Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Bertram Rota on Book Patrol

We are excited to have joined forces with Michael Lieberman of Wessel and Lieberman Books in Seattle to share our passion for books. This month Nancy starts contrbuting to Book Patrol, a blog founded by Michael which covers international news on bibliophile subjects.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Bertram Rota in America (again)

I've just completed a trip around America, visiting New York and the Midwest. In Wisconsin I visited the fabulous book arts collections in the Memorial Library of Madison-Wisconsin, the Kohler Art Library and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. All these three institutions have astounding resources for research. Wisconsin, with its connections with Walter Hamady, proprietor of the Perishable Press (who taught at Madison) has a long tradition of firing the imaginations of book artists. I saw wonderful work by artists Pati Scobey and Tracy Honn, as well as catching up on new publications by Janus Press and Mare Blocker.

Pati Scobey’s book, Evening Susurrus,inspired by the Chinese whirlwind example, Wuzhai xiongji fa (‘Divination of Fortune and Calamity’) in the British Library. Whirlwind bindings, with their stacked leaves within the scroll format, were a midway point between the scroll and the development of more practical forms of bookbinding in China. Although they were predominently used for reference works, very few whirlwind bindings survive. An edition of two copies only, I decided to bring one home with me for our shelves.

In Michigan I caught up with Lynne Avadenka, whose new work, Six Poems, publishes translations of Dan Pagis’ work, and is featured on the cover of our new catalogue of American Artists' Books which can be down loaded from our website . I also encountered the work of Diane Fine, an impressive artist whose book works are moving and exquisitely executed (see below).

Back in New York I caught up with Roni Gross, printer and designer, and heard about the progress of the Vandercookbook, a project incorporating artists from all over the States in celebration of the Vandercook Press’ centenary. Watch this space for more on this exciting publication.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Dead Man's Patterns by Hormazd Narielwalla

Hormazd Narielwalla wears an elegant polka-dot necktie which might have caused Jeeves to raise an eyebrow, and a bright white kurta under a Burberry Macintosh. His outfit perfectly corresponds to the crisp white and fawn tones of his new book, Dead Man’s Patterns. I wonder if other book artists dress in ways which reflect their printing and binding styles. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a well-worn metaphor for personality, but it is given a new slant in the opening pages of this book: “We only ever see the cover, never the book; the skin, never the man; the suit, never the pattern. We are denied intimacy.”

Intimacy is only permitted to the bespoke tailors, who know every irregularity of their clients’ bodies and design outfits accordingly. The world of tailoring is secretive. Measurements are kept close and patterns preserved long after a client’s death. In Dead Man’s Patterns Narielwalla unwraps some of the mysteries of the trade. During an apprenticeship with Dege & Skinner in Savile Row he worked with the fastidious master cloth-cutter Robert Whittaker. Despite his fragile relationship with this exacting tutor, the book contains reverential photographs of Whittaker at work. Narielwalla describes the seductive sound of scissors moving evenly and surely through cottons and silks. He has a fetishistic delight in cloth and the art of its control. His attention to pleat and seam remind me of Alison Watt’s paintings of fabric, with their large-scale images of tiny folds and ambiguous shadows.

Narielwalla talks of his amazement at discovering the dead man’s patterns of the title. The patterns, folded up with “dead for ten years” chalked on, remain on the shelf long after the bodies they delineate are ashes. It took an artist’s insistence to allow these to be displayed publicly: “Hidden beneath the bespoke menswear, there is a secret… Everyone sees the suit, yet few are privy to that private dialogue which assesses, measures, and catalogues the subtle details which make up one single man.”

Dead Man’s Patterns is shrouded in original tissue paper tailor’s templates, which rustle as they are unfolded. The book itself is weighty, case-bound in ordinary brown wrapping paper, suggesting a long-awaited parcel. It is printed offset on a variety of inoffensive contemporary machine-made papers. These, and the white stock paper of the final section, provide a neutral background for Narielwalla’s digitally manipulated drawings and photographs. The subtle tans and sepias in which the book is printed, and occasional interleaved pages of tracing paper, recall past media and resonate strongly with the brown paper patterns which are enclosed with each copy of this book. These large pieces of paper are marked only by the tailor’s pencil notes: numbers and dates recorded in a codified and fascinating script, perforated by pin-pricks and cross-hatched by contours describing the absent body.

These fragments of paper are a poignant memento of the knowledge one man had of another’s body. The book charts the end of the relationship between a man and his tailor - not only for the individual, whose patterns now lie dormant, but also marking a change in the status of bespoke clothes as a craft form. Now, the timeless ‘classic’ is frequently replaced with a more fickle ‘fashion’ item. The rare and recherché nature of the subject itself drew Narielwalla’s attention to consider tailoring, formerly considered a craft, as ‘Art’, and artisans, as ‘artists’. Yet this is not a nostalgic or naïve work.

The latter part of the book documents the artist’s creation of a shirt influenced by the dead man’s patterns, the lines of the original fitting tacked on the front of the new shirt in silk thread. Narielwalla talks about his own experience of being measured by Dege & Skinner and seeing his ‘imperfect’ (his words) body recorded in the occult language of the trade. He believes that “shapes created by and for a body long-since dead can give new dimensions, new perspectives for the body of someone alive.” Narielwalla’s designs use the existing patterns in new ways – an abstract paper template fitted against a model’s chest, bodice or shoulder. Pockets become epaulettes, arm panels become the two sides of a waistcoat. The final pages of the book form a paper catwalk in which digitally drawn models parade outfits of Narielwalla’s creation. It is said that fashion is cyclical, and always repeats itself, but this recycling of a means of production rather than the style itself is very unusual. As well as being venerated for their past usefulness, the dead man’s patterns have taken on a life of their own.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Bertram Rota, Spring 1964

We recently re-discovered this photograph of Bodley House, Vigo Street, the home of Bertram Rota from 1937 to 1965.

We have identified the 1963 First English Edition of Alex Trocchi's Cain's Book as one of the newly published books displayed in the window (in the doorframe, second down on the right). This, together with the daffodils flowering on the balcony above the shop,dates the photograph to the Spring of 1964. Trocchi was a regular visitor to Bodley House and later to our Savile Row shop when he was supplementing his income as an author by bookdealing.

Can you identify any of the other books in the window display? If so, please let us know.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Falcon Bride by Carolyn Trant

Carolyn Trant came by the shop to show us some recent work. Carolyn is one of my favourite book artists – what is there not to like about someone who creates a book called My Mackerel Lover? She has been extremely busy recently. The Falcon Bride, an installation or ‘room-sized book’, was exhibited last year at the Star Gallery in Lewes. It is book art taken to the very boundaries of the gallery space, an orchestration of found objects, painted books and sculptures, works which were created after a visit to Kracow.

The birds of the title were inspired by the mummified falcons in the Department of Ancient Art at the Princes Czartoryski Museum. These falcons appear frequently in her new work, interchanged with the figures of decaying Dickensian brides. The exhibition prompted several books, including Kracow Pages and Boat Book, which range from unique works bound in conventional codex form to multi-dimensional boxed work and prints – all imbued with images of skeletal remains or departing vessels in sombre greys and sepias.

Over lunch at the Poetry Café Carolyn tells me that the works in the show were ‘constructed from basic organic materials such as feather, bone, wax, wood, or recycled paper.’ Such transient and unexpected materials are also present in the book works – some of which feature collages of lace, dried grape stems, scrim and newsprint, as well as a free attitude to washes of paint. The organic approach is also apparent in another, more conventional two-volume work, Hunting the Wren and Love Poems and Curses by James Simpson, in which Carolyn’s illustrations take the form of collograph prints made with the impression of fern leaves and twigs. Carolyn delights not only in the texture of found materials but also in the range of papers available to her, and in this book she interleaves the printed text with papers featuring natural inclusions or punctured with holes by the maker. These are sensitively used to suggest sere winter hedgerows, the world of birds and their predators.

