Sheila Markham in conversation with Edward Bayntun-Coward of George Bayntun
The late Pierre Berès, most eminent of French book dealers, rang up a while ago and insisted on speaking to George Bayntun. When I told him that it would not be possible, he insisted that he only dealt with the owner.
‘I’m sorry, sir’, I replied, ‘George is dead’.
‘I’m so sorry. Was it sudden?’
I am regularly addressed as George, who was in fact my great-grandfather. He had one child, a daughter, who married a Mr Coward. When she inherited the business, it was decided to retain the founder’s name.
George Bayntun opened for business as a bookbinder and bookseller in 1894. He had served his apprenticeship with Taylor’s in Bath and then set up his own bindery in Northumberland Place. Initially, he bound books and magazines for private customers and the trade, but he soon realised that it was more profitable to buy the books himself, bind or repair them and then sell them on for a profit. The American book collector, Wilmarth Lewis wrote about Bayntun, in his account of a trip to England in 1923,
‘He was a binder of “standard works”, which he turned out at a prodigious rate for the trade … Mr Bayntun was content with a ten percent profit and a turnover so rapid that the great authors galloped through his shop…In a few years I was to hear him spoken of with dispraise by bibliographers and bibliophiles as a destroyer of original boards and a perverter of history, but he was too good a businessman to destroy the valuable.’
We have always appreciated the importance of original condition, and would never destroy something valuable. If someone asked me to rebind a copy of the first edition of The Great Gatsby in pristine condition, in its original dust jacket, I would refuse. But I would agree to make a box to protect it. Wilmarth Lewis possessed one of Humphry Repton’s gardening books, uncut in the original boards, for which Bayntun had made a box. George had the golden touch and his business expanded rapidly, moving to larger premises in Walcot Street, and to the present shop in Manvers Street a year before his death. It was at this time that he also acquired the name and bindery of Robert Riviere, with its array of tools and brasses. Riviere had started as a binder in Bath in 1829 before moving to London where he soon reached the top of the trade. George paid £6,000 for our present premises, which had been the postal sorting office. It has changed very little over the years, though we have added the old wooden dock from Bath Magistrates Court to hide the computer in the front shop.
Neither George nor my father ever threw anything away, so we have our own extensive archives, including some of Riviere’s designs, though the majority of these are now in Sir Paul Getty’s library at Wormsley. Queen Mary spent the War years at Badminton and would visit the shop on her regular trips into Bath. We have photographs of her taking away piles of books – she did not always pay for them, but we were awarded a royal warrant in part exchange.
After George’s death, my grandmother was advised that there was no future for the business, but she stubbornly carried on, closing only for his funeral. She employed a series of managers who largely failed to manage, but kept things going until my father, Hylton, had done his National Service and took over the business in 1951. My father was not a naturally bookish person, but he was a very good businessman. When he took over, the shop was little more than a display case for the work of the bindery. He recognised that the bookselling side needed to be developed, and took the opportunity to do so in 1963, when he bought George Gregory’s bookshop in Green Street. In 1981 the two businesses were brought together under one roof in Manvers Street.
My father never bought at auction; all his books came from other dealers or private sources. He had a knack for knowing the books that people wanted to buy. The 1960s were the boom years for Bayntun’s, with libraries being formed throughout the United States. Three or four big American buyers from book stores such as Brentano’s would come over once or twice a year and clear the shelves. They were filling American homes with beautifully bound books – the instruction to our binders was always ‘put on more gold’. Dad would drive all over the country, filling the car with famous works of English literature, bring them back, bind them up and off they would go. Churchill was always bound in red morocco, with a panelled spine, a block on both covers and Cockerell endleaves. When a book sold, another copy would be taken out to the bindery and bound to replace it, like for like.
In the good old days books were regarded as part of the furniture in any self-respecting house. Dad had a couple of customers who both had three residences. In one they had a red library, in another a blue library, and the third was green. So when they ordered a book - even a set of Shakespeare - they would do so in triplicate, and have them bound accordingly. At one point my father employed over thirty people in the bindery. It was a bit of a production line, but my father refused to cut corners and everything continued to be done by hand. George Bayntun was quoted as saying,
‘We work in the old way. Machine binding? Not for us’.
Of course we are more conservationally aware these days, but in every other respect we are the last of the trade binderies doing things as they were done 100 years ago. Today there are ten people working in the bindery who, between them, have clocked up 370 years in the trade – Derek Harris has been with us since 1947m and comes in for two days a week to make our special boxes.
