Sunday, July 26, 2009
Will the Real Mr. Barrett Please Stand Up? II
The nouveaux riches wanted all the luxuries which were previously the prerogative of the titled nobility; country estates, fine London homes, beautiful libraries, fat cigars, lovely women and titled wives. Money was the key to all these treasures. Some of the nobility tired to keep their end up by marrying gorgeous American heiresses as did irascible Lord Randolph, father of Winston Churchill, who married the lovely Jennie Jerome but who probably died of syphilis contracted from one of his housemaids.
Just before the turn of the century a new and expensive fad emerged – bookplates or ex libris as they were soon more commonly to be known.
These little ownership labels for books had been in use almost since the beginning of printed books, but though many were fine examples of graphic art, the vast majority had been and were merely labels, more or less attractive in accordance with the fashion of the time and mostly very ordinary or often boring and ugly.
Earl in the eighties a man named Sherborn changed the nature of these bookplates by producing carefully engraved, often good-looking ex libris plates for which there was a ready sale, even though they were clearly expensive – coats of arms for the men, charming intricate monograms for the ladies, and many other varieties.
An intelligent observer of all the twists and turns of fashion in the book-selling business was a bright and good looking young man with a romantic and unusual background. Born in New Zealand to a comfortably-off family, he had the misfortune to lose his father at an early age but the amazingly good luck to obtain a place at the Masonic School in London (fortunately for him his father had been a Freemason and he was entitled to a splendid, free education with some art education at the South Kensington Art College thrown in.)
This fortunate young man had been well trained in all the book-selling skills in a small London bookshop and in 1891 at the age of thirty was ready to take over the important book-binding department of London’s top bookshop, Bumpus of Oxford Street. He was clearly a go-getter; first he was popular with the ladies and quickly became a great asset to the shop. Many of the wealthy customers of the shop became his patrons.