Carolyn has also added to her recent series of Carnival Boxes, exquisitely made reliquaries each containing a concertina of prints. I particularly like the Dr Caligari version, the varnished millboard box with its hand-incised design in the lid depicting a shadowy studio lined with frames and its painted borders. The cut-away base reveals a further collaged compartment, on which the sequence of prints joined with buckram hinges rests. In true carnival tradition, the colourful images, which at first glance seem joyous, incorporate sinister political processions, the forms of mythical animals, fierce beasts and masked or naked figures.

All these books will be available at Bertram Rota for the next few months.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Los Angeles Book Fair

Not long back from the ILAB International Book Fair in sunny Los Angeles. I received online severe weather warnings most days I was there, but these actually seemed to mean it was going to be just a little bit misty or breezy. Enough books were bought and sold to justify the cost of the trip - just about. Something of an achievement given the exchange rate, and it's always good to see what books other dealers have and to catch up with friends, particularly our dear friend Judy Cohen, who specializes in books on the decorative and applied arts as does Dorothea Rota at Bertram Rota Ltd. Here's her website:

Our website

Here, rather belatedly, is a link to our website

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The Harold Pinter Archive

We were delighted to have brought about the sale of Harold Pinter's papers to the British Library towards the end of last year. We have handled many author's archives over the years - this was truly outstanding and a joy to catalogue. It was also a great privilege for me to have spent time with Mr Pinter and to have enjoyed his witty, kind and stimulating company and hospitality.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

RON TAYLOR AT BERTRAM ROTA, 1964-1990, being some anecdotes by an old colleague

Ron Taylor and I were near contemporaries in terms of joining the staff of Bertram Rota Ltd. in 1964. My first day was 7th September and Ron’s was the 28th. However, while Ron was a highly experienced and knowledgeable bookseller who had come to run Rota’s expanding antiquarian department, I was merely a novice who was learning the ropes in their very well-established Modern First Editions business in Bodley House in Vigo Street.

For a while after his arrival Ron was something of a mystery figure to the Bodley House staff. His department, comprising himself and a secretary, was housed in separate premises in Vigo Street, on three floors of a tall, thin building above the newsagents shop run by the redoubtable but kindly Miss Napoleon. This slight geographical separation served Ron well in those early days, allowing him to concentrate on sorting out what he described as the 'shambles' left by his predecessor. Once everything was sorted, organized and catalogued to his satisfaction we began to see him more frequently at Bodley House and since my duties included escorting visitors to and fro and a good deal of general fetching and carrying along the narrow pavement between the two buildings I was often in his room at the very top of the building and able to learn more about the stock he kept there.
I soon discovered that curiosity allied to a half-way intelligent question could unlock Ron’s huge fund of bookselling knowledge, lore and anecdote. He would move about his tiny office pulling books off the shelves to explain 'points', show me a Nelson letter, or an early tract on agriculture, and all with equal enthusiasm. Sooner or later a relevant anecdote would occur to him and generally he was about halfway through when the house phone would ring and someone from Bodley House would be demanding to know whether Ron had kidnapped me. Of course, I never addressed him as 'Ron'. In those much more formal days he was always 'Mr Taylor' or 'Sir' to me and I was always 'Mr Scott' to him.

