The ABA is patently not just about books – we have dealers who specialise in all sorts of printed matter – and autograph and manuscript material too. One type of shop I haven’t mentioned much so far in my travels is the old-fashioned print-shop – possibly because there are virtually none left. Sanders of Oxford of course, whom I visited last year, are a very honourable exception – but what a treat to make my way yesterday to Grosvenor Prints in Shelton Street, Covent Garden. Because this really is as old-fashioned a print-shop as still exists. And it’s worth a visit to London (from wherever in the world you may be) just to see it.
Stuffed to the rafters with prints of all ages and all genres – portraits, views, sporting scenes, caricatures, architecture, whatever you like – stacked in folders, hidden away in drawers and cabinets – spilling out here and there in a sumptuous and arresting display. Heaps of frames, something eye-catching whichever way you turn. No real room to turn and yet somehow there is – upstairs, downstairs, store-rooms. And here’s the thing – Nigel Talbot and his team do actually seem to know where everything is – they passed my cunningly constructed test with flying colours.
Nigel has been in Shelton Street for over thirty years (originally on the other side of the road) – and I can remember him even further back, bringing material to my little old shop in the City of London even before that. The trade of course has a long collective memory. Nigel has always loved his old portraits – he was studying some new ones just as I arrived – and he spoke with warmth and generosity of how much he had been influenced by and how much he had learnt from old George Suckling of Cecil Court. And George Lambert Suckling (1892-1980), whom we both knew, joined his father in the Suckling business as long ago as 1909. We could both remember with indelible clarity our respective first sights back in the 1970s of the Suckling basement – awash with fine prints – at least half a million of them they said, perhaps a million or more. They also said that old Mr Suckling was their only index. Of course we have computers to help with that now – I discovered Miles Baynton-Williams buried in the basement working on the excellent Grosvenor Prints website. But this is a shop that retains and replicates the Suckling spirit – however good the website, it demands to be visited. Go and see it – I defy not to find something you want, need and overwhelmingly desire. And I defy you not to be enchanted.
What led me there on this particular day was a new project we are developing on the ABA website. No more just a simple list of names, initials and dates of all the past presidents of the association tucked away in the handbook, but a series of biographical essays about each of them in turn. A ready means of charting the changes in taste and emphasis of the rare book trade over the last hundred years (and more) with fresh and cumulative material on the men and women who have played their greater and lesser parts in shaping it. Obviously this will be a collaborative exercise – there have been seventy-five previous presidents and help will be needed in filling out the details. Some are well enough known. One or two – like Sir Basil Blackwell and Dr F. S. Ferguson – have entries in ODNB, but others we are having difficulty in placing. Who can tell more of W. J. H. Craddock, president in 1929? Or of M. Evelyn Banks, the first woman president in 1932? – the ABA centenary volume is all but silent. So – I throw this open. Biographical details, anecdotes, reminiscences, portraits, pictures, whatever you may have. Feed it all in.
I shall make a start, informally here, more formally on the ABA website, with James Tregaskis (1850-1926) – not the first ABA president, but the fourth. Not wholly as arbitrary as it may sound – the first three presidents, Henry Newton Stevens, Benjamin Dawson Maggs and Walter James Leighton, were all born in London and born into already well-established bookselling families: Stevens the son of Henry Stevens of Vermont, Maggs the son of Uriah Maggs, and Leighton a scion of the nineteenth-century bookbinding family. They are all tolerably well-known and there are almost certainly others better qualified to write about them. But Tregaskis was none of these things. He was born far from London, did not become a bookseller until he was nigh on forty, and yet, by 1910, the year in which he became president, he stood at the very pinnacle of the trade.
His story is a curious one. He was born in 1850 at St. Day, a village not far from Redruth in Cornwall – the son of James Tregaskis and his wife, Fanny Blenkinsop, who had married in 1847. His father was a local printer and stationer in a modest way of business, employing a man and three boys at this time. And it was as a printer that Tregaskis trained, serving an apprenticeship in London and joining Blenkinsop & Co. – a firm in Well Court, off Bow Lane in the City of London, with which he had a family connection – as a master printer and partner. He remained a partner until the end of March 1889. A court case the following January revealed that he had been the victim of an accident – a falling plank had badly injured his foot, causing the amputation of one toe and the partial loss of another. He sued the builders, revealing that it was his injury and consequent loss of health which had necessitated giving up the partnership. According to the London Daily News of 24th January 1890, he was awarded £450 in damages.
He had apparently been passionate about old books for some time before this, and at that point he retired from printing and went to work in his wife’s bookshop. He had married Mary Lee Bennett (1854?-1900) in August 1887. She was the daughter of George Lee, a relatively prosperous Northumbrian boat-builder and his Scottish wife Ann Mitchel – and the widow of William Parsons Bennett (1838?-1886). Bennett is a little obscure, but he evidently worked as a partwork publisher with addresses in Birmingham and London until his bankruptcy in 1880. He had married Mary Lee in Yorkshire in 1876 and, after the bankruptcy, set up as a bookseller at 39 Great Russell Street in London – this the shop that Henry Newton Stevens, the first ABA president, was soon to take over. After Bennett’s death in July 1886, Mary Lee Bennett inherited an estate valued at £674.7s.9d and continued the business, soon moving to the shop at 232 High Holborn which was to become famous as “The Caxton Head”, home of the new firm of “J. & M. L. Tregaskis”.
