Now a patron is different from a customer or client in that he or she buys or commissions some item partly with the view to obliging the seller. Barrett in his large and comfortable department on the second floor of the shop had the time and skill to charm his rich lady clients and to design the bindings of their books precisely to their requirements. His designs were certainly not entirely in the ancient tradition of the binder’s craft. He was more of a surface decorator, but entirely earnest in interpreting the wishes of his customers. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and soon important customers came to the shop especially to see Mr. Barrett. When the world’s first bookplate society began in the year of Barrett’s arrival at Bumpus, he took little notice of it as the probably regarded it as an antiquarian and amateur hobby, not something which as likely to be profitable; but as he saw the bookplate fad become more and more popular I the 1890’s, he owed it to himself and his firm to take a serious interest in it. His approach was new and different. He designed ex libris to meet the exact wishes of his patrons as he had with his book-bindings.
Time went on and Barrett became the intimate of many influential people. He visited stately homes as a guest though probably also as an adviser on bookplates too. But with success came also some jealousy. A few collectors pointed out that these bookplates were not entirely his own work. In fact they were far from it; like Diaghilev his brilliant contemporary, he used a network of skilled support staff. Attempts have since been made to unscramble the omelet and to ascribe each of Barrett’s plates to an individual engraver – an interesting task, but largely irrelevant as it attempts to equate the archaic but well established methods of work of the period with modern methods. A careful examination of the contemporary documents clearly indicates that Barrett was the spring in the watch. For example, in a letter to her brother, who was at that time the managing director of the company, his eldest sister says “I know Barrett could not be replaced.” She even suggests offering him a partnership in the firm. Thus, as with the Shakespeare and Bacon controversy, careful research is needed, especially a thorough examination of the relevant documents in the Bumpus archives – these are infinitely more useful than the best conjectures at a later period of inquiry.
The Barrett plates are excellent of their kind, perhaps the best of their kind, and in my book “The Barrett Saga” I try to return to the fascinating late Victorian and Edwardian times especially from about 1880 up to the 1914 War. A time of Punch jokes, the gorgeous dresses of Tosspot’s paintings, the flunkeyism, the snobbery, the jingoism, the patient craftsmanship, the misery of the slums and the stuffiness of those overstuffed gas-lit drawing rooms. The rich people of the time British and American are reanimated in their tastes, backgrounds and characters through the candid undistorting mirror of their W.P.B. bookplates, offering us a fascinating ‘retro’ mirror – perhaps also helping Barrett to stand up again to let us evaluate his work and see him in the round.