I got to know Ron really well when I had my first experience of the effects of true bibliomania. I was assigned to help him in clearing the library of a recently deceased actor who had lived in a large house in Mill Hill. Each morning I would take the tube to Mill Hill East and Ron would meet me in his car and drive us to the house. On the first morning he said little about what I could expect when we reached the house, other than the fact that the actor had left a proportion of his collection to an institutional library. When we arrived a large truck was leaving, loaded down to the wheel arches with the bequest. I said something to the effect that there couldn’t be much left. Ron’s response was a grin and 'Wait and see.’ I didn’t have to wait long. The hallway seemed quite normal, but behind that the house was stuffed with books, including the coal hole, and a large summerhouse and shed in the garden were similarly packed to the eaves. I couldn’t see where a single book might have been removed to load down that truck. We spent several winter days literally wading through books, sorting and evaluating as we went and eventually cleared the house. Each lunchtime we would repair to the local pub and over a pie and a pint (cider in Ron’s case) we would discuss our findings, calculate valuations on the back of an envelope and speculate on what we might find next. I learnt a lot about bookselling and about Ron’s life and times in those winter days in Mill Hill.

It was during the Mill Hill pub lunches that Ron started calling me by my first name, but even then it didn’t seem 'correct' for me to call him anything other than 'Mr Taylor'. The pub was also the venue for yet more of his anecdotes, this time without interruptions. One concerned the widow left in straitened circumstances by her academic husband. Ron was called in to buy the library, but found little of worth except a large collection of Bernard Shaw with whom the academic had enjoyed an acquaintanceship over many years. Most of the books were inscribed by Shaw and Ron made a generous offer for them. The widow duly accepted and Ron made an appointment to return, hand over a cheque and collect the books. When he returned he found the widow seated before a roaring fire. To one side of her chair were stacks of the Shaw volumes and in the fire fluttered shreds of charred and burnt paper. Ron watched horrified as the widow tore the inscriptions from the last couple of volumes and threw the leaves on the fire, explaining as she did so that it would not be proper to allow Shaw’s inscriptions to be read by anyone other than her husband. Ron took no pleasure in explaining exactly why the books were no longer of any value to him, but restrained himself from throwing the now useless cheque into the flames as well.

During Ron’s time with Bertram Rota he was instrumental in negotiating many important sales, but one of which he was particularly proud was that of a library from Portugal. It had been founded in the nineteenth century to provide reading matter for an expatriate British community involved in the production and export of port and the time had come when the descendants of the founders decided to dispose of the, by then, largely unread early fiction. Ron went to Portugal and discovered a horde of books that had lain untouched for decades, many in outstanding condition. Ron undertook negotiations in Portugal and London and personally oversaw the packing of the books in many crates. Had he been able to do so I am sure that he would have flown back in the cargo bay sitting on top of them. I remember the joy, tempered with concern for their condition after the flight, with which he unpacked them. Moreover, it was not the fine first of Frankenstein, or the run of Jane Austen that gave him the greatest pleasure, but rather all the shelves of anonymous, pseudonymous and wholly forgotten three-decker novels that delighted him most.

The decision had been taken early on that the library must be kept intact and Ron duly found a client ready, willing and able to do this. I’m sure that his pride and pleasure in a successful sale was tinged with more than a little sadness as he watched all those lovely three-deckers being carefully packed back into their crates.

I went on a number of calls with Ron when both Modern Firsts and antiquarian books were involved. He was of no great height and from my point of view as a passenger his driving posture always appeared to be somewhat lower than that of the top arc of the steering wheel. Nevertheless, I always felt completely safe, except once. We were on a mercy dash to the home counties where a client’s house had been damaged by fire. By some miracle his precious library had been unaffected by flame, smoke, or water from the fire brigade’s hoses, but he needed to have the books removed and stored safely. Ron hired a large van and was unhappy with it from the outset, finding the steering sloppy and unpredictable. However, the journey down was accomplished safely and the books packed and loaded. The journey back to town was undertaken in almost complete silence as Ron wrestled with the steering and concentrated on making sure that we and the books all reached base safely. I recall that he spoke only once, when the van veered and its passenger side mirror met the mirror of a parked van, snapped off at the root and pinged past my window. 'Hmm,’ muttered Ron; 'I thought that had looked a bit loose.’