The couple had a great flair for publicity, promoting the business through frequent and attractive catalogues and a series of innovative exhibitions, such as the 1891 exhibition of forty-one copies of Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies which had been sent to the best bookbinders in Europe to bind and decorate in their finest style – an exercise repeated on a larger scale with seventy-three copies of the Kelmscott Press (William Morris was a customer) Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane exhibited in 1894 in unique bindings from twenty-seven different countries. The complete collection is now in the Rylands and it was the publicity generated by this exhibition which led to a royal summons to Windsor to show the books to Queen Victoria.
Here is how William Roberts reported on their progress in The Book-Hunter in London in 1895 – “The chief and most enterprising firm of booksellers in Holborn proper is that of Mr. and Mrs. Tregaskis, at No. 232, the corner of the New Turnstile. The house itself is full of interest, and is quite a couple of hundred years old. A century ago one of the most eventful scenes of David Garrick’s career was enacted here, for it was from this house that the great actor was buried. Mrs. Tregaskis first started, as Mrs. Bennett … and some time after removing to her present shop, married Mr. James Tregaskis, and the two together have built up a business which is scarcely without a rival in London. The shop is literally crammed with rare and interesting books, whilst The Caxton Head Catalogues are got up with every possible care”.
Numerous Tregaskis catalogues, e.g. A catalogue of valuable manuscripts, rare & interesting books, and beautiful bookbindings offered for sale by J. & M. L. Tregaskis, at their house at the sign of the “Caxton Head” in High Holborn, London, A.D. 1898 are held by various major libraries. An early customer, later a good friend, was the redoubtable American collector, Alfred Edward Newton (1864-1940), who admitted that the arrival of a Caxton Head catalogue always suspended all business in his office for half an hour. From Tregaskis, among many other things, Newton acquired the copy of Memoirs of **** commonly known by the name of George Psalmanazar, a reputed native of Formosa given and inscribed to Mrs Thrale by Samuel Johnson (both Newton and Tregaskis were ardent Johnsonians) – and it was Newton who penned a brief memoir of Tregaskis for the 1,000th Caxton Head catalogue. Elsewhere he noted, “I ever and always found him to be a frank, generous and kindly host. Talk with a good bookseller can hardly be bettered, as all collectors know”. (The correspondence between Newton and the Tregaskis family is now in the Rare Book and Manuscript Department, Free Library of Philadelphia).
As well as making their reputation in these years, the couple were also starting a family. A son, James Richard Tregaskis, was born in 1888. Followed by a daughter in 1893. She was baptised Aldine – and I’m really not at all sure whether I regard that as simply a wholly charming name for the daughter of two antiquarian booksellers, or actually, if not exactly cruel, then at least thoughtless or pretentious. But this is in fact what led me to Grosvenor Prints and to my test, for amongst a number of delightful examples of Tregaskis ephemera they have on their website (all immediately produced without any advance warning), was not only the pretty rubricated Christmas card depicted above, but an advertisement for an etching by Herbert Railton of the old stairway in the grand old house on High Holborn – and there on the stair is a little girl – and this must surely be her. (It may conceivably be her younger sister, Irmgarde Anna Tregaskis, born the following year – but somehow we know it isn’t).
The children were left motherless when Mary Lee Tregaskis died in her mid-forties in August 1900. A Cornish housekeeper was imported to run the household for a time, but in November 1903, James Tregaskis remarried. His second wife was Eveline Belwood Davis (1877-1948), the daughter of a Chelsea signwriter, framer and gilder, now turned printseller, Alfred Davis (1840-1912) and his wife, Isabel Read. And it was Eveline (Eve) Tregaskis of whom A. Edward Newton noted, with evident palpitation, as his regular first thought on receiving a Tregaskis catalogue – “Why shouldn’t a book merchant have a pretty wife? The answer is simple: he has, nor are good-looking wives peculiar to this generation of booksellers”. Something for the sociologists there.
A son, Hugh Frederick Beresford Tregaskis, was born in 1905. And the business went from strength to strength. It was reported in the press in 1901 that Tregaskis had just published his 500th catalogue, noting in the foreword that at the William Morris sale he had bought back an early edition of Hippocrates for £40.10s, which he had sold the poet some years earlier for eight guineas. And by now he was dealing in whole range of materials – the British Museum has some beautiful Japanese prints bought from Tregaskis, and even some elaborate oriental metal stamps and statuettes.
Success was evident and before too long a family home, Lawn House in Hampstead Square, was acquired. Tregaskis was a founder member of the ABA in 1906 – it was he who seconded the proposal that it be called the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association, defeated at first in favour of the Second-Hand Booksellers’ Association, which was the original name for a few years – and he became the fourth president in 1910.