My father’s love of books was surpassed by his interest in the book trade. He served as President of the ABA in 1980-82 and again ten years later. When he died in 2000, his memorial service in Bath Abbey was attended by almost 1,000 people. The last edition of the ABA Newsletter to be published while my father was still alive told the story of the four booksellers stranded on a desert island – an Englishman, a Scotsman, an American and Japanese. They did not know each other, but they all knew my father.
When I’m asked how long I’ve been in the book business, I tend to reply forty-two years, as I was brought into the shop in the first week of my life. I can say honestly that I remember it in every detail, because virtually nothing has changed. From the age of eight, I would accompany my father on his annual summer buying trip, during which he would drive up the west coast to Stockport, across to Edinburgh, and down the East coast to York and Norwich and then across southern England from Hastings to Brighton and on to Salisbury, zigzagging to and fro, visiting every second hand bookshop in the directory. He was very gregarious and wanted someone to go with him. I’m one of four and so my mother would stay at home and look after my brother and sisters.
At my father’s suggestion, I spent a few weeks working for Maggs before I went up to read Modern History at Oxford. Although he was keen to introduce me to an occupation which gave him such pleasure, he never put any pressure on me and was aware of my strongly held belief that there was more to life than bookselling. But Maggs was great fun and I subsequently spent my vacations there, working in the packing room, building shelves in the loft for Maggs’s ‘hospital’ of defective books, and then down to the ground floor to answer the telephone. Finally I graduated to the second floor where I joined Bryan Maggs and Robert Harding and became immersed in English literature and historic bookbindings.
One of my friends at Oxford was a certain David Cameron. When I told him that I was going to be a book dealer, he replied that he was going to be Prime Minister. After graduating in 1988, I went straight back to Maggs to work with Bryan and Robert, largely on Sir Paul Getty’s library. During my first year I photocopied reproductions of bookbindings in every reference book and catalogue to be found in Maggs’s extensive reference library. I filled about fifty large files, with the images arranged chronologically and, in the process, I developed something of a photographic memory for bindings.
I was fortunate to join the firm at the time of Christie’s sales of the Estelle Doheny Collection. On my first day at work, Maggs bought a magnificent example of English Restoration binding by the so-called ‘Queens’ Binder B’ for Getty’s library for many hundreds of thousands of pounds. I remember thinking that it was beyond belief that people called this work – buying wonderful books and selling them to extraordinary people. Within a short time, however, I began to be aware of the need to keep things in perspective. So two or three days a week I would leave Maggs at five o’clock and make my way to The Samaritans in Soho where I manned the telephones until ten o’clock, and occasionally all night. Although I take my work seriously, and it is my only source of income, bookselling hardly compares in importance to many other occupations. But we do have the opportunity to make people happy by satisfying their need for something and, in the case of some collectors, giving them their ‘fix’. But it is not a harmful addiction.
Towards the end of my five years at Maggs, my father received a call from the Duchess of Bedford who wanted to dispose of 6,000 books from the basement at Woburn, which had been removed from the library a hundred years before. It was agreed that I would continue to work for Maggs part-time, while helping my father to catalogue the books from Woburn. When this was finished, I received a call from John and Myfanwy Piper’s executor asking for a probate valuation of their books. I gave them a reasonable figure only to be told that it was too high for probate purposes. To prove that I was right, I offered to buy the books at that figure, and suddenly I had another 6,000 books on my hands and nowhere to store them. There is a wonderful warehouse in the middle of Berkeley Square called Maggs, and we split the collection between us. I remained on my part-time basis, before finally moving down to Bath with my wife, Laura, and our first child. My father died a couple of months later on 25 September 2000.
My father would be quite surprised to find that I have stayed put here. When I took over the ownership of George Bayntun, the building needed a lot of money spent on it, and the prospect was quite daunting. My father might have expected me to run the business from home, or to pocket the money and spend even more time on holiday than we do. Of course I do things rather differently from my father, who loved to spend time in the shop talking with customers. A lot of people regarded our shop as a club, or a waiting room because of its proximity to the railway station. Some would come in and sit down, with no intention of buying a book. Penny Cox has been with us for forty-five years and thought she had seen it all, but was taken aback when a rather shady looking character came into the shop asking for pornography. Penny’s response was unequivocally negative, but he persisted and, pointing to a copy of Moby Dick, said, ‘What’s that, then?’ Penny explained patiently that it was a novel about whales, to which he replied, ‘Well, the Welsh are a bunch of perverts.’
I tend to hide away upstairs cataloguing my special books, a legacy no doubt from my years at Maggs. Although people associate me with fine bindings, I deal in all kinds of books which are in some way unique, and I am a fetishist about condition. My father’s method was to keep selling the same book over again. I have continued this aspect of the business, but I also try to offer uniqueness in my catalogues, where you will find dedication copies, the authors’ own copies, presentation copies and books in distinguished bindings.
