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A WORD FROM CLIFF IN ENGLAND: The Edward Newton Ex Libris for his Dr. Samuel Johnson Collection

An American writer whose books are becoming very popular in modern China is A. Edward Newton. He started an Electric Supplies company at the time when electricity lighting and power was just beginning to be very important in America and he quickly became a millionaire. Having reached this milestone in his life, he trained honest capable directors to take charge of his business empire and started the real interest of his life which made him famous throughout the world — books.

Edward Newton always loved books and at last he was in a position to buy them. These were not new books, but antique books by great writers. Like those of Charles Dickens for example, whose Christmas Carol in the pretty hand-coloured volume in the first edition as originally issued, was already very rare, and those of Lewis Carol whose Alice in Wonderland (as first published) was already a treasure.

Soon parcels of books were coming across the Atlantic in the slow coal-fired ships of the time, to Newton’s large and beautiful “Oak Knoll” library. But he soon found that he could find more interesting books by personally travelling to England. So he and his much-loved wife started to travel — first to the UK where they stayed in the best hotels and found many wonderful books in old bookshops and book auctions. In London they shopped at the book heaven of Bumpus in Oxford Street which was one of the best known bookshops in the world — of course, with a grand “Rare Book” department.

As he travelled, Newton met scholars, librarians and other “book-knowledge” people and became so interested, that he began to write about his books and his book hunting adventures. His style was not academic but friendly and approachable, so much to his surprise, his books sold well.

Like many other important scholars, he had personal “ex libris” prints (bookplates) made for his wonderful books. These paper labels stuck inside the front covers of books, are greatly valued in tracing the history of valuable books as they pass in the course of time from one book lover to another. “Look! This book comes from the library of Charles Dickens” or “See this! It was Winston Churchill’s book!”

He travelled more — on the Continent and further afield, but it was in London that he discovered his most exciting “finds” as he tracked down books and other personal effects that had once belonged to that famous Londoner, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer.

Those were days before Hitler’s bombing of London when houses, shops, taverns and other places known to Dr. Johnson could still be seen (some indeed, in and near Fleet Street are still standing to the present day, such as the ‘Cheshire Cheese Tavern’ and the house in which Johnson wrote his famous dictionary).

Newton had purchased at a considerable price Dr. Johnson’s very large teapot that he kept on view in his library. Tea had been quite a new drink in England at Johnson’s time, and was becoming very popular; though the long trip from China by sailing ship made it very expensive. Johnson drank tea from morning to night — at night especially when he wanted to stay awake to read or to write one of his many newspaper or magazine articles.

Johnson had a young friend named James Boswell, and he wrote the Life of Johnson which is one of the finest and most readable biographies in the language, so, of course, Boswell’s writings — letters to or from the great man, were treasures to be stored up in Newton’s Library.

In 1909 Newton wanted to commission a grand new bookplate, especially for his Johnson Collection, so he wrote to the Bumpus bookshop in London. Mr. Barrett, the head of the bookplate department quickly had a design made and posted back to him, but without Newton by his side, the design could stand no chance of being acceptable, and so Newton turned to his friends at home.

A professor from a famous college, Dr. C. Osgood of Princeton, was studying at the Oak Knoll Library at that time. Osgood quickly made a careful design showing the Temple Bar in Fleet Street with Dr. Johnson and Boswell conversing nearby; this pleased Newton very much, and after a few improvements, he sent it to Sidney L. Smith, the finest engraver in America in 1909. When it was returned, Mr. Newton was so pleased that he published a little booklet detailing all the stages in the development of his favourite bookplate.

A. Edward Newton became a world expert on Johnson. In America, he was often asked to give lectures at universities and at public gatherings where his friendly, jovial and homely style was so much appreciated that his lectures, unlike those of many professors were long remembered. He was awarded many doctorates and other honours. Like Shakespeare he had not been a University man, but his scholarship, style of lecturing, all combined with his work in building up his brilliant library, marked him out as one of the most popular and erudite bookmen of his time.


Article originally published in the Ex Libris Chronicle Volume 12 No. 2 & 3