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A Window Opened

One of London’s most unforgettable sights is the famous Portobello Road antiques market, which takes place only on Saturdays from early morning to late afternoon. The busiest part of this straggling market lies between the Notting Hill Gate and Ladbroke Grove tube stations. An architecturally undistinguished and rather depressing street of shuttered shops with only a few pubs and food shops open during the week, seems sleepy and neglected, but on Saturdays the whole area erupts in a frenzy of activity. Dealers in the hundreds arrive before breakfast time putting up and setting out stalls on every possible site, and opening up the shuttered shops to disclose dozens of tiny sales booths inside. Some hopefuls even defy the regulations by parking their cars and selling from them in streets leading to the Market!

The earliest part of the day is devoted to private deals between the traders, as some are specialists, dealing only in antique drinking glasses, jewellery, cameos books, etc. and by in-trading they try to rationalize their stock A number of them can live well on the contents of a single suitcase — spending the week at auctions or scouring the country on buying tours, to sell a few dozen items at a handsome profit on Saturdays.

Small currency exchange shops are a common sight, doing brisk business as all dealings are in cash, and there are notices to warn non street-wise visitors, of the possible attentions of pickpockets. By the peak hour of 11 a.m. the whole length of the road is densely crowded; buskers’ statue people and clowns earn a little by entertaining the crowds, so that — especially on a sunny day — the atmosphere of the street is gay and frivolous. Police circulate to check on fraudsters trying the three card trick or small-time crooks trying to sell solid gold watches made of brass. Bars, pubs and small cafes throb with overflowing customers, and dealers trade on for an extra hour or so.

But on a cold wet Saturday in February, the market is ‘much thinner’ as they say, opening a little later, and with dispirited dealers closing their stalls early. It was on such a day that I ‘took in’ the market as I walked down from Notting Hill to my home nearby in tree-lined Elgin Crescent. I stopped for a moment or so to survey a bookstall I knew, and the stallholder immediately took the occasion to vent his understandable feelings about the day in that raw Cockney accent which, to many visitors, seems almost like a foreign tongue.

“Wot a bloody orrible day innit? Ardly sold a fing!”

On one shelf, in place of books, was an untidy box about three times the size of a shoe-box, and filled with small sheets of paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Bookplates. You interested?”

I wasn’t, of course. I knew how bookplates were used, but had never thought of them as collectors’ items. But the man told me that somewhere in the box were the bookplates of Charles Dickens and other famous writers. I felt a faint frisson of interest and said the fateful words, “How much?”

The price was a real ‘wet day, must sell‘, figure, so after a minute or two of even sharper bargaining, I owned the box, which was put into a large plastic ‘bin bag’ for me to carry home through the still drizzling rain.

For at least a year, I was so absorbed in my truly fascinating work with the London education service, that the box remained untouched on top of a cupboard, but one day I took it down to put the contents into a cleaner box. My interests were immediately stirred; the promised plates were there indeed, but with them the bookplates of many others whose names I knew well: prime ministers, actors, writers and big-shots of industry and commerce. They were worth keeping anyway, and I soon spent a spare evening in sorting them out. I remember, for example, the plate of Lord Onslow with his family motto ‘Festina Lente‘ — (hurry slowly), and those of both parents of Winston Churchill — entirely unlike in style — his difficult, irascible father, and his beautiful but wayward American mother, who could spare so little time for her then so unpromising son. Clearly, someone had assembled an interesting and worthwhile collection of bookplates. Was it valuable? I didn’t know, nor did I know what to do with it.

I kept it in mind however, though it was only when I moved to Japan and set up a beautiful house overlooking the Kanmon Strait, that I could find the time, resources, space and adequate help to build a proper collection. I decided on a collecting format using 8vo and 4to box files which could be shelved like books, and double-depth bookcases of clever Japanese construction — the most capacious and generally useful I have ever encountered.


Time, I found, was not as abundant as I had expected because my clients — (mostly people connected with medicine and science) were no sluggards, and my teaching or advising day often started at 7 a.m. but with the support of a modern fully automated office and some excellent and generously devoted staff in office and library — even some enthusiastic volunteers who were happy to do all kinds of jobs about the place in exchange for being in an English atmosphere and improving their conversational powers in English, a large working collection of books about bookplates, and a large collection of world-wide ex libris, all carefully indexed, was gradually established. It was the opening of a new cultural window. Rather like an unfair parent, I favoured classic ex libris; modern ex libris were a secondary interest, but gradually my collection of modern ex libris grew especially as I discovered the brilliant work being done by Japanese artists at that time.
It would take too long here to comment on the collection I made, but perhaps on another occasion I will attempt it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Portobello Road marketplace has a fascinating history. Portobello Road is a street in the Notting Hill district of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in west London, England. As the story goes, in 1731 Captain Robert Jenkins held up his severed ear before the Parliament in London. The Spanish coast guards boarded his British merchant ship in the Caribbean, sliced off his ear, ransacked and robbed his boat. This incident combined with a number of similar atrocities sparked the maritime War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739–1742).

In retaliation for this outrageous act, Admiral Edward Vernon seized the Caribbean city of Puerto Bello during November of 1739. This was the Spanish ruled town that is now known as Portobello in modern-day Panama. Truly a popular victory for the British that inspired the name given to Portobello Road. In 1740 the road started as a winding country path running through the open farmland consisting of hayfields and orchards leading from the Kensington Gravel Pits (Notting Hill Gate) up to Kensal Green. The patriotic farmer who owned this land called it the Portobello Farm.

Farmers markets sprang up along this winding road during the 19th century and from the 1920s on stalls were set up daily. Today the Portobello  has become one of London’s most cosmopolitan and energetic destinations. Mid- to late-Victorian terrace houses and shops predominate, squeezed tightly into the available space, adding intimacy to the streetscape. Unique shopping experiences where everything is on sale including produce, meats, fish, food, furniture, crafts, antiques, clothing, books, and bookplates!

It is the setting for Ruth Rendell’s mystery novel, Portobello (Hutchinson, 2008; Scribner 2010).

George Orwell lived in Portobello Road during the winter of 1927 after resigning as Assistant Superintendent of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan