Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Richard Kossow

Richard Kossow

Successful booksellers fall into two camps. There are the traders who enjoy the art of buying and selling; they make up the largest camp, and represent the traditional style of antiquarian bookselling in this country. And then there are the dealers who regard books as a great adventure, and are able to move them from one category to another, transforming their importance and also their price in the process. The best booksellers whom I have known are able to take a book associated with a particular subject, and reveal the light that it can shed on a field where it hasn't been appreciated before. Colin Franklin, Arthur Freeman and Rick Gekoski have this ability to transform books, but there are many others who haven’t lost a step in bookselling.

My journey with books has been a lifelong fascination. As a young child I started collecting comic books, reading them in such a way that they stayed in perfect condition and then shelving them methodically. My interest in comics morphed into pulp science fiction, which I used to read avidly. Both collections became quite voluminous and, years after I left home, my mother thought that they were taking up too much space and threw them away. She was shocked many years later when I told her how much people were paying for early comic books and science fiction.

I didn’t begin my adventure with antiquarian books until I went to Yale University, where I was in my senior year when the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library opened in 1963. It was a revelation both as an edifice and as a portal for rare books. I had previously been working in the Sterling Memorial Library, a neo-Gothic building with study alcoves lined with mahogany shelves full of Victorian and Edwardian books on geology and astronomy, history and biography and other worthy subjects. Although I was a student of English literature, I found the books on the shelves in the Sterling Library much more engaging than my class work. I became imbued with the concept of the Edwardian library, and all the appurtenances that I believed go well with books – fireplaces, pipes and tobacco, and good bottles of wine.

After graduating from Yale, I spent a year at St Edmund Hall Oxford, where I quickly discovered Blackwell’s bookshop in Ship Street. It was an Aladdin’s cave, where my exposure to antiquarian books began in earnest. To this day I remember a set of the true first edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall bound in full contemporary morocco. My vision of building a library and smoking a pipe beside an open fire was put aside when I returned to the States to go to law school. While I was practising law in Washington DC, good bookshops were few and far between. In any case I found that American books had little of the physical attraction of the material that I remembered from Oxford. I vowed to return as soon as I could and in 1969 I was offered a legal job with a financial firm in London.

Meanwhile I had become a collector of tribal rugs from Central Asia. When I visited some of the wonderful old rug shops in New England, the Armenian and Persian dealers would tell me increasingly far-fetched stories about how the rugs were made and what they were used for. I decided that the truth was probably to be found in early travel literature, and so I started to collect books on Central Asia. I’m always attracted to collecting books in fields in which it’s not easy to find information. It’s a magnificent way to assure myself that I’ve assembled a body of knowledge, which pleases the soul.  Just by having books on the shelves, connections between them become apparent, and you can learn a great deal through this form of osmosis.

When I arrived in London, it was full of glorious bookshops, of which the greatest was Francis Edwards, then in its heyday in Marylebone High Street with four floors of books and a walk-in safe packed with treasures. I soon discovered that no one was taking much interest in books on Central Asia.  When I mentioned this to John Maggs, he looked at me quizzically; I explained the parameters of the area, and he suggested that I might find something between the shelves on India and the shelves on China in the basement. I would emerge with a pile of wonderful books, which would be priced and ready for me to collect the following week.

During the early years I went on regular business trips to New York, where Steve Weissman of Ximenes and Felix Oyens of Lathrop C. Harper became good friends and were extremely helpful to me, although neither specialised in travel books. I used to travel around with Alan Mitchell, who introduced me to Peter Hopkirk. In my naivety, I extolled the virtues of collecting books on Central Asia to Peter, who was focusing on the Middle East at the time. He went away with an idea in his bonnet, and started buying books on the Great Game and became a real competitor. In fact, he made a career out of it, but I’m full of respect for the wonderful books that he wrote on the subject.

I had my first experience of the bookselling world in the late 1970s when I was asked by the owners of Francis Edwards to prepare a business report on the firm. I spent several months gaining an insight into its workings and that of the trade around it. It gave me an opportunity to learn the mechanics of dealing just at a time when I was beginning to think about giving up my work as a legal and business consultant. I’m a person who likes to upgrade my collection. I was in the habit of marketing books as I acquired more desirable copies, and that’s how I started as a bookseller.

