I have always loved books, which in a way is quite strange, because there were no books in
my childhood home apart from a battered dictionary and a few Sunday School prizes. My
working class parents considered books a luxury, and in 1940s Britain it was difficult paying
for basic necessities.
There was, however, the Darlington Public Library, and from the age of seven I spent
countless hours there, choosing books to bring home, as well as sitting in the Reading Room
on Saturday mornings browsing through special editions such as Babar The Elephant by Jean
de Brunhoff, or the Nonsense Books of Edward Lear.
It was many years before I could afford to collect books but once begun it became a lifelong
passion. It was this passion that led me from teaching, to antiquarian and second-hand book
dealing, and finally to book cataloguing for a major provincial auction house. Working for
an auction company gave me access to an enormous variety of books.
They arrived in large boxes and crates, generally unsorted from country houses, deceased
estates or small cottages. One never knew what would emerge and the variety was endless.
One of the greatest finds was a collection of Bewick books and pamphlets which came from a
I had seen illustrated books by Bewick before but never a collection of this sort. Many of the
books including his History of British Birds and the General History of Quadrupeds, his two
greatest works. They had been rebound in leather with gilt tooling, so not only were the
bindings wonderful to touch but the Bewick illustrations were sharp and clean. Leather bound
books are particularly beautiful to handle as they are very tactile. Handling leather books is
not only pleasing but also useful, as the constant touch of hands keeps them soft and supple.
Bewick was not only a supreme woodcut artist but a great English naturalist. He was
fascinated by nature all his life. He spent much of his childhood roaming the countryside,
fishing, riding horseback and climbing trees. He worked for over fifty years. And when he
died in Gateshead in 1828 he left behind a supreme collection of illustrations which has never
been bettered. Bewick's work fascinates me as many of the wood cuts are incredibly detailed.
Even the small vignettes are perfectly worked and done with loving care.
His popularity has never waned and the 2009 exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery of some of
his woodcuts attracted many visitors, some of whom returned over and over again to admire
his skill. His early books have become collector's items, and command high prices, and I feel
fortunate that I was able to handle these lovely books during my years as a book cataloguer.