Like all experienced antiquarian booksellers Ron had developed a sixth sense for a 'good book', even if it was far outside his usual areas of expertise. Moreover, on my trips with him I discovered that he had well-developed ability as a 'shellac detector', used for tracking down 78 records, first for his own collection and later for stock in preparation for the day when he retired from bookselling and took up dealing in rare records. This was an interest that had grown out of his love for music and especially for that of Sir Edward Elgar. He even went to the trouble of tracking down some records for my Great War collection. Indeed, long after Ron left Bertram Rota he remembered my interest in the period and once in a while an envelope would arrive from him containing cuttings and ephemera on various aspects of 1914-1918, accompanied by a note in his distinctive hand expressing the hope that they 'Might be of interest?' They always were.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Hong Kong Book Fair Report

In this, the first Chinese international bookfair, (though not the first in Hong Kong, which I understand was some 5 years ago) there was a real pioneering spirit of expectation and adventure. The fair was massively oversubscribed, with 64 booksellers, 15 of which were from the UK. This meant that the venue was not ideal, with the booksellers spread over three rooms. However, this did not deter visitors, of which there were approximately 1500. These were mostly Asian, both private and institutional: there was a noticeable lack of ex-pats, which many were expecting, but with ever present budgetary constraints, it was deemed wise to make the push for the Asian market. It was certainly well covered in the press, radio and television both before and during the fair. Sales were, overall, extremely good with, I gather, as much as US 2 million sold. Sadly not all with us: but there was enough money sloshing around for even the most unsuccessful to feel positively about the fair and its potential. This achievement is due in no small part to the magnificent dedication and hard work of the core team of Paul Feain, Mr. Mitsuo Nitta, Chris Li, Ellie Aroney, and Fang Ling Jong.

It has to be said, the Chinese do things differently. Of course, as booksellers, we’re not above a haggle, but 50% discount straight off the bat was startling. Also, my near neighbours Robert Frew and Barbara Grigor-Taylor did the majority of their business in, literally, the last 20 minutes of the fair. There was a real down-and-dirty market mentality that was thrilling to watch. The naivetes of the questions were also curiously refreshing and showed real interest. One customer asked if he could perhaps buy a copy that hadn’t been read; another faced with the two copies of an identical title, one signed and one unsigned, priced accordingly, asked “why didn’t he sign that one”?

There was great interest in the concept of book buying and collecting that cut through the usual bookfair ennui, though there was, unsurprisingly, an insularity that meant that the dealers with Chinese, Chinese/Western material attracted the most sales. It would be good to combine the next fair perhaps with some sort of symposium/lecture/workshop on book collecting: it would appeal, could inspire, and certainly build on fledgling interest.
The Western booksellers had made a real effort, with many providing parallel descriptions in Mandarin. John Randall’s impressive catalogue in rich imperial yellow was particularly enticing, with books priced from £15.00 to £75,000. One bookseller, rather waspishly, declared that this was a “Chino-Japanese fair to which we’ve been invited to defray costs”, but this wasn’t a general view. Most people seem happy to be there and optimistic about future sales. Where there collectors there? Certainly. Could it create a new generation of collectors? Judging by the amount of teenagers that I saw floating around on all three days (some faces repeatedly), with bags, with books in them (as opposed to catalogues) it could be a real possibility. Which after all, is what it’s all about.

Dorothea Rota

Books in the Blood

In 2002 my father Anthony Rota published his memoirs, Books in the Blood, published by the Private Libraries Association in the UK and Oak Knoll Press in America. The book sold well and received excellent reviews. This is a copy specially bound for a Designer Bookbinder Competition (see below) by Marianne Harwood, which we could not resist buying from her. We are proud to have it at the centre of our mantelpiece in the middle of a bound set of our catalogues (from number one issued in 1923) to the present day.

The letters “o” in the words “Books and “Blood” on the spine are set at an angle and as can be seen appear on the covers as a flow of blood cells. We thought it was inspired and perhaps all the better for not being immediately obvious. The binding shows all of Marianne’s usual precision and skill - the image below does not really do it justice.