Although I continued to collect books on Central Asia, I was beginning to look at what was happening on the other side of the Himalayas. I liked what I saw in terms of British India –the books were interesting, attractive and available. The more I looked at the spread of printing in India, the more excited I became.  Bindings have always been a love of mine, and I discovered the work of some extraordinarily talented Indian craftsmen. Once again here was a story about which there didn’t appear to be much understanding or information, and I’ve spent the last forty-five years studying printing in India and collecting some of its finest examples.

Britain has been under pressure for many years to feel guilty about its treatment of India, for which it is portrayed as having done nothing other than to rob and overwhelm it. The standard British response is to list various items of infrastructure – from railways to policemen - as its colonial legacy. What the British never say, and this is a mystery to me, is that they gave India the ‘Gutenberg’ experience.

When the British arrived in the early seventeenth century, India was an entirely manuscript culture.  Manuscripts were very expensive and literacy was confined to a small percentage of the population in the topmost layers of society. The masses depended for information on oral transmission, and what trickled down tended to be only what the ruling classes wanted them to know. Although the Portuguese had printing presses in Goa and Cochin, the Danish in Tranquebar, the Dutch in Colombo and the French in Pondicherry, they tended to confine their activities to religious texts and government edicts. The British, on the other hand, were fascinated by the society in which they found themselves. They wanted to learn about its manners and customs, and to study the languages. Books were printed on every subject from chess to medicine, and the technology caught on like wildfire. The spread of information, disseminated in books printed in India, took the subcontinent from medievalism to modernism in under a century.     

In 1981 Graham Shaw’s Printing in Calcutta to 1800 was published by The Bibliographical Society. I spent a long time comparing his check-list against my collection, and discovered, to my joy, that I had a number of titles that were not in Graham’s book. I called him at the India Office Library, and explained that I was a collector of Indian printing and that I had a number of books not recorded in his magnificent bibliography, which he would be most welcome to see. There was a long silence while Graham was no doubt wondering if it was a hoax or something worse. He came to my house, looking as white as a sheet until I showed him the first book.  He took one look at it and visibly relaxed; it wasn’t a hoax. When Graham later edited The South Asia and Burma Retrospective Bibliography (SABREB), published by The British Library in 1987, my holdings were amongst the very small number of private collections that contributed to

his exhaustive survey of known examples.  

It’s extraordinary to think that, in the first ten years of collecting Indian printing, I was able to supplement the holdings of The British Library. I hadn’t realised how lucky I was in my timing, but I happened to be in England when the last generation of people who had spent their careers in India, returning to this country after 1947, were at the end of their lives. When they died, their progeny sold off their belongings wholesale, and there was hardly an auction in the country that didn’t contain the products of British India. Nor was the material particularly in demand because of the colonial factor.

By the late-1980s, I realised that the supply of antiquarian books was diminishing, and that I would need to focus on the twentieth century if I wanted to stay in bookselling. There is a connection between availability and collectability; a collector will soon lose interest if the supply of material fails to satisfy his acquisitive instinct. I sold my Central Asia collection, through intermediaries, to the National Diet Library in Tokyo, and began to explore the field of Antarctica. I particularly liked the fact that it’s the only part of the world that belongs to everybody.  

Although twentieth century cloth-bound books are not my idea of a proper book, I certainly do admire a book in fine condition of almost any period. There is something quite stunning about the most highly prized examples of Antarctic material. I had seen some of the best at Francis Edwards, where they ran the market for Antarctica. When Phillips held an auction of a collection of Antarctica in superb condition (assembled by a former employee of Francis Edwards), I bought - together with Barrie Marks - almost a third of the sale and paid world-record prices. I spent the next fifteen years adding to the collection for the fun of trying to acquire copies in the best condition of every important book on the discovery of Antarctica.  Eventually, the collection was sold to a private individual by Bernard Shapero.  As a condition of sale, the customer asked me to prepare a bibliography, which was edited by Julian Mackenzie and published by Shapero in 2001, entitled The Taurus Collection. 150 Collectable Books on the Antarctic.

The more I explored, the more fascinated I became with the subject and the people who endured such extraordinary hardship to increase our understanding of the Antarctic continent. The purpose of Scott’s British Antarctic expedition was not just the race to be the first to reach the South Pole. The race against Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team was simply a newspaper stunt to attract the world’s attention.  Scott’s was primarily a full-scale scientific expedition to investigate the biology, geology, glaciology and meteorology of the great southern land.  He had a kaleidoscopic understanding of the aims of his expedition, although, in terms of command and planning, he made huge errors and suffered the tragic consequences. 

