July 2019

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Nicholas McBurney, proprietor of N. G. McBurney in London:

How did you get started in rare books?

I moved back to London in 2011, after doing my undergraduate degree at Yale and a year in New York, and then spent a year in London doing a weird mix of freelance work - some tutoring, commercial transcription, mostly for professional tribunals, and as an assistant on a project trying to collate surveys of Jewish material in former Soviet archives. I had no clue what I wanted to do, but very much wanted a job with a salary, so started applying for things.

It was not a particularly coherent approach. I put in to work in an MP’s office, largely because he’d written a book I liked.  I’m always astonished now when I meet people in their early twenties who know exactly what they want to do. I thought I’d probably wind up in the military - really rather hard to believe now, and probably for the best that I didn’t. The year in NYC had been with an Episcopalian service program, to figure out if I wanted to be a priest - a successful process of discernment, in that I concluded quite firmly that I did not want to be a priest and that I would be an appalling one.

I’m not sure why I applied to Quaritch - I think a friend had sat next to a retired director of the firm at dinner and mentioned it to me. I’d worked as an accessions cataloguer in the university archives (plans chests, windowless basement room, barcodes), and in the Research Department of the Yale Center for British Art (glorious light-filled office right next to the galleries), but very much for the money, and because both were better than waiting tables on a breakfast shift, which I did my freshman year. I didn’t specialise in art history or literature at university. I read voraciously at school, a bit less at uni, but tended more to hoover through things then linger over texts. In hindsight, this was probably a warning sign that bookselling might suit.

Quaritch were the first people to give me an interview. I went along, with very little idea of what to expect, and found myself in front of a big black door on South Audley Street, ushered up a rather bleak, blank hall and staircase, and into a large book-lined room on the first floor. Barbara Scalvini, who is now at Christie’s, interviewed me. I remember almost nothing of the interview itself, but I think after a decent interval and a few polite questions, she handed me a small book and asked me to tell her what it was. It was in Latin. I looked at the title-page, flicked through the pages, and without much clue said that the title page and contents suggested it was a book of psalms, printed in Germany, in the year 15xx. (I cannot remember the imprint, but think it was Nuremberg.) Then I was handed something in French, rather more modern, and repeated the exercise, which was basically me reading off the label, as it were, with rusty schoolboy languages. A venerable Quaritch director wandered in (by design or not, I’ve no idea) and proceeded to ask me a few more questions. I must have managed something vaguely plausible in the way of answers, because they offered me a job as a trainee. I’d come away from the interview all but skipping, and took the job. The first few months were rather hair-raising. I knew very little about anything to do with rare books. But Quaritch was a grand place for a crash course in the essentials, and there came a point (after months cataloging a mixture of Soviet photobooks and a collection of the complete works of William Beveridge) when I was handed an early 19th-century manuscript in Arabic and asked to catalogue it. The title was straightforward enough - it was a history of the first hundred years of Christianity, copied in the Holy Land, signed and dated by the scribe. But the author’s name was a bugger. It had too many consonants, and I couldn’t get any set of vowels to make sense. Eventually, muttering out all the variations I could think of, I hit on something that sounded Greek. I Googled a few combinations - lo and behold, there was an 18th-century  Russian Orthodox prelate with a Greek name who had composed a history of the first hundred years of Christianity. The bookseller who had passed it to me suggested a university with a Greek studies library - I quoted it to them, they bought it. My first rush from a successful sale. I eventually got booted upstairs, literally to the top floor, where I shared an office with Alex Day, and got to run the Islamic Department for a few years, with the benefit of someone more knowledgeable and experienced than me literally at my elbow. That he didn’t throw anything at me, given the more or less continuous barrage of questions and comments from my side of the room, is an absolute miracle. But he’s a much more patient man than me.

I bumped into Nicky Dunne of Heywood Hill at a friend’s shop, and heard the siren song of setting up a new rare books department on Curzon Street. It seemed like an interesting challenge, and good experience either way. It was a completely different world to Quaritch, and a very interesting change. I made a few dear friends and learned that I really wasn’t a natural shopfloor person. Christening presents were a particular nightmare - invariably, the would-be giver would name a famous author whose works had been made into films and/or television series, suggest they thought a first edition would be nice, and eventually provide a budget of £40. That you could buy several attractive modern editions of the relevant text for the same money never seemed to cross their mind, and quite what a six-month old would do with a first edition Austen I still don’t know… on the other side of the balance, you got customers such as one gentleman who rang up to ask for the first edition of Melville’s Moby Dick, printed in London in the same year as the American edition. I knew a copy had appeared at auction, but gone unsold, and thought another bookseller in London was now handling the collection. I rang them, they produced the book and a price. I went over the book, and reverted to the would-be buyer. He thanked me for it, and said he would consider it. Three months later, I got a call to say he was now in London, and was the book still available. It was. He took me to tea at Claridge’s, examined the book, and asked several questions. Away I went. The next day, he bought it.

Heywood Hill was and is a lovely bookshop, but I missed being working with more specialised material. I went to work for a bookseller who had been focused on Asia for decades, called John Randall (Books of Asia). This was a different sort of education - very much not an open shop, largely trading by correspondence, and my first real introduction to the early printing of the Islamic world. It was always intended as a transitional role, both for him and for me, and eventually the right moment came to go our different ways.

When did you open N. G. McBurney and what do you specialize in?

Summer 2019 - I specialise in printed books and manuscripts of the Islamic world. This covers everything from medieval Qur’an manuscripts to 20th-century revolutionary newspapers. I mostly handle material in Arabic and Persian, with occasional Ottoman Turkish and Urdu. In theory, I would try my hand at Malay, but I’m trying to be good about not doing things I can’t read. And there’s very little on the market.

What do you love about the book trade?

The variety and the collegiality. I like working in a business where many of the people I deal with are friends, and where doing someone a good turn mostly leads to something good coming your way in the fullness of time. I find the different things other booksellers love and sell delightful - it’s rather hard to get bored under the circumstances.

Describe a typical day for you:

I tend to get up around five and spend two hours cataloging. I find it’s the most productive time of day for me. Nobody calls or emails, even with time differences, and I don’t get any distractions. I’ll make tea at about seven and wake up my boyfriend, who has a more sensible job as a civil servant. Once he’s out the door, I usually manage another hour. I’m trying to be better about running or bicycling or lifting, so I spend forty minutes or so doing that, and then I try to get out the door. I’ll walk into central London (about an hour), collect my mail en route, and get a coffee, and then it depends. Might be viewing some books, might see a friend for lunch, usually wind up hitting a library in the afternoon, either to catch up on emails, check references, or both. Afternoons are usually a mix of seeing people and things, one way or the other.

Then it’s a walk home, via the grocer’s, to cook dinner, read, and head to bed.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

I bought an Indian manuscript at a Western books and manuscripts sale at Christie’s when I was still at Quaritch. It had been copied and illustrated in 1836 for the Scots-Rajput mercenary Colonel James Skinner, a man who really deserves a modern biography. The text is effectively a who’s who of the princely families of northern India at the time, written in Urdu. This was one of three copies known. Skinner seems to have given all three copies to different British officials and officers, together with illustrated copies of a text on the castes of India. It was in absolutely exquisite condition, with an elaborate binding of stamped gilt-paper and a contemporary silk slipcase, bright, fresh, and an absolute knock-out. The manuscript was the subject of my last catalogue at Quaritch.

What do you personally collect?

I’ve accumulated some reference (marked sale catalogues, the odd exhibition catalogue or dealer’s list) but I don’t have the hunger to accumulate that private collectors and some dealers seem to have. Our flat has a limited amount of space, and my boyfriend operates what amounts to a one in one out rule for books, so I try to be disciplined. Given more space and money, I’d love to collect Safavid ceramics, but for the moment I get enough pleasure from handling interesting things and then selling them.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I find my work / not work line is a blurry one. Much of what I enjoy reading or going to see seems to relate, sooner or later, to what I deal in. I love walking, though, and that very rarely seems to lead back to work. Otherwise, finally having a kitchen of our own and the space to entertain has been a joy. I grew up in a family of cooks (one sister is now a chef), and still love to cook, mix drinks, and get people over for a few hours or more. I used to row reasonably seriously, but now live at the wrong end of London to do that, so am making do with running, which isn’t anywhere near as relaxing. I’m trying to get into gardening, but since my great joy this year has been the profusion of mint and wild strawberries in our garden, that’s best described as an aspiration. I miss travelling for work - still get a childish delight from the whole process of flying somewhere else, even though airports are less and less pleasant.

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

I think plenty of more experienced, wiser people have said most of what there is to say. I have every confidence there will continue to be a rare book trade, and there seems plenty to keep me going, which is about all I selfishly require. It does seem increasingly hard to get into the trade without working for a larger firm or an auctioneer, though some smaller booksellers do take on employees. It’s a brutally capital-intensive business, so setting up on your own isn’t easy, and the bottom end of the market is much less profitable than it was thirty years ago, which means it’s harder to build your way up. My working idea of “cheap” is under £1,000, which is absolutely nuts relative to my own spending habits. But the basic work required to catalogue and sell a manuscript is the same whether it’s £100 or £10,000. Enough new booksellers do keep popping up, though, and I’m nowhere near the youngest person in the London book trade, which is immensely cheering.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

My running joke is that my stock is “small and select” by necessity, which pretty well rules out fairs for the foreseeable. In the longer term, I think visibility is key, though whether that’s best achieved online, in ground floor premises, or at fairs, I don’t know yet. As for catalogues, I’m trying to build up enough stock to issue my first catalogue somewhere in 2020, but it’s hard not to just sell things at the moment. I tend to assume something else interesting will turn up with time.

It won’t be a summer blockbuster, but for literary-minded cinephiles, Vita & Virginia, which debuts in American theaters on August 23, might be just the ticket.

Produced by IFC Films, the biographical drama brings to life the letters of author Virginia Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki) and author/aristocrat Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), whose adulterous, same-sex love affair — both were married to men — was transformative. It also provided the fodder for Woolf’s popular 1928 novel, Orlando, about a gender-bending poet who lives for several centuries. The novel was published by the Hogarth Press, run by Virginia and her husband, Leonard.

A quiet week in the salerooms this week: the main sale I'll be watching is the Comics and Comics Art auction, being held through August 3 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. Among the 1,466 lots are a copy of Captain America #1 (1941), described as one of the nicest copies of this issue and "among the most desirable comic books Heritage has auctioned to date." As of Sunday morning, the bidding had reached $430,000. Another copy of the same issue, graded slightly lower, had also reached $105,000. A copy of Batman #1 (1940) is bid up to $100,000.

The original art by Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Roy Krenkel for the story "The One Who Waits," published in Weird Science #19 (1953) has a reserve of $75,000. A copy of Fantastic Four #1 (1961), with a cover by Jack Kirby, has been bid up to $52,5000 by Sunday, as had original cover art for Conan the Barbarian #11 (1961) by Barry Smith.

On July 30–31, Alexander Historical Auctions holds their Summer Auction, featuring 1,700 lots, a good portion of which are related to the World Wars. 

Just a few notes on results from last week: at Skinner, the Nuremberg Chronicle sold for $61,500; a 15th-century manuscript on parchment of Nicolaus de Ausmo's Supplementum Summae Pisanellae fetched $39,975; and the Latin Book of Hours in red velvet made $23,370.

Game of Thrones fans, this post is for you: set your sights on a new illustrated edition recently published by the Folio Society. The 824-page epic is split into two volumes overflowing with darkly sumptuous art courtesy of award-winning illustrator Jonathan Burton. (Be on the lookout for an image hidden in the slipcase design.)

[Illustrating A Game of Thrones] became much more involved than I ever imagined with the universe of characters, costumes, settings and creatures all needing to be interpreted in an original way whilst being true to the book,” explained Burton.

A Game of Thrones proved to me you could do something gritty, shocking and character-focused while still writing epic fantasy,” said author Joe Abercrombie, who provided the introduction to the new edition of GoT. “I’m delighted to be providing an introduction to a book that was one of my biggest inspirations.”

What does George R.R. Martin think of all this? The Folio Society team worked closely with the GoT author's team, and every element was pre-approved--no small feat considering Martin's hard at work on The Winds of Winter, the sixth in the "Fire and Ice" series. 

“As a small child, I fell in love with illustrated books, when Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth brought Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Men of Iron alive for me with their art,” said Martin recently. “It’s a passion that has stayed with me all my life.That's why I have taken so much pleasure in the deluxe illustrated editions of my own books. The Folio Society's splendid new editions of the Song of Ice and Fire series are masterpieces of the bookmaker's art lavishly illustrated by Jonathan Burton.  Books collectors and fantasy fans alike are going to delight in these volumes, I think. I know I will.”

