Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Robin Fryde

[Out of South Africa]

It’s scientifically untenable but I like to think there’s a genetic bent towards the love of the rare and the old. On my father’s side, antique collecting is a very strong trait. My great grandmother was a Wartski, and my father’s sisters were serious collectors of antiques in South Africa. As I’ve always been fascinated by books and the history of my country, it was natural for me to drift into collecting Africana books and pictures.

I did my degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and would ideally have chosen to do a doctorate in history. But the financial pressures were such that my mother thought I should do something with a greater earning capacity. So I went into law and in due course became a legal adviser for a leading mining house in Johannesburg. All the time I was continuing to collect books. The idea of dealing in them came to me absolutely by accident. I’m a great believer in coincidence - for want of a better word. Basically what appears to be an accident is in fact not an accident, but more a kind of Koestlerian synchronicity.

One day I went to an auction and bought more books than I could afford. When I got the bill, I realised I was going to be in something of a financial quagmire. I had a very great friend in Johannesburg, an antiques dealer called Cecil Adams. I told him my predicament and asked if I could borrow some money. Cecil wanted to see what I had bought and asked me to separate the books I really wanted from the unintended impulse buys, for which he made an offer. I was then left with the books I wanted, costing me virtually nothing. And from that came the idea that I might from time to time buy extra books to finance my own collecting. But it was all very much an accident and I certainly wasn’t thinking of dealing as an organised activity.

In June 1962, Frank Thorold died Although he had two sons and grand children, there was no clear line of succession for his bookshop in Johannesburg. He specialised in Africana and law books and died. Very much in harness, although the stock had gone down in his later years. However Thorold’s still had a respected name and considerable goodwill. Meanwhile Cornelis Struik, an antiquarian bookseller and founder of a successful publishing firm in Cape Town, wanted to buy Thorold’s in order to close it down and thus get rid of a competitor. This meant that Johannesburg would no longer have an antiquarian bookshop - an idea that offended me. So I went to the estate of Thorold to make inquiries and, rather to my surprise, they asked me to make an offer for the business which they accepted. I then had to beg, borrow or steal the capital to get going. I leave you to decide which I did...

Then there occurred another example of Koestlerian synchronicity. Shortly before I purchased Thorold’s, I was due to have lunch with a friend. On the same morning, another friend rang and insisted that I cancel my arrangement and come to lunch with her in order to meet so-and-so. During the meal, my hostess boomed across the table "How are your plans to buy the business going?’ One of the guests was a lawyer called Julian Block. At the mention of ‘business’, he pricked up his ears and I explained that I was thinking of buying Thorold’s. As a lawyer, he was familiar with the shop and thought it was a marvellous idea. In reply to his questions, I mentioned that I was having problems with finance and he asked me to come and see him in his office. I must say I took this as a lunchtime conversation and did nothing about it - till he phoned ten days later.

We discussed various aspects, including my reluctance to stop working for the mining house till I was sure that Thorold’s could provide me with a living. Instead I planned to take on staff and come in every day to keep an eye on things. Julian asked if I had ever thought of having a business partner and I remember my reply very clearly, ‘One can pay too much for money’. It turned out that he was thinking of his wife who was teaching at the time and wasn’t very happy with one thing and another. So we all arranged to meet and Rosemary Block became my partner. It was the start of a thirty-year friendship. Unfortunately Rosemary now lives in Australia, but our close friendship has continued.

When I bought Thorold’s, the shop was in Eloff Street in a building overlooking the bus terminus. A month or two after the sale, the executor 'phoned to say, ‘I’ve got something rather embarrassing to ask you. Every time Mrs Thorold gets off the bus and sees the shop sign with her husband’s name, she bursts into tears. Won’t you take the sign down and change the name?’ to which I replied, ‘Mrs Thorold should be thoroughly ashamed of herself. If her husband has built up a business and somebody thinks enough of it to keep the name, she should be jolly proud’.

This story had a lovely sequel a few years ago. I was exhibiting at an antiques fair in Cape Town and a man in his early thirties came to my stand and seemed intent on everything. I asked if there was anything of interest in particular and he replied, ‘I’m interested in everything here. You don’t know what pleasure I have in feeling that this is continuing’. He gave me his business card and there was the name ‘Thorold’. He was one of Frank’s grandchildren.

During the sixties, Rosemary ran the business full-time and I continued to work as a lawyer. Then at a certain point, the first of her four daughters was born. Meanwhile the business was growing and had become too demanding for her with her new commitments. So she suggested that I should come into the business full-time, which I did in the early 1970s. I remember my words to her very clearly, ‘It will take me six months to clean up the shop and then I’ll have nothing to do’. Anybody who has visited Thorold’s will see the sheer idiocy of that comment. All these years later, the shop is still a disaster area in terms of tidiness.