Now that Google plans to make the text of every book ever printed accessible on the web, the market for rare books might lose some of its appeal. We will all have to learn the importance of adaptability, as demonstrated by such brilliant dealers as Sam Fogg and Colin Franklin who have moved successfully into new fields. Who would have expected them to be selling Christian icons and Buddhist artefacts? But I am quite confident that books as objects will not only survive this period of great upheaval, but be held in growing esteem. Bound by hand, a book becomes a unique object and, when done well, it becomes a work of art, or at least of ingenuity. Long after the dust jacket on a first edition of The Great Gatsby has perished – or been exposed as a fake – bindings bearing the name of Riviere, or even Bayntun will still be treasured.
I am blessed with a handful of private clients who are interested in buying examples of historic bookbindings or in commissioning new work. We have a stock of 15,000 finishing tools and I greatly enjoy having a certain amount of input into the design of a new binding, though I tend to look to the past for inspiration. I admire in particular the products of the English Restoration period, and Irish eighteenth century bindings, which are superlative. I used to deride the Victorians, but have come to appreciate what bookbinders like James Hayday achieved. Howard Nixon, the great historian of bookbinding, classified his work as the ‘kitchen sink school of binding’. The designs might have been over-elaborate, but technically they were most impressive and innovative.
Riviere bindings are sometimes criticised for their precision, and consequent lack of ‘soul’. Faultlessness has thus become a fault. We forgive, even applaud, imperfection, so long as it is committed in the name of craft. T.J.Cobden-Sanderson could get away with all kinds of deficiencies, but I can sell his bindings, faded concave spines and all, for the price of a decent car. He has of course been given the full treatment by Marianne Tidcombe in The Bookbindings of T.J.Cobden-Sanderson, 1984. I would like to see a comparable history of the trade binderies, and would certainly be willing to contribute to it.
In stock at the moment I have examples of bookbinding from over twenty countries, bound in goat, calf and sheep skin, shagreen, tortoiseshell, bats’ wings, ivory, silk, velvet, embroidery, gold, silver and all kinds of paper. But I am not interested in the work of binders who think it is clever to incorporate a razor blade in the binding of a book on suicide, or barbed wire on a volume of First World War poetry – you have to be able to handle a book without drawing blood. The design must work as a book.
Three years ago I bought thirty or so bindings by Roger Powell in an auction in Solihull, and most of the contents of his bindery, including ledgers, diaries, notes on various projects, correspondence, and photographs of his work and ephemera of all sorts. When times were hard, he kept himself busy by making napkin rings for Liberty’s. The collection also included a number of his zinc blocks, which he made great use of in his bookbinding. Collectors of Powell’s work are not always aware of this. The blocks were designed by the calligrapher and artist, Sheila Waters, who was the wife of Roger’s partner, Peter Waters.
In my opinion contemporary and older bookbindings are perfectly compatible; they both employ the same techniques and materials. Obviously contemporary binders like to experiment – you cannot keep going over the same ground. I see parallels with my work as chairman of the Bath Preservation Trust, where I try to encourage modern architecture, so long as it is of a quality to be expected within a World Heritage City. I have always been very interested in architecture, and sometimes think of the bindery in terms of an architectural practice, with its aspects of design, craftsmanship and not least preservation.
Over the last few years I have been commissioning and buying a series of bindings from the likes of Glenn Bartley, James and Stuart Brockman, Jeff Clements, Flora Ginn, Jenni Grey, Bernard Middleton and Chris Shaw, and these live at home. I like to have books bound that have meant something to me – texts from school and university, but in editions printed by the likes of the Kelmscott or Doves Press. If my bindings were sold as a collection, it would be difficult for anyone else to know why this particular set of texts had been put together. Although I greatly appreciate the book as an object - a fine binding is a visual and tactile experience - I would never say that the text or edition is unimportant. Binders should concentrate their skills on books deserving of their efforts. I do not give them any specific instructions, but I do like all things bright and beautiful. I am always happy if the outcome is something that my wife and children will also enjoy. Although they are still young, my three children are showing quite an interest in books and love running wild in the shop. When customers tell them off for making a noise, I point out that this is a family business now in its fourth generation. There is nothing virtual about our bookshop, and that is so much part of the pleasure.
George Bayntun, one of the world’s most famous bookshops and home to the Bayntun-Riviere bindery, dates back to 1829. The bookshop specialises in fine bindings, both old and new, first and illustrated editions. The bindery restores books for stock and for customers all over the world.
Bayntun-Coward, interviewed for The Bookdealer in October 2008. The interview is published on www.sheila-markham.com, it is presented here, with our thanks, by permission of Sheila Markham.