The Caxton Head shop moved from High Holborn to 66 Great Russell Street in 1915, where it remained for the rest of his career. A fine description of the new shop (and the complexities and orderliness of moving the stock) was given in The Clique – “a happy change from darkness to light, from cramped and inconvenient show rooms and offices to spacious, elegant and dignified premises … there is no doubt that the new ‘Caxton Head’ is the handsomest bookshop in the neighbourhood of the British Museum … On entering the shop one feels more like entering a handsomely appointed private library. The walls in pure white enamel, the mahogany cases filled with the treasures Mr Tregaskis deals in, the artistic floor covering, with Persian rugs thrown down here and there, the beautifully carved Georgian mantels – all seem to invite one to take one of the antique chairs, extract a rare book from one of the cases, and forget everything, even the War”.
I have said that Tregaskis reached the very pinnacle of the rare book trade. The evidence of his catalogues is proof enough of this, but the precise pecking order of the trade at this time can unfortunately be measured in a darker and probably more accurate way. In 1919, he was one of the top eight booksellers to take part in the fourth and almost certainly final round of the knock-out after the notorious Ruxley Lodge auction. Confident enough of his position at the top table, he only bought one lot in the sale itself. In the final round of the knock-out he paid £1,260 for a collection of early English plays for which the auctioneers had received £10. The whole affair is elegantly dissected by Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman in their Anatomy of an Auction : Rare Books at Ruxley Lodge, 1919 (1990) – absolutely required reading for an understanding of the trade at this time. The Freemans even trace what happened to some of the individual plays – rebound by Tregaskis in polished morocco gilt, according to the slightly florid taste of the time – one to the Folger, another to Harvard via Rosenbach, one to the Huntington.
In fairness to Tregaskis, the practice of ringing an auction was not then illegal – it was partly the furore that followed this sale that eventually led to legislation. For all the condemnation in the press it aroused, there were plenty robustly to defend it as being as legitimate as any other form of collective bargaining – and often in much the same terms. Plenty too to point out that sharp practice was by no means confined to one side of the rostrum. This was rough and tumble. Auctions were an artificial device to coerce the market to the highest rather than the fairest price – that caveat vendor was just as cogent a rule as caveat emptor. And Tregaskis was certainly not alone – this was widely accepted practice, long sanctioned by custom. Another who spent largely (although not beyond the second round) was his brother-in-law, Alfred Beresford Davis (1872-1947), who had inherited the Chelsea printselling business. At least eighty-one members of the trade took part in the knock-out – and at least half (not all the names are known) of the first dozen ABA presidents or their firms were there at various stages. Different times – the past was very much a different country – and it was not until Sir Basil Blackwell became president in 1925 that the trade was in any way compelled to confront its demons. And, as the Freemans wryly point out, it was actually the biggest and final cash buyers who probably gained least from the operation – they still paid top money for their books, albeit to their fellow booksellers rather than the auctioneers.
Tregaskis died at Great Russell Street on the 23rd November 1926. He was buried at St. John Hampstead a few days later. Probate was duly granted to his widow, Eveline Belwood Tregaskis – his estate valued at £8,371.6s.7d. His first son, James Richard Tregaskis, had died in 1914 and it is not clear whether he had any involvement in the business. Hugh Tregaskis (1905-1983) certainly did and, unless I have misunderstood something, became an ABA member in his own right at the age of fifteen in late 1920 – the name of the firm certainly became James Tregaskis & Son at this time. The house in Hampstead was given up, the family returning to live as well as work in Great Russell Street, and I suspect that James Tregaskis, now seventy, was beginning to feel encroaching age. It appears to have been Hugh who continued the firm under the same name after his father’s death, although Eveline may have taken a greater or lesser part in this. The depression on the 1930s took a great toll on the rare book trade and the last Tregaskis catalogue I can trace appeared in 1937. The firm resigned from the ABA in that year and eventually folded in 1939. Hugh Tregaskis made a brief reappearance at another address in Great Russell Street after the war, but subsequently joined F. B. Daniell & Son in Cranbourne Street, the leading experts in English and French prints, eventually taking over the business, which ran until 1972. He continued buying and selling until his death in 1983 – sadly knocked down by a car while crossing the road and killed. He was the author of Beyond the Grand Tour : The Levant Lunatics (1979), as well as many articles, jokes and cartoons. Daughter Irmgarde Anna Tregaskis (1894-1958) married George Macmillan Young, an engineer, in 1915 and appears to have played no part in bookselling.
Which brings us back to the unsung Aldine Mary Lee Tregaskis (1893-1975), who, at the age of eighteen, formally described herself as a bibliographer on the 1911 census return. She remained in Great Russell Street until at least 1939, living with her step-mother. The Tregaskis firm was still listed in London telephone directories until that year and I rather imagine that it was she who remained its guiding spirit until the end – as perhaps she had been since she was a little girl on the stair. She was on the Great Russell Street electoral roll in her own right from 1930 and in all probability, certainly given the youth of her half-brother when he joined the firm, she may well have been responsible for a great deal of the Tregaskis cataloguing over a period of thirty years or more.
(This post revised December 2012, with many thanks to Petronella Griffith and James Tregaskis, grand-children of James Tregaskis, for additional information on the family history. Further revised August 2016).