From the beginning, I never considered changing the emphasis of the business, although we did branch out into new books. I believe that if you are specialising in any field, you shouldn’t impose arbitrary restrictions and say, ‘I’m only going to deal in out-of-print books’. You must provide a service to your customers which covers the entire field. Readers will disagree, but I simply don’t believe that the only good book is a dead book. If somebody spends years writing a bibliography - for example, Ron Hackett’s South African War Books - it’s not enough simply to say, ‘I’m not going to stock this because it’s new.'

We also branched out considerably into the field of African maps and pictures, which Thorold had hardly touched. I’m very interested in the pictorial aspect, which gives an extra dimension to the subject. The longer you specialise, the more difficult it becomes to find something fresh to handle. This isn’t meant to sound blasé. I get as much pleasure from a £5 pamphlet that I haven’t seen before as I do from a £5,000 item which perhaps comes up time and again.

For example, I recently bought a pamphlet of no great commercial value, South African Poems by an Oxford A.A., printed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1883. When I looked more closely, I noticed that one of the poems was signed ‘Composed at Middelpost, Malmesbury, August 1879’. In my own collection, I have a painting by Thomas Bowler of a Cape Dutch farmhouse. For years I’ve been trying to identify the farm and a couple of months ago, I found it - Middelpost, Malmesbury.

Since I became a dealer, I have continued adding to my own collection. When I first started, Nico Israel gave me some very good advice, ‘You can be the best dealer or the best collector, but you can’t be both’. I pondered over this and yet the collecting instinct was still flowing through my veins. So I decided to find an area which I could call my own - if I came across something which fell into that category, then my collection would take precedence over Thorold’s stock.

In the end I hit on the idea of collecting authors’ presentation copies. A couple of weeks after buying Thorold’s a man came in with a copy of Percy FitzPatrick’s Jock of the Bushveld, the most famous children’s book to come out of South Africa. The binding was that of the first edition but the spine was missing and so I explained that it was not of interest in that condition. But he insisted that I look inside which I did -purely out of politeness and with a considerable amount of scepticism. And then I saw the presentation inscription from the author to Edward Sivewright which reads as follows,

My dear Sive. When you gave me the ugly puppy neither of us realized he would grow into this. Please accept this record of his doings as an expression of my gratitude for the gift of Jock himself. Yours ever, Fitz. 28 November 1907.
You couldn’t have a better presentation short of inking the dog’s paw on the title. Naturally I bought it and it remains one of the highlights of my collection. I remember saying to Rosemary, ‘What a wonderful collection I’m going to build up’. Nothing like that occurred on any sort of regular basis…

Readers of The Bookdealer may remember that I was a participant in a court action, reported in this magazine (May 26 1994). It was a fascinating case from the point of view of auction procedure and people from all over the world have taken an interest. In 1991, Sir Alfred Beit’s magnificent copy of Le Vaillant’s Voyage dans l’Interieur de l’Afrique came up for sale in Cape Town. There was a commission bid of R37,500 but, from R40,000 to R80,000, the bidding was exclusively between myself and Clarke’s Bookshop. The book was finally knocked down to me at R80,000, which was called eleven times by the auctioneer. During the calling of my bid at R80,000, the auctioneer several times clearly drew attention to the fact that the bid was at the back and on his right, i.e. where I was sitting.
After the hammer had come down and the name of Thorold’s called as the buyer, a wealthy collector seated in the front of the room called out ‘Sir, I bid’. The auctioneer pointed out that he had asked if there were no further bids and then suddenly reopened the bidding by calling ‘R85,000’. I protested that the item had been knocked down to me but the auctioneer persisted with the reopening. I then advanced to R90,000 in order to protect my lawful interest in the book and finally ‘secured’ it for a second time at R300,000. I tendered payment of R80,000 to the auctioneer on the grounds that there had been a valid sale to me at this price and that I was liable for no higher sum.

The vendor, Sir Alfred Beit, sued Thorold’s in the Rand Supreme Court for R300,000 and, on May 9 1994, judgement was given against my firm. However, nothing emerged from the evidence to convince me that the auctioneer’s behaviour was anything but unlawful and improper. We therefore applied for leave to appeal to the Appelate Division which is the highest court in the land and leave to appeal has now been granted. It is unlikely that the appeal will be heard before the second half of the next year. Incidentally, Sir Alfred Beit died on May 12, aged 91, three days after winning the first round of this dispute.

The future of book collecting in South Africa is perhaps a matter for some concern. It may sound a bourgeois argument, but basically it’s the professional class who collect. In South Africa, it’s largely confined to the predominantly white middle class - the people with discretionary income. The black middle class is still very small but, given affirmative action in the present climate, one can expect and hope that this will change. In Kenya and Zambia, for example, there are significant black collectors. Obviously there have been times in South Africa when things were very difficult, but I never thought seriously about leaving. I feel myself very much a South African and, much as I enjoy my trips abroad - contact with colleagues and friends, the buzz of book fairs and so on - at the end of the day, one is glad to be back in what is after all home.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in November 1994

A Poland & Steery Co-production