I started collecting books when I was at school. At the time I was interested in anything to do with the French Revolution in contemporary bindings. The books were easy to find and, as I subsequently discovered, quite impossible to sell. I went up to Cambridge just after the War to read architecture, and began collecting Vitruvius, Vignola, James Gibbs and so on. It was possible to pick them up for anything between two and five guineas and I eventually sold many of them to Marlborough Rare Books – with considerably more success. In fact, I made enough money for a holiday with my wife on Elba, and I also had a suit and some shelves made.
On my grandmother’s side, I come from a family of collectors. My cousin is a member of the Towneley family and a trustee of the British Museum. My father wasn’t particularly interested in collecting, although he was an antique dealer and became president of BADA during the 1960s. The Sunday Times was making a fuss in those days about ringing, and I think my father was elected because he was probably the only dealer who wasn’t in a ring!
I first started dealing at Cambridge. After the War, very few books were being printed and shops like Zwemmer were desperate for good art books. So I used to buy them at Heffer’s and come down to London and sell them to Zwemmer, making enough money for a good night out. I’m sure these early experiences sharpened my instinct for a profit.
After Cambridge, I got a job in London as an architect. In my lunch time, I went regularly to Berwick Street market and bought books which I then sold to Miss Herwig in Hatchards, making enough profit to cover my sandwiches and a bit more.
After several years in private practice, I was wooed into the construction industry and took a job with the world’s largest producer of pre-cast concrete. Incidentally, my firm was responsible for most of the hideous tower blocks that are now being blown up. My salary went up considerably, I had a company car, and plenty of opportunity to travel around England – all of which meant I could do a lot of book hunting. At the time, the firm was at the cutting edge of the building trade, and a number of our projects got into the architectural press – although they look rather frightful to us now. But the construction industry is either in a state of boom or slump. Towards the end of the 1970s, the firm was bought out by the Arabs, we hit a bad slump, my number came up and I was out of a job – aged 50-something. In a way, it was a midlife crisis and I hadn’t the foggiest notion what to do. I must say, the thought of bookselling hadn’t occurred to me.
Before the crunch came, I’d been collecting Victorian children’s books. This phase more or less coincided with the birth of our first child. Then the first volume of the Osborne Collection appeared, and I realised there was no point in
trying to emulate that sort of standard. One day Heywood Hill gave me a copy of Forrest Reid’s Illustrators of the Sixties, and I discovered I already had quite a number of the books mentioned. Victorian book illustration was and, to some extent, still is an unfashionable subject – though Forrest Reid’s book inspired a number of distinguished collectors – John Betjeman, John Sparrow, John Carter and Reynolds Stone.
I think I was first drawn to the subject by the technical brilliance of the wood engravings, and the fine designs of the Pre-Raphaelites, and their followers. Anyway, pay day came round every fortnight and I used to visit Thorp’s in Albemarle Street where they had stacks of shining ’60s books, many of them inscribed and said to come from John Leighton’s collection. At the weekends, I often went on book-hunting trips with my old friend, Stuart Bennett. It worked very well, as we were both looking for very different books.
When Stuart heard I was going to be made redundant, he told me about a possible opening at Stanley Gibbons. Apparently the stamp firm was about to start up an antiquarian book department, in which Stuart had applied for a job – and had been rejected because he was considered too young. By some curious coincidence, Stanley Gibbons occupied premises owned by the construction firm for which I was still working. One day, instead of going to my office, I walked along the block to Stanley Gibbons and asked to see the managing director. To my amazement, he agreed to see me at once. I later discovered that he thought I had come from my firm to talk about the rent! Anyway, I told him I was interested in his plans for an antiquarian book department, and six months later I got the job.
This was in 1978 and I was delighted to find that I had turned a hobby into a job. It was also rather a good moment for promoting Victorian illustrated books, which were beginning to gain a little more acceptance. This was largely due to Ruari McLean’s pioneering Victorian Book Design – particularly the enlarged edition of 1972, and his Victorian Publishers’ Book-Bindings, which came out in 1974. I started work with a number of books from my own collection, which the managing director had insisted on buying as the basis for the new department.
As I wanted the job, it was difficult to refuse his request. Apparently he was very keen to go into books because Spink’s had a book department, and he thought it might enhance the image of Stanley Gibbons.
The firm was originally founded by a Mr Stanley Gibbons from Southampton in eighteen hundred and something and, over the years, it had become a rather sleepy business. One day someone moved into the shop next door, filled his window with Stanley Gibbons’ catalogues, and everyone mistook him for Stanley Gibbons. He was soon able to buy out the real firm, and this was the man I saw.
