In praise of book collecting


The Inaugural Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize was awarded to Hazel Wilkinson (in absentia) at the twenty fourth Antiquarian Book Fair in Chelsea Old Town Hall, last month.

The fair was organised by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) with Graham York as Chairman of the fair committee for this year and Marian Harwood as the fair manager.

The ABA was founded in 1906 and it the oldest organisation of its kind in the world. It is the UK’s senior trade body for dealers in rare books, manuscripts and maps and it protects high standards in trading.

This year’s fair was a resounding success with over eighty exhibitors from the UK, Europe and Canada, who delighted the crowds with their splendid array of treasures. There was an aura of excitement as visitors could handle (and hopefully buy!) a 17th century sun-dialling manuscript, a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, Robert’s Holy Land, and meet old friends such as Peter Rabbit, the Famous Five, Just William and Biggles.

I have always loved to own books signed by the author and, this year, Arthur Freeman was signing his Bibliotheca Fictiva, a Collection of Books and Manuscripts Relating to Literary Forgery. 400 BC to 2000 AD. I was tempted, but…!

As evening fell and the crowds went home, the books were left resting on the shelves in quiet repose. We adjourned for the Anthony Davis prize giving ceremony.

The president of ABA, Brian Lake, addressed us, and Anthony Davis was present too. Tony Heath received a medal celebrating his fifty years as a bookseller. The Inaugural Prize was awarded to Hazel Wilkinson, who, sadly, was not present due to illness. Kayleigh Betterton received the Runners Up Prize. The Inaugural Prize is funded by Anthony Davis, an Alumnus of Birkbeck College, to encourage students to create book collections. The Senate House Library, the Institute of English Studies and the School of Advanced Studies support it together with the ABA.

The judges, Anthony Davis, Professor Simon Eliot, Christine Wise and Justin Croft, all of London University, expressed their delight with the many excellent submissions and praised the short listed candidates.

The winner, Hazel Wilkinson, a Ph.D. student in English Literature at University College, London, submitted The Everyday Canon from Tonson to Penguin This winning collection comprises of editions of works by major English poets from Spenser to Tennyson published between 1758 and 1957, put together to tell a social history of the reading of these canonical authors.

Hazel’s dedication and enthusiasm for her subject are apparent. She said she had always loved books, but the competition gave her the idea she could become a collector. Hazel told me she graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, and proceeded to post-graduate work at University College London. She now plans postdoctoral study at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and retain her connections with Tonsons, the 18th century specialist booksellers. This happy young academic certainly deserved the prize. She said how much she appreciated it and thanked all who made it possible.

Kayleigh Betterton, the runner up, is an M.A. student at Birkbeck and she presented a collection of Oscar Wilde material in the competition. The judges were impressed that she used her collection for teaching. Kayleigh is an A level teacher at Christ the King, Aquinas College in Lewisham. “As the prize is aimed at young people,” she said, “it is helping to preserve book collecting as a pastime and secure its longevity for the future”.

Kayleigh hopes to put the prize money towards buying a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Her students are studying that play next year.

It was a pleasure to talk to Hazel and Kayleigh. I wish them well and I am looking forward to ABA Fair next year and meeting the new prizewinners of the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize.


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