Talking books at the Stonemasons’ Arms

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London is full of charming, specialist second hand book shops offering booklovers and collectors alike a labyrinthine plethora of gorgeously crafted and quirky finds.  Last night it was my pleasure to meet the owner of one such book shop, Helen Edwards, the force behind of Lloyds of Kew.

Lloyds of Kew has been an established part of the London book trade for over 40 years.  Situated only yards from the iconic Kew Gardens,  it was founded in 1973 by the well known and botany and horticulture specialist, Daniel Lloyd (although there had been bookshops under different names offering a range of horticulture and gardening books on the same site for some years previously, operated originally by John Chancellor and then Mary Bland).  Helen has maintained the shops specialities – a logical choice given its location – and now offers a range of botany, horticulture, botanical illustration and art and photography books (as well as good select in travel writing, poetry and literature).

We met in the Stonemasons’ Arms in Hammersmith (great gin, good service, not so good on the vegan food offering – chips was about as good as it got), together with the rather wonderful bookseller, Lucy FishWife and magician extraordinaire, Mr O, who had brought us all together. Ostensibly the purpose of the gathering was to explore whether we could bring Lloyds of London and BookAddiction closer together and collaborate to improve the offering we both make to our wonderful clients and customers.  But we also had a lot of fun swapping stories of book finds and strange book trade encounters and enthusing about the wonders of books illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and crackingly fine book designers such as Talwin Morris and Ethel Larcombe.

Our book business talk was good too.  Lloyds of Kew do not at present offer any of its books online, something which BookAddiction excels at; and in turn Lloyds of Kew may be able to help Wimbledon Rare and Collectible Books extend the range and quality of gloriously beautiful books offered to our clients all over the world.  A heady mix, then, of gin and business and beautiful books, making for a fine evening out.

Lloyds of Kew, at 9 Mortlake Terrace, Kew, London, is open 10.00am to 5.00pm, Tuesday to Saturday and makes the perfection addition to any visit to Kew and Kew Gardens.  BookAddiction is open 24/7 to clients from all over the world.  You can browse our books at anytime.

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Parting Shot by Linwood Barclay

It’s hard to know what to say about Linwood Barclay’s Parting Shot.  I loved every moment of reading it, struggled to put it down even to eat or sleep and found myself picking my wits against the author in trying to anticipate how the denouement would play out and who, from the tightly drawn cast of characters, would turn out to be the real bad-asses and who were simply rather unpleasant people.

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The beauty of Linwood Barclay – and I have read and enjoyed most of his books – is that he does exactly what he promises.  He takes his readers on a cleverly scripted and compulsive journey, full of intrigue, dead ends and shocking cliff-hangers towards a sometimes gory but satisfying ending.   Each book, including Parting Shot, is an engrossing page-turner which swivels and swerves down numerous, overlapping, lines and there’s never a loose thread left at the end.  But this is also the weakness: there is no more than that.  Having been highly entertained, when you put the book down at the end, the lasting memory is having had fun along the way, but on the way to what, I’m not sure.  If you’ve loved his previous books, I’m fairly sure that you will love this one too.  It is great, action-packed, fast-moving crime and detection, at times reminding you how cruel and callous man can be to man, and at others offering the salvation of decency and soft affection.  Just what is needed for relaxing evenings or long train journeys.  But the sensation is a little like eating fantastic chocolate after an already satisfying meal: all the fun is in the moment.

PS.  This is the fourth book which Barclay has set in the town of Promise Falls,  New York, a place that seems blessed with the quality of its police officers and public officials but deeply unfortunate in its history and inhabitants.  I am relieved it is fictitious.

The Winchester Bible (Book of the Week)

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This week’s Book of the Week is the stunning and historic Winchester Bible, for the simple reason that a couple of weeks back we motored down to Winchester to visit the Cathedral, to pay homage at Jane Austen’s burial place and, of course, to encounter the Winchester Bible.

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Historiated Initial from the Winchester Bible

The Winchester Bible

The Winchester Bible is a Romanesque illuminated manuscript with handwritten scripts, stunning illuminations and elaborately, intriguingly decorated initials produced between 1160 and 1175.  It has been described as ‘undoubtedly the finest Bible of its time’.  That it is still in the place of worship for which is was commissioned some 850 years ago makes it unique among medieval Bibles.

Henry De Blois and the Winchester Bible

The Winchester Bible, in all likelihood was commissioned by the wealthy aristocrat and brother of King Stephen, Henry De Blois.  De Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester from 1129 until his death in 1171 was a powerful politician, a clergyman  aspirations to become Archbishop of Canterbury and a renown bibliophile.  He wrote and sponsored several books, including William Malmesbury’s On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church and the Winchester Psalter which is now preserved in the British Library.

