Wednesday, May 30, 2018

357. The Book Collector John Morgan (1)

Last week I wrote about the book collector John Morgan from Aberdeen (356. Vale Press Keats Edition in a Deluxe Binding). Local articles about him, and a personal memoir kept in the Aberdeen Central Library provide more news on his collecting activities.

Local historians have written about John Morgan, who was active as a contractor and builder, and worked with outstanding architects to create most of Aberdeen's late nineteenth-century landmarks, well-known for their ample display of light grey granite. Notable are two articles by Deirdre Grant in the Leopard Magazine (in 1981 and 1982). These contain images of domestic and public buildings, and of John Morgan, his wife Matilda, and their daughters Elizabeth and Matilda.

Matilda Murray, Elizabeth, Matilda (daughter) and John Morgan (1896)
[copyright photo not ascertained]
His position as the region's largest contractor is marked by his membership of councils and boards of - among many others that are related to the world of building, finance and transport - the Art Gallery Committee, the Aberdeen University Press, and the Public Library Committee. He frequently donated books and archival materials to the city of Aberdeen.

His book collection counted in the thousands of volumes and must have taken up quite some bookcases, or even rooms. However, Deirdre Grant writes:

Wandering about the house one wonders where Morgan's vast library of books was kept as there is no evidence of a library.

His obituary, in the Aberdeen Daily Journal (4 July 1907) insists, however, that a library was part of the building:

Mr. Morgan was a man of highly cultured tastes, which found their chief expression in the house he built in Queen's Road some twenty years ago (on the site of old Rubislaw House, the family residence of the Skenes of Rubislaw) and in the library which was lodged there. 

There were so many books, some of local interest, and others of (inter)national interest, that before the 1908 Sotheby's auction of private press books, a first auction in December 1907 was organised in Aberdeen by John Milne (I haven't seen the catalogue of that auction yet). He advertised 1060 lots, and according to Deirdre Grant the auction contained:

a wide range of titles on history, art, poetry, sculpture, architecture, and a massive local collection, many of which would be difficult to find today.


There were also 94 lots of etchings, photos, drawings in ink, pen and chalk and photogravures. Alongside watercolours by John Ruskin, James Giles and Walter Crane, are pen and ink sketches by Pirie.

Bookplate for John Morgan (1894)
Morgan had several bookplates, one of which depicts his gothic house that was built in 1887. Another one with a close-up of the turret is dated 1894. He not only pasted these in his books by Ruskin, Carlyle and in copies of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, he also traded them with fellow bookplate collectors. In 1899, a new bookplate, designed by Charles Ricketts, was on display at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in London, and the Journal of the Ex Libris Society (October 1899) devoted a paragraph to it and published an image:

Mr. John Morgan, of Rubislaw House, Aberdeen, has kindly lent us the block of his new architectural book-plate, designed and executed by Mr. Charles Ricketts. The treatment is allegorical and mediaeval, and is in itself sufficiently explanatory. As Mr. Morgan is an architect and surveyor, the design is particularly appropriate, and the artist has well carried out the owner's ideas. We may add that previous book-plates of Mr. Morgan's have been architectural in their design, representing in artistic style the owner's residence. We have no doubt that Mr. Morgan will be pleased to send copies of this plate to any of our member's who may desire to possess it - of course for a fair exchange.

Charles Ricketts, bookplate for John Morgan (1899)
The drawing by Ricketts was transferred to the block by Bernard Sleigh, whose initials ' B.S. sc.' appear in the lower right corner. Ricketts's own initials can be seen on a role of paper on the scaffold (bottom left hand corner).

Morgan's memoirs - of which a typescript version is kept by the Aberdeen Central Library - contains no information about his contacts with Ricketts, or the other private press figures  such as William Morris. Instead, Morgan's focus is on the generation before them, and he may have collected the books of the Kelmscott and Vale Presses as artistic examples of the work of John Ruskin's followers. He was a great devotee of Ruskin and the American 'sage' (as he called him) Carlyle. 

The memoirs give inside stories of a book collector, who, for example misses buying the first Edinburgh edition of Burn's poems, 'which was in excellent order, uncut, and in the original binding, and contained many caustic criticisms of the poets sentiments, which were the direct antithesis of the Doctor's', and after he traced the buyer, a 'local dealer', he was shocked: 'horror of horrors the philistine had cleared out the doctor's notes and had cut down the book to the quick, and adorned it with an ugly vulgar modern binding' (Memoirs, p. 34).

The doctor, along with other book-lovers he met in his early career, set him on the bibliophile's trail, even though, as a young apprentice he couldn't afford a copy of Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, but in his memoirs he says:

I have now the finest collection of the works of the Master in Scotland, containing the privately printed "Poems by J.R. 1850", and almost every one of the rare privately printed pamphlets [...]'. 
(Memoirs, p. 151).

These issues - annotated or exclusive copies and completeness of the collection - were part of the book-game, as was:

I have been a Book-lover all my life, and one of my chief pleasures has been the collection, arrangement, and study of my books. This hobby has pleasures unknown to the uninitiated, the perusal of the dealers catalogues, is a constant source of amusement and instruction. The turning over of the varied contents of 2d, 4d and 6d boxes is an exciting occupation, as one never knowns what price may not turn up, although thanks to the spread of knowledge, in matters bibliographical, the chances of these finds are day by day less.
(Memoirs, p. 246).

A collector and his antiquarian book dealers perform financial and intellectual rituals:

A Collector soon gets known to those whose business it is to cater for him and it is simply wonderful how soon these jackals discover your peculiar tastes, and weaknesses. They not only send you their regular catalogues month by month, and year by year, but special reports of all that they imagine may be of interest to you, and sometimes they are comically wide of your mark.
(Memoirs, p. 246)

But it may have been a book dealer that led him astray, and turned him into one of the major collectors of private press books in the 1890s.

[My little series on Wilde's Poems will be continued soon.