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Will the Real Mr. Barrett Please Stand Up?

London in the eighties and the gay nineties, that was the place to be! The palatial hotels, the theatres, riding in Hyde Park, the glossy toppers of the “swells” and the rich finery of the ladies, it was all of a piece. And then the shops, the finest in all the world without a doubt – the furriers, the milliners, jewelers, and fashionable portrait ateliers for the ladies, and shirt makers, hatters gunsmiths and tobacconists for the gentlemen.

For both sexes there were the superb bookshops; Sotherans, Hatchards and at the top of the tree in service and elegance, Bumpus, the bookshop favored by the Royal Family, though the Prince of Wales, ‘Tumtum’ to his sporting and gambling friends, scarcely opened a book not concerned with pornography or race horses.

The educated people of the time however, had no alternative to books; television, radio etc., was in the future; there was the live theatre, the opera, ballet and for a raucous night out, the rowdy music halls or, if you cared to risk it, the luxurious brothels. At home there was the piano over which so many young ladies struggled, or a new expensive toy, the music box. Reading was far and away the most popular pastime even though the Prince and many swells and their ladies preferred cards, dice and fornication.

Without radio, people had to rely on the ‘latest editions’ of the papers for news and there were seven evening newspapers in London. So reading took up much of their abundant time in those lamp-lit or gas-lit rooms with their heavy upholstered furniture and prim antimacassars. What was there to read? Well, lots of fashion, sporting humorous, and art magazines and obviously the whole wonderful range of English Literature, though, as now, many people preferred the latest fashionable novels – the long forgotten works of Hall Caine, and the most popular author of the 80s Mrs. Humphrey Ward, also the newly popular and (then) very modern Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

People of wealth and taste used custom-made clothes, hats, guns, silverware, carriages and so on, so of course they wanted custom-bound books, then as now, a great luxury. The book bindings were produced in small binderies in London’s unfashionable East End, swarming with grubby kids, whose cockney language was almost unintelligible to the educated classes of the West End.

It was an area of danger too (1888 was the year of the horrific murders of Jack the Ripper.) But from those small unpretentious East End binderies came miracles of honest craftsmanship though designed and supervised by experts at the famous West End booksellers. It is a trade now almost priced out of existence, but in the 80s and 90s of the last century there were many clients who could afford to have their books bound to their own taste in choice leather – not only books as we know them today, but luxurious prayer books, game books, guest books, memorial books, gift books, wedding books and so on.

Some books were stamped with the coats of arms and coronets of the aristocrats but the more powerful aristocracy of money was already pushing its way up abetted by HRH the Prince of Wales, who kept a stud of race horses, an even more expensive ‘loose box’ of women and who had a suit or uniform for every imaginable occasion. He led the way in introducing lowborn plutocrats into Society; Sir Thomas Lipton the tea baron, the Beerage including Sir Edward Guinness & Lord Burton the wealthy brewers, the Press Barons such as Lord Northcliffe and the Jewish financiers such as the Rothschilds – formerly excluded by snobbery from Society but welcomed by the Prince in solving the many financial problems his extravagant lifestyle brought about, and giving him hot tips on the Stock Exchange.

The nouveaux riches wanted all the luxuries which were previously the prerogative of the titled nobility; country estates, fine London homes, beautiful libraries, fat cigars, lovely women and titled wives. Money was the key to all these treasures. Some of the nobility tried to keep their end up by marrying gorgeous American heiresses as did irascible Lord Randolph, father of Winston Churchill, who married the lovely Jennie Jerome but who probably died of syphilis contracted from one of his housemaids.

Just before the turn of the century a new and expensive fad emerged — Bookplates or exlibris as they were soon more commonly to be known. These little ownership labels for books had been in use almost since the beginning of printed books, but though many were fine examples of graphic art, the vast majority had been and were merely labels, more or less attractive in accordance with the fashion of the time and mostly very ordinary or often boring and ugly.

Early in the eighties a man named Sherborn changed the nature of these bookplates by producing carefully engraved, often good-looking exlibris plates for which there was a ready sale, even though they were clearly expensive– coats of arms for the men, charming, intricate monograms for the ladies, and many other varieties.