Scott and his party of four men reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912 only to find that Amundsen’s team had arrived there a month before. On the fatal return journey, Scott’s men reached the Beardmore Glacier and stopped to geologise in a moraine under Mount Buckley. There they collected 35 lb of Glossopteris fossils. An extinct plant that had flourished 250 million years ago, examples of the same fossil had also been found in Australia, Africa, India and South America. Scott’s discovery of the first known specimen of Glossopteris from the Antarctic played a vital part in the development of the ‘Gondwana’ theory, namely, that the continents had once formed a single landmass, with Gondwana as its southern element. It was the most important scientific contribution to arise from Scott’s expedition, buttressing the theory of continental drift.

When the inevitable comparisons were made between the achievements of Scott and Amundsen, the British were quick to point out that – yes, Amundsen had won the race, but Scott and his men had died man-hauling a sledge loaded with rocks of enormous scientific value. The Norwegians responded in 1915 with a scholarly paper written by Jakob Schetelig, Secretary of the Mineralogical Institute of Christiania [Oslo] University, entitled Report on rock-specimens collected on Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition. It’s true that Amundsen brought back various kinds of rock, but the specimens contained no fossils, and had been collected in the area where their ship was moored. The purpose of his expedition had always been the race to the South Pole.

Every corner of the earth has been discovered by man’s eye - he drew or painted what he saw. The Antarctic was the only continent to be discovered by photography, and it was Captain Scott who realised that it could only be properly understood pictorially. Scott hired Herbert Ponting as the first professional photographer to work in the Antarctic. Ponting’s haunting photograph of the freezing of the sea in March 1911, looking to Cape Barne from Cape Evans, is a perfect example of the ability of photography to supplement everything that has been sketched or written by members of the British Antarctic Expedition. The photograph invites the viewer to feel the isolation of Scott and his men, who face the wrath of an Antarctic winter, cut off from communication with the outside world. It’s one of the photographs that mark the moment when the camera replaced the pre-eminence of the pencil in exploration.

As Ponting would not be going to the South Pole, he trained Scott and ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Scott’s chosen photographer in the final Pole Party, in the use of a camera in extreme climatic conditions.  Working with a Pocket Brownie, the earliest lightweight camera, they learnt to cope with deceptive lighting levels and the danger of skin freezing to the metal of their equipment. Ponting was a good teacher and Scott, in particular, was an excellent student, although even he committed the beginner’s mistake of sometimes forgetting to take the lens cap off.

The rolls of film from Scott’s and Bowers’ cameras were regularly brought back to Ponting’s dark room in the hut at Cape Evans by members of the supporting party. When Ponting developed Scott’s last roll, he was very excited with the results. Before he left Antarctica, Ponting said to members of the team at Cape Evans, ‘Give these to the captain when he gets back. He’s going to love them’.  Scott never returned and Ponting was back in Europe when the news of the tragedy broke.

Ponting believed that he had done a deal with Scott, and that he owned the copyright on all of his photography from the expedition.  However, when the news of Scott’s death became known, the expedition trustees claimed that they  owned the copyright. It could have resulted in a horrible lawsuit in the middle of the tragedy, but a deal was made between Ponting and the trustees, giving the latter exclusive rights to all the photography for two years. Ponting was required to help them with the programme of lectures, exhibitions and film screenings, after which he could do whatever he liked with his material. 

During that period, a selection of Ponting’s photographs were exhibited at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street in December 1913, for which an illustrated catalogue was published, British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913: Exhibition of the Photographic Pictures of Mr.Herbert G.Ponting, FRGS. It was a huge success, and travelled around the country, and to Canada and Australia. The photographs were for sale and could be ordered in different sizes. Barely six months had elapsed since the news of the tragedy, and the exhibition became an empire-wide phenomenon.

After the two-year agreement came to an end, Ponting’s negatives and - presumably by mistake - the photographic output of both Scott and ‘Birdie’ Bowers were returned to him.  A stickler for respecting copyright entitlement, Ponting never again reproduced anything other than his own photographs. Although a few of Scott’s photographs had already been published by the trustees, often attributed to the wrong person, Ponting was the only person

who had any idea of Scott’s achievement as a photographer.

When Ponting died impecunious in 1935, having made a number of poor business decisions, there wasn’t enough money to pay his doctor’s bills. The estate was declared insolvent, and a bankruptcy sale of the contents of Ponting’s studio was held. All Ponting’s negatives and positives, and the rights to them, were acquired by Paul Popper, a Czech photo-journalist, who emigrated to London and founded Popperfoto in 1934.The company went on to become one of the UK’s largest commercial picture agencies, happily selling reproductions of Ponting’s photographs for many years. Meanwhile the negatives and prints of the Scott and Bowers photographs continued to languish, apparently forgotten, in the mass of material acquired from Ponting’s studio.

