompromising Epicurean stance – that the gods exist but have no interest in human affairs, and therefore that there is no place for religion in the world – was hardly going to be a bestseller in early modern Europe.

Partly for this reason, there are very few incunabula of De Rerum Natura. In a number of countries it was apparently difficult to get official approval to print the work; on the contrary, there was evidently a need felt for such publications as Cardinal de Polignac’s Anti-Lucrèce, 1747, a Catholic polemic against the poem’s anti-religious stance. The editio princeps of De Rerum Natura was printed in Brescia by Thomas Ferandus in 1473, of which four copies are known – the fourth only came to light in 2006 in a medieval castle in the Czech Republic. Then there is the 1486 edition (Fridenperger, Verona) – quite common as incunabula go – and then the first Venice edition (Ragazonibus, 1495), followed by the first Aldine edition of 1500. The oldest book in my collection is Pius’ folio commentary on Lucretius (Paris, 1514), closely followed by the second Aldine of 1515.

In 1962, Cosmo Gordon’s excellent bibliography of Lucretius was published in the Soho Bibliographies series. This was followed in 1985 by Professor E.J. Kenney’s edition of a facsimile of Gordon’s annotated copy of the bibliography. The work has been very helpful to my collecting; studies on this scale simply do not exist for a good number of classical authors. Cosmo Gordon was a Cambridge man and left his formidable library to King’s College, his alma mater. E.J. Kenney is Emeritus Kennedy Professor of Latin in Cambridge and has an amazing collection of Classical books, not least Lucretiana. I believe that Professor Kenney had no book plate until he was persuaded otherwise by A.N.L.Munby; I still write my name in my books on the front endpaper – in ink, because I firmly believe that one should never delete ownerships marks, no matter how apparently insignificant. As a corollary to this, I believe that any owner of a book should add their mark of ownership. I should add that Professor Martin Ferguson Smith is the other great British Lucretian collector inter uiuos, who lives on the island of Foula, off the Shetlands, with presumably the most northerly Lucretian collection in the world.

The history of classical scholarship is another collecting interest of mine. I particularly like association copies, letters, and marginalia – not least, for the potential they offer of finding information nowhere else recorded. It was John Sparrow who talked about being a ‘sacramentalist’ when it came to association copies, and the links they can provide with the heyday of classical scholarship. One of my prize items was an A.E.Housman letter, which I decided to sell in order to purchase my second Aldine edition of Lucretius. Housman was a very great classical scholar, but it was his poetry that gained a cult following, and has resulted in very high prices for his material. My letter concerned his poetry; I certainly would not have sold it otherwise.

A third strand to my collecting is the history of Latin and Greek verse composition, an art which flourished particularly in the universities and public schools of nineteenth century Britain. From the seventeenth century or so, it had been a common exercise for learned men and, occasionally, women to write original compositions in the typically rigid metres of Greek or Latin verse. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that the pastime acquired a new rigour. Emphasis was placed on elegance and precision in translating (mainly English) poetry, not only into a specific metre, but also in the style of a particular classical author – typically, Sophocles for Greek iambics, Ovid for Latin elegiacs, Virgil for Latin hexameters and Horace for Latin lyric compositions. To take a favourite example, it became a recognised challenge to translate Gray’s Elegy into Latin elegiacs, and at least twenty such efforts saw publication.

The subject really took off as a literary pursuit with the publication in 1841 of the first major anthology, Arundines Cami.  It was entitled the ‘reeds of the Cam’ because the contributors were Cambridge men, and the word for reed is used by Virgil for a shepherd’s pipe in the sixth Eclogue. Oxford University responded with its own anthology five years later, and this was followed by the Sabrinae Corolla of Shrewsbury, the first of the public schools to show off its prowess in this refined branch of classical scholarship. Once pupils had left formal education, it was not uncommon to continue this exercise – members of the Indian Civil Service and the Bar were notably prolific contributors to anthologies. Success in the art could make or break a Classical career and, until the late nineteenth century, university fellowships could be won on the strength of verse compositions.

As these volumes tended to pass through the hands of school boys, and be adorned with doodles and scrawling, they can sometimes be picked up very cheaply. Or they might be the work of a private press and produced in very small numbers, for distribution by the author to his friends. In such cases one can often find interesting annotations, comments and even draft compositions. Some day I would like to write a book about the history of Latin and Greek verse composition, which is a very under-collected field.

There is also a book to be written about Gustave David, the eponymous David of the stall in Market Square, and the shop in St Edward’s Passage. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and a few of his contemporaries published some reminiscences of David in 1937, and John Milne a few years ago privately produced a similar little volume. But a full-length book has yet to appear. Originally from Paris, David ran his book stall from 1896 till his death in 1936, attending sales in London particularly on Thursday mornings. I gather that a copy of the Gutenberg Bible passed through David’s hands, and such collectors as Lord Rothschild and John Carter were among his loyal customers.