Business boomed, the share value rocketed and I had a considerable budget to spend on books. I was forced to learn very quickly and then came the awful moment when I had to do my first catalogue. And, I must say, I had absolutely no idea how to go about this. Fortunately, Bill Spowers’ secretary at Christie’s came to work for me and taught me how to catalogue. She also had a friend who worked in Edward Heath’s office, so we decided to ask Mr Heath to open the department. He agreed and we had an absolutely splendid time with media coverage, radio interviews and so on.
Bill Fletcher was one of the first dealers to visit us. I remember he looked at the books and looked at the catalogue and finally said, ‘They’re not bad at all, but they sound like dogs in the catalogue!’ That was because my descriptions mentioned every little scratch – and all the minute aspects of condition that I would want to know as a collector.
The department flourished for three years before the slump hit us. Playing cards, maps, and all sorts of horrible bits and pieces known as ‘collectables’ were all lumped together, and I could see there was going to be a disaster – though sales in the book department were generally good. Or so I thought, till I discovered I’d been charged a notional rent of £55,000 for a couple of tiny rooms.
Stanley Gibbons got taken over yet again, and this finally forced the closure in the early 1980s of all the non-philatelic departments. So I started up on my own in 1981, with a bit of a golden handshake and a few items from stock, which I’d been allowed to buy at cost price plus one third. It was undoubtedly a relief to be out, and I felt sure anything would be peaceful and pleasant in comparison.
Of course I didn’t know much about the daily running of a business, so I went along to Leo Bernard at Chelsea Rare Books and asked him a few questions about overheads, expenses, tea – that kind of thing. And that was probably the only business advice I ever sought. I expect I don’t run things very economically – I still write a six-inch blurb for a £20 book, which is probably an absolute nonsense.
During the 1980s, I produced regular catalogues, concentrating on Victorian illustrated books. Looking back, I’m sure my first catalogue at Stanley Gibbons did a lot to highlight the subject – and to push the prices up! Funnily enough, it almost exactly coincided with a very similar catalogue by Deighton Bell, with the same type of books at the same type of prices. But, even today, there are still very few collectors of ’60s illustrators – and an almost total lack of institutional interest.
So you can imagine my excitement a couple of years ago when I received an inquiry from the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum –‘We are now interested in your kind of material. Please put us on your mailing list’. I began to consider whether an offer to give my own collection might be accepted. I must say I never considered selling my books, simply because I imagined the Museum wouldn’t buy them in the current climate. Anyway, the actual cost to me, over a period of thirty-five years, hadn’t been all that great – though it would be difficult to put together such a collection today.
In the event, my collection went to the British Museum as a gift in May 1992. And I can’t say it was a great wrench to part with it, mainly because I’m delighted it’s all staying together – and in such a suitable place, in the same room with the Dalziel Archive. Paul Goldman, of the Department of Prints and Drawings, has written a book to mark the gift to the Museum, which will be published on January 24, 1994 – a few days before the books go on exhibition. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to look after some of the advertising for the exhibition which runs for three months. Did you know it only costs £120 a month for a poster in the best position in an underground station? I’m astonished at the low rates of London Transport advertising, and I might well be paying out of my own pocket for an exhibition poster in Holborn or Tottenham Court Road.
I’m still very much involved with the collection and go to the Museum once a week, helping with cataloguing and various other aspects which interest me. At the moment I’m preparing an index of artists with details of all the books on which they worked. There’s still so much to learn about these books, binders’ tickets, initialled bindings, it’s endless!
I shall enjoy helping in any way I can though I’ve no plans for a major publication. Of course the Museum is hoping the collection will become a major centre for international research and I’m sure Paul Goldman’s book Victorian Illustrated Books 1850-1870 will become a standard reference work.
As for the future, I plan to go on dealing exactly as before. I’m still enormously excited by the whole business. Last week I bought a wonderful album of photographs of Windsor Castle done in 1875 and showing all the parts that burnt down recently – not strictly my field, but I couldn’t resist it. I go religiously to the Hotel Russell book fair every month, and always find at least a couple of interesting things. The PBFA has done such an incredible amount for the book trade. As a rule, I don’t do fairs myself – for one reason, most of my books fall to bits if you look at them! But I’m making an exception for Chelsea. After all, it’s on my doorstep, and I said to myself quite firmly, ‘If I don’t do this fair, then I’m not really a serious bookseller’.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in November 1993
Ten years on and I’m still at it, but it’s now much more difficult than it was to find nice books. As the taxman has agreed that it is my job, I can go on till I drop.
Afterword added in 2004
Robin de Beaumont died on 3 February 2023