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2007-12, 355, 356, Book collecting, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review- Bibliophiles at Oxford

Bibliophiles at Oxford

By Paul W Nash and Justin Howes. (Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles) 221pp. £25.

Copies can be ordered from Paul W. Nash, 8 Fairfield Drive, Witney, Oxon OX28 5LB, England (paul.w.nash@virgin.net).


Bibliophiles at Oxford is subtitled “A Celebration of Fifty Years of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles”. The Society was established in 1950 as a club for undergraduates who had an interest in collecting books and manuscripts. Regular talks and visits were held every year until Trinity Term 2000.

Since then the Society has been bibliographically resting, so to speak, “due chiefly to the difficulty of maintaining a committee of student officers”. This is a sad, if understandable situation, as most students have moved into the digital environment, while the cost of antiquarian and manuscript material for purchase moves out of the reach of most of them.

The era of students being able to buy from one Oxford bookshop and sell at a profit at another, as Rick Gekoski recounts in his bibliophilic memoir Tolkien’s Gown, are mostly long past. Even the Oxford Oxfam charity shops screen their intake, although bargains have been known to be found in Oxfam shops elsewhere.

The late Dr B E Juel-Jensen in 1951 became the first Treasurer of the Oxford Bibliophiles, and in 1952-1953 served as Junior President. He was Honorary President 1992-2000. He notes in his Introduction that Colonel C H Wilkinson was the first Honorary President, who was succeeded by John Sparrow, the Warden of All Souls. He notes “Sparrow and I were saviours at one or two sticky points in the Society’s history”.

The bibliophilic upsides over the fifty years, however, far outweigh the current down time. The achievements are documented in the meticulous record of meetings and visits since 1951, arranged chronologically in Bibliophiles at Oxford. Details of the Society’s meetings include lists of officers and bibliographical notes. There are monochrome and colour reproductions of some of the typographically more interesting term cards.

Giles Barber, former Librarian of the Taylorian Institution in Oxford, provides “Memories of Meetings”, and the late Paul Morgan documents some “outstanding bibliophilic excursions.” Paul notes that he never went on the coach trips from Oxford to Hay-on-Wye, which this author did. Unfortunately Richard Booth’s refunding of the coach fare for purchases in his shops ran foul of the UK Tax Office and they ceased in the late 1960s. It was also sad that the projected Richard Booth “book bunnies” never eventuated, at least on the bus trips I went on!

The list of the Society’s speakers over fifty years includes the names of almost every well-known British bibliographer, typographer, bookseller, book-artist, or collector, from John Carter, Herbert Davis, and Basil Blackwell in 1951 through to Colin Franklin, Christopher de Hamel, and Mirjam Foot in the 1990s. Many of the undergraduate members went on to bibliophilic fame such as Nicolas Barker and Paul Grinke.

Bibliophiles at Oxford is uniform in format with The Warden’s Meeting, published by the Society in 1977. This title reflected the long-term interest of John Sparrow, the Warden of All Souls as mentioned above, for OUSB. Sparrow and other Bodleian luminaries, such as Robert Shackleton, David Vaisey and Julian Roberts, as senior “patrons”, are captured in the colour frontispiece photograph, taken in Robert Shackleton’s rooms in Brasenose.

Many thanks are owed for the current volume to Paul W Nash and the late Justin Howes, who sadly died in February 2005. Bibliophiles at Oxford is a work to be treasured and not simply by those who participated in the fifty years of meetings. Let us hope at some stage in the future that the Society can revive and that interest in matters bibliophilic once more stirs in the undergraduate breast. If Oxford cannot support such activities, one wonders who can?

As a footnote however, at the time of the writing of this review, the leading British book collecting magazines Book and Magazine Collector and Rare Book Review announced the first winner, David Butterfield, of the Rose Book Collecting Prize run by Cambridge University Library.

Butterfield, a twenty-one year old student, submitted one hundred items from his 2,200 volumes on classical scholarship for the prize in which entrants were required to submit a list of their collections together with a short essay explaining its theme and significance. Butterfield said: “I only began collecting books concertedly on my arrival at Cambridge. The rich second-hand scene in Cambridge introduced me to a diversity and volume of classical books that I had not yet experienced”.

Book collecting competitions are common place in American universities but this is apparently the first of its kind in Europe. So maybe where Cambridge began, Oxford could follow!

Colin Steele



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