Paul Popper died in 1969, and his business was eventually bought by someone who behaved like an asset stripper in the Aladdin’s cave of images. In the late 1980s he put Ponting’s original photographic notebooks from the Scott

Expedition into one of Lindsey Stewart’s photograph auctions at Christie’s South Kensington, where I bought them. The notebooks contain all Ponting’s images which were for sale, and an annotated list including information on when they were taken and what camera was used.  Afterwards, the seller was very curious to know who had paid such a considerable sum of money, to which Lindsey discreetly replied, ‘Oh, some American’.

Everything went quiet until 2001 when the owner of the Popperfoto archive decided to liquidate more assets.   Hugh Bett, an old friend and a

wonderful dealer at Maggs Bros. with whom I have done a lot of business over the years, sent me a catalogue recently arrived from Swann Galleries in New York, and I fell off my chair. The sale included a lot containing 109 silver-gelatin contact prints, 10 cm x 8 cm in size, of photographs taken by Captain Scott on the expedition to the South Pole. My immediate reaction was to think that they had got it wrong, and that the photos were by Ponting. I rang Swann Galleries and, in the days before I could receive emails, they sent an extremely long fax of all the photographs, which ran around the room. I took one look at them and knew that they were indeed the lost photographs of Captain Scott. I also knew that I was staring at a lot of money, more than I could afford to spend on my own. 

Hugh and I agreed to go up to $150,000 and that I should bid on the telephone. The auctioneer opened the bidding at $15,000, and there wasn’t a sound in the room. Most collectors didn’t know about the sale, and those who did clearly weren’t taking it seriously. I held my breath, the gavel came down, and that’s when I began to worry.  There must be something wrong with them – or so I feared until they arrived and I saw that they were perfect. I decided to say and do nothing about them while I looked for the right person to sit down with me and research them properly for eventual publication in a book.

By chance I came across David M. Wilson, a respected polar historian and a great-nephew of Dr Edward A. Wilson, Chief of Scientific Staff, who died with Captain Scott. I told David that I had Scott’s photographs and, after choking on his gin and tonic, he agreed to work with me on the publication of The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott.  David produced a brilliant piece of research, but we had quite a struggle to reproduce the quality of the photographs. In the end, I think we succeeded.  The book was published in a British and American edition by Little, Brown in 2011 to mark the centenary of Captain Scott’s last expedition.

I knew that the Scott photographs should ultimately go to the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University. In 2004 the SPRI had bought Herbert Ponting’s glass plate negatives from the owner of Popperfoto for £533,000, largely financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  After an award-winning exhibition at the Natural History Museum commemorating Scott’s last

Expedition - in which some our Scott photographs were enlarged and used to stunning effect - was over, I offered the SPRI first refusal on Scott’s photographs. Following a successful fund-raising campaign, supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Arts Council England, the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund, and the general public, Captain Scott’s photographs were secured for the nation.

We still needed to acquire ‘Birdie’ Bowers’ photographs, which the Popperfoto man, who still didn’t know my identity, decided to put into a sale at Henry Aldridge, an auction house in Wiltshire that specialises in Titanic memorabilia. Luckily I found out about the sale and contacted the SPRI but, as the auction was in the following week, they didn't have time to raise the money. I said they would be safe with me, and Hugh and I again set off to wrest them from all competition.  I’m told a rather inebriated man, who spent a great deal of

money on something from the Titanic, continued to wave his arms around when it came to the lot containing Bowers’ photographs, but luckily he gave up and we were able to buy them.

I contacted David Wilson and we studied the photographs together, concluding that Scott and Bowers had coordinated their work as part of a carefully planned programme of photography. It wasn’t just a case of their each taking random shots here and there. They would arrive in a particular location and divide up the subjects to be taken in terms of animals, men, landscape and so on.  The photographs deliberately complement each other, and provide a comprehensive picture of the expedition’s winter quarters on Ross Island and the journey toward the pole. We realised that our book would need to be rewritten to stress the coordinated nature of their photographic venture, and that is what we are in the process of doing. Meanwhile, the photographs of Lieutenant Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers have yet to be seen by the world.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Autumn 2018


Richard Kossow

A Poland & Steery Co-production