David’s bookshop still holds the field in Cambridge – I’m sorry never to have experienced the days of Deighton Bell. I have made some very good purchases from Hugh Hardinge’s stall in Market Square, and his wife’s shop in Magdalene Street (recently, alas, closed down). They have a daughter who runs the online arm of their business, Buckle Books, and their son often looks after the market stall. It’s an excellent system as it allows them to put material – often older books - not in good condition, or incomplete, on their stall and to price them sensibly. As ever, the romantic aspect of the chase is greatly increased if one senses that a book has not first been carefully researched by the seller and then put safely behind glass.

The days of the great aristocratic libraries entering the market are mostly over, but I can take advantage of the break-up of a lot of academic libraries owing to the general decline in the teaching of Classics. As the various Classics departments weed or dispose of their libraries, a lot of this material may be found in the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. The two Quinto Bookshops are the best in my experience; they acquire material by the box-load and simply don’t have the time to price it carefully. I’ve also bought a lot of good things from their Hay Cinema Bookshop. Almost all my sixteenth and seventeenth century books have been purchased from mainland Europe. Visits to bookshops in Italy and Greece have been a little disappointing, although I did buy a copy of the 1583 octavo Lambinus edition of Lucretius in Florence, but Austria and Germany are excellent for books at good prices. If I were a dealer, I would source books in mainland Europe, and sell them to America where there is the demand and, seemingly, the willingness to pay high prices.

I always look forward to receiving catalogues from Antiquariaat Fragmenta Selecta in Amsterdam, The Classics Bookshop in Burford and William Poole in London. Professor Kenney introduced me to William Poole’s catalogues, which are always a thrill to read. He doesn’t advertise, ignores the Internet, and continues to sell books in the traditional manner. If I’m expecting a catalogue from a seller I like, I will go to my post box as early as possible and read it there, naturally with my mobile to hand. I’m voracious about my book-buying and a big haggler – especially if someone is on the other side of the Atlantic. I’m not so good at it face to face. From the dealers’ point of view, it makes sense to demonstrate that their business is healthy enough to be flexible on price.

I’m not optimistic about acquiring a large number of pre-1600 books, as their prices only continue to rise. Even if they were to reach a plateau, the rarer items will probably always be beyond my reach on an academic’s salary. If I had started collecting thirty years ago, I could probably have made significant inroads into early editions of Lucretius, but today the prices are simply beyond me. The Spencer-John Rylands copy of the first Aldine edition of Lucretius is currently on the market in Paris for over £30,000, which is ludicrous. Booksellers should base their prices on what they believe a book to be intrinsically worth, rather than what they hope a rich customer might pay. I’m not especially impressed by book collectors who have a huge amount of money at their disposal.  Skill comes in when you have a finite amount of money, and the right book has to be found at the right price. As Percy Muir said, it’s more a question of method than money.

Although I’m frustrated not to have lived in the nineteenth century in terms of the opportunities for building a library (not to mention a career in the Classics), the coming of the Internet has enabled me to assemble a specialist collection very rapidly. It’s the perfect tool for targeting specific books. There’s a whole art to constructing searches by keyword. Simply entering the phrase ‘book plate of…’ has yielded some excellent results – if the cataloguer has bothered to note this detail, the provenance could well be of some consequence. The Internet is also hugely important to me as a research tool, with its access to library and auction catalogues, price guides and reference literature. Google Books, for example, has the whole text of Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s An Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics.

In my experience, is the best metasearch site for out-of-print material. It incorporates 25 book databases, including ABE and, more interestingly, a number of Italy- and Germany-specific sites for dealers who appear not to use other databases. is also a very interesting database, which seems to attract dealers whose stock is not on ABE, and therefore out of that price loop. Because the Internet is such an easy outlet, a lot of people are entering the book trade without the necessary tools, of which experience is the main desideratum. These will price their books according to what they find on ABE. Left to their own devices, they may make the mistake of thinking that an old book is always an expensive book and, within a short time, a number of other copies will pop up following the original misguided, or in numerous cases mad, price.

There were 2,850 books in my collection at the last count, and the pace is slowing down as I start to concentrate on more expensive rarities. Outside my central interests, there are still big gaps in my working library, and I can’t see myself relaxing until I have accumulated around 10,000 books. Some collectors are happy to build up a library and then free it to the world again. I’m sure I will always convince myself that another book needs to be bought.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer February 2008

A Poland & Steery Co-production