Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

George Mandl

George Mandl

I started to collect in 1934 while I was still at school in Prague. My violin teacher, who was a member of the Czech Philharmonic, suggested that I should bring an autograph album to rehearsals. It was a wonderful opportunity to collect the signatures of Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss and many other famous conductors, composers and soloists who worked with the orchestra.

The world seemed very much in order at the time and I could not have foreseen the great disturbances that were to overtake our lives. My father owned a paper mill near Carlsbad and, in 1937, I was apprenticed to him for a while before continuing my education abroad. Although he was a highly cultivated man, my father had a total inability to learn foreign languages. In order to assist my progress in this respect, I was sent to German, Czech and French schools, and finally to England where I found myself when the War broke out.

I went from school straight into the Army and took part in the Normandy invasion in 1944. After the War ended and upon my father’s death, I took over the management of the family mill at the age of twenty-two. In 1946 I was elected to the Council of the Czech Paper Industry Association. However things were soon to change when Czechoslovakia disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and, in 1948, the mill was nationalised without compensation.

In 1949 I returned to England with £2 10s in my pocket. There followed a period of intense activity in which I established myself as a mill agent, selling paper from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Within a decade I had formed my own company, with branches on the Continent, selling 100,000 tons of paper a year. In 1962 the opportunity arose to acquire a majority interest in Fourstones Paper Mill in Northumberland. At the time 80 people were employed to produce 1,000 tons of paper on extremely antiquated machinery dating back to 1860. It was undoubtedly the least viable of the eight mills in the north-east of England. Today it is the only surviving mill in the region.

This investment was followed by my appointment to the board of Thomas & Green, which ultimately led to the control of both companies. The firm of Thomas & Green has a most interesting history, dating from 1860 when it was founded by John Barcham Green and William Thomas. It was one of the oldest established paper manufacturers in Buckinghamshire and produced many fine papers at the Soho Mills in Wooburn Green. In 1983 Thomas & Green moved its operation to Peterborough where it now occupies the former Towgood & Beckwith paper mill in Helpston, which was famous for making imitation book cloth before it went bankrupt in 1979. The old site in Wooburn Green was sold and, with the proceeds, the overdraft of the entire G.T.Mandl Group was paid off.

Meanwhile in 1974 I had bought the Netstal Paper Mill in Switzerland, which now produces 15,000 tons of paper a year for coffee filters. Last year I finally recovered the family mill in the Czech Republic after three and a half years of litigation. I am also delighted to have been made an honorary member of the Czech Paper Industry Association from whose council I was expelled by the Communists fifty years ago.

Since 1962 I have served without interruption on the Council of the British Paper Industry Federation. In 1988 I organised the celebrations to mark 500 years of paper-making in this country, and was responsible for putting a stained glass window in Stationers’ Hall. The first paper mill in England was founded in Hertford in 1488 and a plaque now marks the site. The Post Office however declined our request for a special postage stamp to honour the anniversary. This struck me as incredible when you consider that the Post Office could not exist without paper. Subsequently I received the MBE in 1991 for services to the paper industry.

I spent a marvellous year as Master of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers in 1992-1993, attending no less than 300 functions. It was an enormous honour to be the first foreign-born Master since its foundation in 1403. During my year as Master, I stayed at the Master’s flat in Stationers’ Hall. Normally I divide my time between my home in Buckinghamshire and Netstal where my library is kept.

My collection of books on the history of paper now numbers some 2,000 volumes and is probably the largest in private hands – certainly in Europe. Dard Hunter is the greatest figure in paper history this century and I was fortunate enough to buy the family archive from his son Dard Hunter II, including all the manuscripts and proof copies of his father’s works. Hunter produced eight outstanding books on various aspects of the history of paper, which he not only wrote, but printed with type he had designed and cast at the Mountain House Press in Chillicothe, Ohio. When Hunter died, his son produced a biography of his father in the same painstaking manner. 150 copies of The Life and Work of Dard Hunter were printed in two fantastic volumes after twelve years of labour.

I have also been collecting inscribed books for over fifty years. While I was at school in Prague, I sent George Bernard Shaw a copy of the Czech edition of Socialism for Millionaires, asking if he would be kind enough to sign it. As I did not know English at the time, my letter was composed from a dictionary and signed ‘Yours most respectfully’. Shaw disliked inscribing books because he knew people would make money out of them. However back it came with the following inscription, ‘I cannot read a word of this as I do not know Czech. I presume you are a millionaire. Yours most respectfully, George Bernard Shaw’.

After the War, I managed to get Churchill to inscribe a few of his books. There was an election coming up and it seemed a good moment to approach him. Churchill was a politician first and foremost and, although he usually refused to sign books, I thought he might be willing to do so during an election. So I went to the church hall where he was making a speech in his constituency in Woodford where I had in fact been to school, and sat in the front row with some of his books. When I asked if he would be willing to inscribe them, he said, ‘sshh, not here. They’ll all be swarming. Wait till everyone has gone’. Afterwards he signed them and we shook hands.

In the 1950s I joined the National Book League and attended authors’ evenings in Albemarle Street. Amongst others I met T.S.Eliot, Bertrand Russell, and Somerset Maugham who inscribed their books, which I added to my collection at very little cost. I have also been sending books to authors to inscribe them for many years. Most inscribe very easily and courteously, although some are more reluctant. Anything sent to John Masefield came back unsigned. E.M.Forster would only inscribe copies to friends. Romain Rolland never replied, but I later had the satisfaction of buying the final chapter of Jean-Christophe in manuscript.

Philip Larkin’s inscribed material is very scarce. Recently I bought at auction a copy of The Whitsun Weddings, inscribed to Doreen Deighton ‘in memory of a long and for me fruitful association. With all affection, Philip Larkin’. The book came with the following note written by Doreen Deighton to the future purchaser, ‘Philip Larkin was from 1958 a regular customer at the Hull University Bookshop which I managed. He was unfailingly courteous, interested, friendly, witty, one of our favourite customers, given to making outrageous or lugubrious statements with the aim of provoking an indignant response. Many of his published letters which have caused such dismay were in the same vein. We knew about the drinking and the obscenities, everyone did. But the man to whom we talked over the years, besides being a perfect English gentleman, was a man who showed at all times a deeply felt genuine concern for the promotion and welfare of books, bookshops , and the Hull University and its library’.

To collect books and manuscripts is an expensive hobby, which explains why so many collectors tend to be elderly. When I was young I had neither the time nor the money to spend on collecting. As this situation gradually changed, I extended my collecting which now includes everybody who is anybody in the fields of music, literature and science. There is not a single great composer missing from my collection of musical manuscripts, which began when I bought a Rossini letter for £15 in the mid-1960s. For many years I had nothing by Mussorgsky, but that gap was filled a few months ago by a purchase at auction in Berlin. I am particularly fond of a hand-written receipt by J.S.Bach for the loan of a piano, and the original manuscript of Liszt’s Liebesträume, which was often played at home when I was a child.

The greatest authority without question on musical manuscripts is Albi Rosenthal. To describe Albi as a bookseller would be to describe Marco Polo as a commercial traveller, as the Director of the British Library remarked on a memorable occasion. In most cases I do my own bidding at auction, but I like Albi to bid for very special items in case I get carried away.

There is a Greek collector who concentrates on the three sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, and to bid against him is completely hopeless. The same was once true of Beethoven manuscripts which were avidly collected by one of the Bodmer brothers of the Swiss banking family. The other brother, Martin, founded the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana near Geneva.

When Bodmer died the collection was left to the Beethoven Museum in Bonn. A prominent German banker stepped in with sufficient funds to enable the museum to continue collecting. When he in turn died the finance dried up and the museum no longer buys. As a result the price of Beethoven material has dropped by 50%. The manuscript market is absolutely governed by supply and demand, and in no shape or form does it reflect the greatness of the person involved.

Forgery is something one has to be constantly aware of. As a rough guide, a high percentage of Italian renaissance manuscripts are fake. There is also a large number of Smetana fakes, including some of the letters. During the Communist period there were serious thefts from East German museums, involving a lot of Mozart and other material, which disappeared for vast amounts of money into private collections in the West. On the subject of stolen goods, there is a famous remark made by H.P.Kraus when questioned by a customer about a stolen book, ‘My dear friend, everything has been stolen . The only question is when?’

I recently bought a book from Simon Finch inscribed by Jane Austen, and as such a great rarity. A few months later he asked me to return it, having discovered that it was in fact signed by her cousin who had very similar handwriting. I was most grateful to Simon for this display of competence and honesty.

Obviously there are gaps in my collection. For example, I am about to buy a Book of Hours. Although manuscripts by scribes are outside my area of interest, I would like to have one as a representative example of an important stage in book production. I do however have John Wesley’s  manuscript Bible, written by French monks in the mid-fourteenth century on the skin of unborn lambs. It is the pocket sized volume with which Wesley is usually depicted. I bought it for considerably less than its true value at an auction in Hamburg where the Wesley connection was of no great interest. The Bible belonged at one time to John Pease of Newcastle, the great Victorian book collector, who gave it to the British and Imperial Bible Society to sell on his death to raise money for missionary work.

At the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, each room is dedicated to a different period in the history of printing, with significant books highlighted in the centre of the room for special attention – for example, the Gutenberg Bible, Braun and Hogenberg, the Blaeu atlases, and so on down to the end of the eighteenth century. When visiting the museum, it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to find that I had all these books in my collection – albeit a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible.

I got married late in life and have no children. When I die my library will go into a trust and will be available for study and research. The local Canton Archivist and the President of the Canton will be two of the trustees. The trust is endowed with the property in Netstal where the library is housed, and another property in Zurich, which will provide income to maintain it.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 1996

George Mandl died on 7th February 1997




George Mandl

A Poland & Steery Co-production