Bright Young Collectors: Hazel Wilkinson

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Hazel Wilkinson of Cambridge and London:

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Where are you from and where do you live?

I am from Surrey originally, and I now live in Cambridge and London.

What did you study at University? What do you do now for an occupation?

My first degree was in English at Oxford University; I then did a Masters in Renaissance Literature at York, before doing a PhD in English at University College London. My PhD was awarded in September 2014, and I’m now a research fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where I am working on my first book, and teaching undergraduate English.

Please introduce us to your book collection.  What areas do you collect in? 

I collect books of poetry, from Spenser (1552-1599) to Tennyson (1809-1892). Since I was an undergraduate I’ve enjoyed buying attractive or unusual books, when I’ve been able to find them for affordable prices. When I was at university I would often go to a second hand bookshop and see if I could find a nice old copy of the poet I was studying that week. Owning a big nineteenth-century volume of Keats made me feel much more intelligent than reading the standard scholarly paperback.  I never thought of myself as a book collector until entering the Anthony Davis Book Collecting competition. I didn’t expect to win, as I hadn’t assembled my collection particularly deliberately, or spent much money on any of the books. When I thought about the books that I own, I realised that there was a coherent theme running through them, even if I didn’t plan it. They are all editions of canonical poets, published after the author’s lifetime. I am interested in how each generation reinterprets the literary past. So, for example, I have a copy of Spenser from 1758 which is illustrated in a Classical style, and a copy of Spenser from 1908 which contains Art Deco illustrations. It’s interesting to see how Spenser was repackaged and reimagined. Similarly, I have a big, leatherbound Byron from the 1860s, and a Penguin paperback Byron from the 1950s. These books say a lot about how fashions and reading habits changed over the course of a century. A lot of the books in the collection are prize copies, with school book plates. I have a copy of Thomas Gray which was presented to a student leaving Eton, which is quite expected, since Gray wrote about Eton. I also have a Wordsworth which was given as a Botany prize at a Diocesan Training College in nineteenth-century Bristol. I found this provenance really surprising, and incongruous, and it got me thinking about the way books are sometimes produced and kept as trophies, and aren’t necessarily read. That will certainly sound familiar to many book collectors, I expect.

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How many books are in your collection?

30-40. Me and my partner, Will, often buy books together, and since we have similar interests there are quite a few jointly owned items, so the collection doesn’t have clear boundaries. 

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

I’m not entirely sure, as I never thought of myself as buying “for a collection”. However, I won an essay prize when I was an undergraduate and was given £30 in book tokens. I used these at Blackwell’s in Oxford to buy an edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost with Gustav Dore’s illustrations. The book is hughe--nearly a metre high. This might not be the first book in the collection that I bought, but it is the most memorable. 

How about the most recent book?

Will and I went to Alton for a literature conference earlier this year, and we bought an illustrated nineteenth-century copy of Edward Young’s poems, and a copy of Tennyson’s In Memoriam bound in leather. We often end up in book shops when visiting a new place.  

And your favorite book in your collection?

Probably my 1758 edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, because it is the oldest book I own. It is also one of the only books that I tracked down and purchased on the internet. I don’t do this too often as I like finding things unexpectedly in bookshops. However, my PhD thesis was on eighteenth-century editions of Spenser, so I thought it would be great to own one of them. Doing a PhD on book history also got me more interested in collecting books, and in thinking more about the ones I already own. I kept an eye on eBay and ABE for months, and finally managed to find a 2 volume illustrated Faerie Queene from 1758 for only £40. It’s not in very good condition, but that didn’t matter to me as I was interested in studying its paper, type, and illustrations.

Best bargain you’ve found?

A huge nineteenth-century edition of Byron’s complete poems and plays, containing illustrations, notes, introductions, and even facsimiles of Byron’s handwriting. It’s a big, heavy volume, with an embossed leather spine, marbled covers, and gilt page edges, and it was only £12.50 in Blackwell’s in Oxford. I think this is because it isn’t a particularly “important” edition, in terms of being a first or early edition, or having a notable editor etc. Later editions of authors are exactly what I find interesting, which is very lucky when it comes to buying books!

How about the One that Got Away?

Since I tend to just by books as and when I find them in bookshops, there’s not been anything that really got away. 

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

The 1751 edition of Spenser, illustrated by William Kent. It’s my favourite eighteenth-century edition of Spenser, but I’m sure I’ll never be able to afford a copy. It was a luxury, high end edition in its day, and it still is now.

What is your favorite bookstore?

I like the Oxfam charity shops in Oxford, and the second hand department in Heffers in Cambridge. 

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

I don’t think I would collect anything. I’m not really a collecting type. My book collection has arisen out of my studies rather than out of a desire to collect something.
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