Folio Society collectors may have noticed the uptick in recent years of sci-fi and fantasy publications. Part of that has to do with publisher Tom Walker’s admiration for the genre, and in this case, much of the staff had already read Martin’s books before the project began. “No wonder: the books are storytelling at its absolute best,” said Walker. “Martin has a lightness of touch with his prose which makes reading the books feel as though one is sliding along ice, at the same time as containing a richness and depth to his world, and to his characters, which many a literary author would die for.”

Don’t worry, Folio Society plans to publish all the books in the series. In the meantime, A Game of Thrones: A Collector’s Edition ($195) is available through the Folio Society’s website
 

From the 1930s through 1970, a New York Public Library librarian at the Hamilton Fish Park branch on East Houston Street kept an extraordinary, unique record of life in the library which she called “The Library: An East-Side Scrapbook.”

Last month, the York Civic Trust in York, England, erected a plaque celebrating the life of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), who co-founded the Bluestocking movement and whose home in London became the must-attend literary salon of the day. The Blue Plaque -- mounted on an outside wall at the city’s Treasurer’s House property, now owned by the National Trust, where she grew up -- is part of a nationwide scheme to mark links between famous people and their homes.

If you want to be dazzled, look no further than the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which just opened Kay Nielsen’s Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.

Nielsen (1886–1957) gained international recognition for his exquisite gift book illustrations, notably his masterpiece East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Old Tales from the North (1914), a collection of Norwegian fairy tales. He later worked as a theater designer and as an art director for Disney’s landmark animation, Fantasia.

The new exhibition aims to represent all of the phases of his career with fifty dramatic watercolors, drawings, and illustrated books, all promised gifts to the MFA from collectors Kendra and Allan Daniel. According to the MFA, the exhibition marks the first time that such a large group of Nielsen’s original works, both published and unpublished, has been on public display in the U.S. in more than six decades.

First a rescheduling note: Skinner's sale of A Mystic Collection: Early Books, originally planned for July 20, has been moved to Tuesday, July 23. See last week's post for expected highlights. The photo above shows a 1610 Missale Romanum published at Antwerp and bound in red velvet with an embroidered design ($500–700).

On Wednesday, July 24, Dominic Winter Auctioneers sells Printed Books, Documents, Maps & Caricatures, in 498 lots. An 1804 memorandum signed by Horatio Nelson is estimated at £4,000–5,000, while a set of George Staunton's 1797 Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China could sell for £3,000–5,000. A copy of François Chretien Gau's Antiquities de la Nubie (1822) is estimated at £2,000–3,000, as are John Ogilby's Britannia (1698) and a c.1575 woodcut world map, Typus Orbis Terrarum.

Forum Auctions holds an online sale of Books and Works on Paper on Thursday, July 25, in 262 lots. The top-estimated lot is a near-complete set of Matrix, with the first two volumes in reprint and lacking volume 32 (estimated at £1,500–2,000). Also on offer is a mixed set of the five-volume catalogue of Sir Joseph Banks' library, at £600–800. 

Also on Thursday, PBA Galleries sells Art & Illustration – Fine Books, in 443 lots. A deluxe copy of George Grosz' Ecce Homo (1923) rates the top estimate, at $10,000–15,000. A portfolio of plates from Aves Hawaiienses is estimated at $8,000–12,000, as is a complete set of the Nazraeli Press One Picture Book series (2000–2017), totaling 115 volumes. Lots 340–443 are being sold without reserve.

Who can forget the searing images of Notre-Dame burning on April 15 of this year? The 850-year old-cathedral is not merely a religious center, but represents the beating heart of Paris. Indeed, the city and the banks of the Seine River are included on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, with the cathedral at its core. Though much of the wooden trusses and spire were destroyed by the flames, the cathedral’s rose windows, religious relics, and other works of art were saved by staff and city emergency workers trained to rescue irreplaceable treasures.

Even the rare book world is abuzz with lunar madness this week. Earlier today, Christie’s offered the Apollo 11 Timeline Book, a three-ring-bound manual flown aboard the LM Eagle and annotated by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they landed on the moon. But the book failed to launch, however true the statement in the Christie’s catalogue: “No more significant document of space exploration history is likely to ever be created as future manned missions will be more fully digitized and will not leave this human trace.”

The Timeline Book was meant to be the star lot among 150+ pieces of space memorabilia offered by Christie’s in One Giant Leap: Celebrating Space Exploration 50 Years after Apollo 11.