An intelligent observer of all the twists and turns of fashion in the book-selling business was a bright and good looking young man with a romantic and unusual background. Born in New Zealand to a comfortably-off family, he had the misfortune to lose his father at an early age but the amazingly good luck to obtain a place at the Masonic School in London (fortunately for him his father had been a Freemason and he was entitled to a splendid, free education with some art education at the South Kensington Art College thrown in.)

This fortunate young man had been well trained in all the book-selling skills in a small London bookshop and in 1891 at the age of thirty was ready to take over the important book-binding department of London’s top bookshop, Bumpus of Oxford Street. He was clearly a go-getter; first, he was popular with the ladies and quickly became a great asset to the shop. Many of the wealthy customers of the shop became his patrons.

Now a patron is different from a customer or client in that he or she buys or commissions some item partly with the view to obliging the seller. Barrett in his large and comfortable department on thesecond floor of the shop had the time and skill to charm his rich lady clients and to design the bindings of their books precisely to their requirements. His designs were certainly not entirely in the ancient tradition of the binder’s craft. He was more of a surface decorator, but entirely earnest in interpreting the wishes of his customers. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and soon important customers came to the shop especially to see Mr. Barrett. When the world’s first bookplate society began in the year of Barrett’s arrival at Bumpus, he took little notice of it as he probably regarded it as an antiquarian and amateur hobby, not something which was likely to be profitable; but as he saw the bookplate fad become more and more popular in the 1890s, he owed it to himself and his firm to take a serious interest in it himself. His approach was new and different. He designed exlibris to meet the exact wishes of his patrons as he had with his book-bindings.

Time went on and Barrett became the intimate of many influential people. He visited stately homes as a guest though probably also as an adviser on bookplates too. But with success came also some jealousy. A few collectors pointed out that his bookplates were not entirely his own work. In fact they were far from it; like Diaghilev his brilliant contemporary, he used a network of skilled support staff. Attempts have since been made to unscramble the omelet and to ascribe each of Barrett’s plates to an individual engraver – an interesting task, but largely irrelevant as it attempts to equate the archaic but well established methods of work of the period with modern methods. A careful examination of the contemporary documents clearly indicates that Barrett was the spring in the watch. For example, in a letter to her brother, who was at that time the managing director of the company, his eldest sister says “I know Barrett could not be replaced.” She even suggests offering him a partnership in the firm. Thus, as with the Shakespeare and Bacon controversy, careful research is needed, especially a thorough examination of the relevant documents in the Bumpus archives – these are infinitely more useful than the best conjectures at a later period of inquiry.

The Barrett plates are excellent of their kind, perhaps the best of their kind, and in my book “The Barrett Saga” I try to return to the fascinating late Victorian and Edwardian times especially from about 1880 up to the 1914 War. A time of Punch jokes, the gorgeous dresses of Tosspot’s paintings, the flunkeyism the snobbery, the jingoism, the patient craftsmanship, the misery of the slums and the stuffiness of those overstuffed gas-lit drawing rooms. The rich people of the time British and American are reanimated in their tastes, backgrounds and characters through the candid undistorting mirror of their W.P.B. bookplates, offering us a fascinating ‘retro’ mirror – perhaps also helping Barrett to stand up again to let us evaluate his work and see him in the round.

The basic text of “The Barrett Saga” with b&w illustrations is available from Bookplate International published by the Primrose Academy Ltd., Stratton Audley Park, Bicester, Oxon, OX27 9AB England. (£15 + postage). e-mail

The deluxe edition with lots of beautiful illustrations in full color, full notes, bibliography and other interesting material on the period and with a lovely colored book jacket designed by my darling wife who also helped materially with the research and who, to my infinite sorrow, has passed on, is available from The Egerton Press, 3 Egerton Place, Whitchurch, Shropshire SY13 1NU England. (£50 + postage) Tel: 44-1948-667928.E-mail:

Some opinions:
From Prof. W.E. Butler, Editor of Bookplate International, Academician and internationally known bookplate expert and collector. “I would like you to know, again if I repeat myself, that we continue to receive compliments on the “Barrett Saga” from readers. While this does happen from time to time, the readership, as you know, is usually mute. But in this case people have gone out of their way to compliment you (and us) to an unusual extent. You have every right to be very proud indeed at one of the very best articles produced on an English bookplate artist.”

From Mr. James Wilson, President of the Bookplate Society (of Great Britain) Your WPB is fascinating and completely changes one’s opinion of him. I shall read and re-read it with great appreciation.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan