A stylish and charming account of the inner world of a dealer and a collector of antique books.
A memoir of antiquarian bookselling in the England of the 1960s and 1970s of which a rare book dealer could say, “Those were the days.” A time when you could buy Kelmscott Press books for £60 or £100, or snap up for £6000 a whole Kelmscott set (lacking the Chaucer) in vellum inscribed by Morris and Burne-Jones to Swinburne; a time when you walked up a flight of stairs to the Seven Gables bookshop and came down carrying three Grolier bindings, or if you happened to be dithering about paying £5000 for a wonderful 16th century illuminated Missal, the bookseller would pull out a 1494 Book of Hours with a velvet binding to say he could throw that in as well for the same price.
Colin Franklin’s memoir, Obsessions and Confessions of a Book Life (published jointly by Oak Knoll Press, The Book of Kells, Bernard Quartich Limited, 2012) written in his 89th year is a book for booksellers. A bibliophile will take deep pleasure in it, but a bookseller will feel a closer kinship and resonance with Franklin’s accurate, precise, and stylish recollection of transactions between dealer and collector. I was charmed by Franklin’s diffidence; can a rare book dealer even afford to be as diffident and shy today? Did his diffidence belong to that time — those days — or does it stem from him being a scholar-book dealer? The minutiae of bookselling made him awkward.
He was often embarrassed about selling, asking prices or quoting them; even thinking of referring to someone as customer made him uncomfortable. Franklin thinks catalogues are self-advertisements and, after doing about some eight of them, he stopped noting that they felt like ‘an infinitely vulgar form of self offering’. Instead he exhibited at international antiquarian book fairs and talks of how they are composed of invariably painful moments, inescapable boredom, some discoveries and surprises — best of all, at end of day, dining out with other booksellers and gossiping.
He was a collector too and found it difficult to part from his collection. But then he remembers what Philip Duschness had said once, “You must be prepared to sell your best books.” But Franklin was not without an awareness of how ‘No bookseller is free of the fear that he will never sell another book’. He fondly remembers what booksellers and customers ritually say to each other, from ‘May I look around? Of course, let me know if I can be of assistance’ to ‘Look around, make yourself at home’; or ‘He very kindly allowed me to buy from his private collection’. One bookseller would say, lifting the phone, ‘Lyon, bookseller here’. He records different styles of bookselling and trying to fit into one of them, but while he admired other booksellers for them, he couldn’t easily bring himself to offer his wares, delectable as they were.
Once he brought along with him quite proudly, all nicely wrapped up, to show millionaire collector Paul Getty, the Haiku manto Dharanyi, a Japanese wooden pagoda with a little block printed scroll inside from the year 770; one of the earliest example of printing in the world (“except possibly something quite unobtainable from China”). It was charmingly housed in a painted lacquer Meiji period box. Getty didn’t seem to notice the bubble wrapped item. Talk drifted, the afternoon flitted away, and finally Franklin asked ‘And what shall I do about this? Getty said, ‘If I were you, I should just take it away. Exit, miserably.’
Imagine not thrusting something like that on to a collector — one of the earliest examples of printing in the world: a museum quality piece like that today would be brandished around, and auctioned to death. He remembers a visit to wealthy collector Paul Mellon’s house where “precious books were casually housed”. Mellon came out asking ‘Want to see the Caxtons?’ and opened a corner cupboard in the breakfast room and there they were: the first printed books in England. Mellon also brought out, just as casually, the manuscript of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, tall format with wide margins, probably done by the Linell boys in the studio, whom Blake was teaching at that time.
Colin Franklin (his sister was Rosalind Franklin, the renowned biophysicist who actually cracked the DNA double helix before Watson and Crick but went unacknowledged) is also the author of several famous monographs on the private presses. He was collecting private press books at a time when they were not being widely collected and so was able to buy wonderful examples at affordable prices. The Kelmscott Chaucer, he says, was a school word for him, having met old Mr. Newman, who had been a friend of William Morris. As a schoolboy he would cycle to all those bespoke antiquarian bookshops — Maggs, Quartich, Chatto and Windus — to look at their fine press books.
In the early days, when Franklin dealt out of his book barn, he would eagerly await the visits of Hans Kraus, the redoubtable antiquarian dealer (who came especially because London bookshops were shut on Sundays while F’s book barn stayed open) who was always hard to please. Franklin wanted to impress him — he had no expectation of sales, only to entertain Kraus, not bore him. One Sunday Franklin laid out for him such choice items as a papal bull on vellum ex-communicating Queen Elizabeth and the splendid two volume Bible printed by Schoffer in Mainz, 1468. ‘But these,’ Kraus said in quiet dismay, ‘are all printed books, I am interested only in manuscript.”
And so it was that one fine Sunday Franklin drew out from his safe an opulent Armenian manuscript from the 17th century, amply illuminated with gold and handed it to Kraus who said, ‘What are you doing with this thing?’ “It was the nearest thing,” Franklin writes, “I ever came to a compliment.”