Henry de Blois supported the losing side in the conflict between his brother, King Stephen and the empress Matilda and was forced into exile in 1153. He was pardoned by Stephen’s successor, Henry II and returned to England, retaining his positions at both Glastonbury and Winchester.  Upon his return, he set about attempting to restore the Winchester see to its former prestige.  Commissioning his ‘Great Bible’ was part of that effort.  It was intended to engender awe and wonder and to outstrip the glorious manuscripts he had seen in other religious houses and on his travels during his exile. Its dimensions were the largest that contemporary parchment production would allow, producing leaves some three feet tall and allowing a rich rendition of the holy Scriptures and plenty of space for magnificent illuminations and dazzlingly beautiful, decorated initials.   The sheer scale of Henry’s ambition is remarkable: that work on the Bible stopped around the time he died shows how utterly dependent its production was on his drive and his money.  The guide book says “it represents a lavish investment by a major benefactor and reflects the significance of the Scriptures for monastic life.  Enormous care went into the accuracy of the beautifully rendered calligraphy of the text and the delicate perfection of the illustrations.  It encapsulates the beauty of holiness”.(1)  A Bible on this scale would have cost much the same as building a small castle.  It is the largest surviving medieval English Bible.

The Winchester Bible and the Word of God

In the 12th century many Christians believed that the Bible scriptures were not only holy texts but also a literal description of the world around them which prescribed the way in which they were to live within the rule and love of God. The 70 odd monks at what was then Winchester’s Priory of St Swithun would have listened to the Bible being read out during their prayers and also in the refectory at meal times, so that they could better imbibe the word of God during their leisure.  For all its elaborate magnificence, Henry’s Great Bible may have been commissioned with this humble purpose in mind.

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One of four volumes of the Winchester Bible

Making the Winchester Bible

It is made up of  468 leaves of calf-skin parchment, each fold of the book requiring an entire skin.  It is estimated that it took the skin of 250 calves to produce.  The first mention of the Winchester Bible in records from 1622 describe as being in two volumes but it has been rebound at least twice since then: once in 1840 when it was set into three volumes, and more recently in 1948 when it was set into four individual volumes each bound in gold-tooled cream leather.(2)

Unusually for a Bible of this time, it appears that the calligraphy of the text, which includes both the Old and New Testaments, is the work of a single scribe (barring a few small additions and corrections).  It has been estimated that it would take one scribe some four years to complete this.  Experts suspect that it is the work of a young hand and there is evidence of mistakes and corrections throughout.

In contrast the illuminations and decorations seem to be the work of at least six different artists who used inks and colouring from as far afield as Afghanistan to achieve their rich, vibrant illustrations.  While the text of the scripture is complete, much of the decorative work was never finished and the illuminations appear at varying points of completion.  Some are just rough outlines and there are also some unpainted gilded images and figures complete in all but the granular detail.  Forty-eight of the historiated initials (overlarge illustrated letters at the beginning of a piece of text which depict an identifiable figure or scene) that introduce each book are complete.

Thieves and Collectors

Over the years, the Winchester Bible, like many other medieval illuminated manuscripts, has suffered at the hands of thieves and collectors.  Some nine historiated initials and at least one full-page illustration have been removed entirely.   Just one of these, the initial of Obadiah, has been recovered and re-inserted.

The Morgan Leaf of the Winchester Bible

 

One missing leaf, showing scenes from the lives of Samuel on the recto and of King David on the verso, is now in the Morgan Library in New York and known as the Morgan Leaf.  It is possible that the leaf was removed from the Bible when it was rebound in the early 19th century.  Sydney Cockerell,  at one time secretary to the famous English designer and lover of medieval arts William Morris, records that a dealer from Florence, Leo Olschki, once offered the leaf to Morris for £100.  Morris couldn’t afford it.  The leaf was subsequently offered to John Pierpoint Morgan (1837-1913) a financier and book collector, who paid 30,000 francs for it in 1912.  After his death his collection became the core of the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  Ironically, even if Morris had purchased the leaf, it is likely that it would still have ended up in the Morgan Library: in 1902 Morgan purchased the collection of Richard Bennett, who had himself purchased William Morris’s collection in 1897.

At the time that Morgan purchased the leaf, it’s origin was unclear.  The invoice from Olschki made no claim as it where the leaf came from and an early Morgan accession books describes it as probably Italian, from the 12th century.  In 1926, the then Keeper of the British Museum, Eric Millar, made a connection between the leaf and two of the Winchester Bible’s leading artists, but did not suggest it had come from the Bible.  Modern scholarship however has established beyond reasonable doubt that it once formed part of Henry De Blois’s Great Bible.  Although full page miniatures were not originally intended to be included, drawings for four of them were made.  Only two were completed – those on the Morgan Leaf.

 

Visiting the Winchester Bible at Winchester Cathedral

The Winchester Bible is still in the care of the Cathedral for which it was commissioned.  The Cathedral is currently undergoing a major reconstruction project which has necessitated the closure of the south transept and the Morley Library, the home of the Winchester Bible.  There is a temporary exhibition featuring one volume of the Bible in the north transept.  It is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00 am to 4.00 pm.

