Pressed between pages












This tea set, a lovely lively little early nineteenth century production, decorated with grape vines and fruit, came to us from our favourite source, Maidens & Foster, the local auctioneer. I had spotted this a week or so back but it had disappeared by sale day. I suspected that Todd had moved it to the antique sale, upgraded it so to speak, but no it had simply gone into the overflow and turned up in the estate sale the following Wednesday.

In the same sale there was a box of about sixty auction catalogues from Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales dating from the 1970s and 1980s.  Nicely illustrated these were a treasure trove of images and heart breaking low prices – oh for a time machine.

Once I got them home what struck me about these catalogues was the intensity with which someone had studied the international art and design markets. Who was this person who so carefully recorded the prices received for equestrian works by Sir Alfred Munnings’ at Christie’s Important British and American Sporting Paintings on June 4 1983 in New York .

Sir Alfred Munnings. Miss Ruth Brady on Bugle Call (c1920)

Who was this person who had purchased relatively obscure works by Albert Friedreich Schrode, and Christian Friedrich Mali from Important British Paintings a South Kensington sale in 1982? Did he also buy from the decorative arts catalogues? Was he scooping up Art & Crafts and Art Deco furniture and ceramics at good prices while others looked askance.

Was he obsessed with decor?

None of this is quite explained in the catalogues, however closely I read them but I am left with the impression of the sort of person I’d love to sit down with and have a chat about his auction adventures.

A box of books and a tea set is a pretty common weekly haul around here (just part of the decor torrent we live under)  but this week proved to be an exception to the rule once the weekend rolled around.


Napier has an annual calendar populated by four book sales in the name of charity – one each by the Napier and Hastings Lions and two by local high schools. Acknowledging that we have far more books than we can reasonably accommodate, we decided to give the notion of queuing for the opening of this weekend’s Lions Book Fair a miss but instead wandered in at 11.30 not expecting to find anything much left.

Chancing upon a lovely copy of Cecil Beaton’s The Face of the World (1957) and a rare copy of Looking Back (1934) Norman Douglas’ autobiography, led us to suspect that, as usual, our taste was not that of the locals and that there might be more to find and Peter headed off into fiction.  My approach is generally to head first for Architecture, proceed to Art, then on to Gardening, Decorating, Cooking, Biography, History, and then finally the New Zealand books. Unable to detect the first two in the sprawling hall – I went straight to the Gardening table.

Starting a one end of the table I noticed something strange. I had picked up the first half-dozen books in the line-up and put them under my arm. They were all better than usual (one time expensive) gardening books in lovely condition. Looking along the table it dawned on me that someone had donated a very large and very serious collection of gardening books – from early classics, Gertrude Jekyll’s Wood and Garden, Beverly Nichols Garden Open Today, Russell Page’s Education of a Gardener, and Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden, through to some great works of garden history – including Jane Brown’s Gardens of a Golden Afternoon about the relationship between Jekyll and Lutyens, and books by and about Edna Walling.

To follow came the ‘simply lovely to look at’ style of garden books Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens, French Garden Style and Gardening at Sisinghurst and then intensely practical books by Hugh Johnson and Penelope Hobhouse and others.

If it had stopped there I might have come away with a carton full – but I didn’t – the same person’s interests covered decor and so I came home with an additional carton this one full of luscious books on how to decorate New York Town Houses, French Chateaus and Irish Castles.

Even this lot – which gave us a most pleasant evening in front to of the fire (including green tea from our new cups) would have been quite manageable,  if it wasn’t for my inability to resist the temptation to return the next day for the clearance sale – in which books are parcelled off a $6 a carton load. Two more cartons came home – many of the best gardening books had still been unable to attract the attention of local bargain hunters in the space between my visits.

I now know a little about the owner of the auction catalogues through the occasional note or invoice left tucked in a catalogue – something I do myself.  Yet I know even more about the owner of the garden books – through her habit of leaving all sorts of things tucked inside her books. The fact that they’re still there suggest an estate sale or a hasty exit from a home but they tell me a lot about the woman whose library I now (partially) own.

Firstly Betty (not her real name) has the habit of carefully recording where and when she purchased each book with a small printed card inserted into the front of each volume. I am delighted to discover that she didn’t buy these books new – but at the same four charity book sales we visit, over the last ten years (I probably stood next to her at the garden table once or twice). She read each book, marking the pages with small adhesive tags where she though the advice good or the effect pleasing.

Betty’s husband died from the effects of asbestos and she still felt the pain of his loss years later. She wrote, but never posted, a letter to the authorities on the subject. She found solace in the Anglican church. She cut articles from the paper about events and television programmes with pinking shears.

Princes Irene

She borrowed those garden and decor books she didn’t own from the Taradale library. She planted the tulip Princes Irene on Easter Monday 1992 and bought a ‘Barn Owl’ from Palmers for $24.95 on the last day of 1998. She like Rhododendrons and went on garden tours and to antique fairs. She collected antique silver or at least browsed specialist silver sale catalogues. She liked to sit down of an evening a read about stately homes and decorating. In fact the one thing I know nothing about is her garden – although she left me with a layout sketch for a planned herbaceous border.

Betty seems a sweetie.  Again it would have been nice to chat over a cup of tea and perhaps wander through her garden. Wherever Betty’s gone now one just hopes she has a view of a herbacious border or two.


Back at the other end story – the guilt ridden confession of having more books that I can reasonably deal with – I was heartened by one of Betty’s books – The World of Interiors: A Decoration Book by Min Hogg and Wendy Harrop. It is a lavishly compiled book drawing on the magazine of the same name.  In it I found this interior – the home of English decorator Keith Irvine – as the text says – ‘The room looks as though someone is in the throes of moving house, but that is just the way the family likes to live.


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1 Response to Pressed between pages

  1. Eloise says:

    DLJ and PW – One of my present peculiar bookish delights are those little volumes of collected essays with crushed spines and fadey, inky, spidery school boy hand-writing in the margins. I was fortunate to pick up a good clutch of these at the latest Lion’s Club book fair.

    One of these volumes contained that perfect essay Book-Buying by Augustine Birrell (1850 – 1933) He writes ‘it is one of the boasts of letters to have glorified the term ‘second-hand’ which other crafts have ‘soiled to all ignoble use’ and that no ‘sensible man puts himself out about new books.’

    Birrell’s essay ends on a melancholy note as he considers the eventual fate of his own precious library, ‘when your old friends will be disturbed, when rude hands will dislodge them from their accustomed nooks and break up their goodly company’

    ‘Death bursts among them like a shell,
    And strews them over half the town’

    But, finally there is hope for they will in time ‘form new combinations, lighten other men’s toil and sooth another’s sorrow.’

    I have a feeling ‘Betty’ would be delighted with the new combinations you have made by the inclusion of her much loved volumes in your library.

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