References

1.  Reims, Roland (2014), The Winchester Bible: The First 850 Years, Pitkin Publishing, 2014, p 1.

2. Donovan, Claire (1993), The Winchester Bible, University of Toronto Press, p. 3

A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson (Wimbledon Village Reading Group)

For its July 2016 meet, Wimbledon Village Book Group chose to read Edward Wilson’s A Very British Ending.   WVRG 16 07 Very British Ending Edward Wilson

The book, which most members thoroughly enjoyed even if they did find the premise quite chilling and disturbing, resulted in a fabulous discussion & exchange of views on topics as diverse as spying, the cold war, Brexit, the Gun Powder Plot and family life. Wilson’s style was thought to be quite cold and remote, distancing the reader from events, adding to the sense of exclusion and powerlessness of the ordinary individual and thus fully fitting for the narrative.

Votes up as a great read, with a good balance between pace and intrigue and a great book club choice as it’s very thought-provoking and rewards a bit of research and reflection.

Wimbledon Village Reading Group is a book club that’s been meeting on the last Thursday of each month since 2012.  If you’re interested in joining in, check us out and join here.

To get a flavour of the sort of books we read, check out our Pinterest Board of book covers

 

Wimbledon Village: A history told through its street names

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Regular blog followers will know that, as well as being unhealthily obsessive about book history and literary curiosities, I also have a more than passing interest in Wimbledon’s local history.  So imagine my delight when, last weekend, I discovered something which brought both these things together!  A new book about the history of Wimbledon Village, spotted whilst on duty at the Museum of Wimbledon.

Cover Ransome Wimbledon Village Street NamesNeal Ransome’s Wimbledon Village: A history told through its street names is exactly what the title says it is. It explains how and why some 140 streets in the village acquired their names, and charmingly admits that in just a few cases, the origins of a street name remain elusive.  It is a admirably thorough and has enough fascinating detail and colourful stories to draw in even those with only a passing interest.  Who can resist the speculation that the famous Crooked  Billet inn, on a street of the same name, was once owned by Thomas Cromwell’s father, or the romanticism that its name harks back to the days when shepherds tended their flocks on the nearby Wimbledon Common with the aid of their crooked billets, or staffs?  Or the amusing anecdote that Kinsella Gardens is an erroneous name – it was intended to be Kinellan Gardens, in recognition of the fact that the road lies upon what were once in the grounds of Kinellan House, the former home of the 1887 Wimbledon champion, Herbert Fortescue Lawford.  Lawford, Ransome tells us, had Scottish connections and may well have named his London home after the picturesque Loch Kinellan in the Highlands.  But when the road was laid in the late 1990s, the developer got the spelling wrong and Kinsella replaced Kinellan. The origin of Wilberforce Way is obvious to anyone who knows that it spreads over the grounds of the former Lauriston House, once the retreat of the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce.  The real joy of this book, though, is that it goes so much further, weaving the stories of local people and local events into a narrative web which tells the story of Wimbledon from a perspective that has a tangible link to today.

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Leopold Road Street Sign.  Ransome identifies Leopold Road as one of the three streets in Wimbledon Village to be named after royalty. One of my own photos, 2009!

Fellow literary lovers may find it particularly appealing that at least two streets in the Village are named after once popular novels.  Windy Ridge Close recalls Willie Riley’s 1912 story, Windy-Ridge, which tells of a young lady who escapes London for the Yorkshire Dales.  Cranford Close, which came into being in the 1960s, was so named because it ranges over ground once occupied by Cranford House, itself named for Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1851 classic novel Cranford.  And here’s an example of where Ransome goes further: he tells us of two links between the novel Cranford and Wimbledon, which may have been in the mind of whoever named Cranford House.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughter, Marianne, lived in Wimbledon after her marriage to her second cousin, Edward Thurston Holland.  But even more intriguing is the direct link with the novel.  Hugh Thomson, one of the foremost book illustrators of his time (who designed and illustrated the famous ‘peacock’ edition of Pride and Prejudice) provided the drawings for one of the most enduringly popular editions of Cranford. These portrayed the fictional village of Cranford, which is identified with Knutsford in Cheshire, and attracted much praise.  This amused Thomson greatly, and Ransome relates his retort: “as a matter of fact I had never seen it, having really done my country sketches from the studies I made on Wimbledon Common”.

The directory-style entries of street-names are preceded by a general overview of the history of the Village, from its earliest hill fort settlement which, despite being called Caesar’s Camp, appears to have no connection whatsoever with any Caesar, through medieval times and 18th century Wimbledon’s gentrification, the era of grand houses, its transformation from village to railway suburb of the metropolis and on into the 20th century.  An  illuminating and engagingly-written book which quietly showcases the author’s deep knowledge of the locality and solid research.


Neal Ransome’s book, Wimbledon Village: A History Told Through its Street Names, can be purchased from The Museum of Wimbledon (where you can order on line) and, I guess, any good bookshop, using the ISBN 9780957615199.  It was published by the Wimbledon Society Museum Press in June 2016.