Collecting Edith

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In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete.

Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.

Three uncomfortable years later I was anxious to see if anything had been missed in that initial operation. Tristan Garel-Jones, an MP friend of Alan Clark’s at that time, thought I had little chance of getting any books out of him. ‘The maverick Mr Clark’ didn’t need money and his wife hated things to leave Saltwood. However, a visit was arranged.

The castle is completely detached from its suburban neighbourhood and well defended. You arrive at the locked wooden gates of a barbican, locate an entry-intercom and contemplate the painted silhouettes of Rottweilers. Dogs howl when you press the buzzer.

Alan’s wife Jane apologized for his having had to go up to London. She took me across a lawn to the Great Hall, once an Archbishop’s Hall of Audience and which Kenneth Clark had turned into his library. There is a photograph of him here, his womenfolk in the background, examining a portfolio at the long refectory table; and here, at various junctures in his political career, Alan would kneel to speak to God. The room is a place of deep peace and ancient damp. The bookshelves run high up bare stone walls and are covered in netting to keep birds off.

I had had three years to learn about Edith Wharton and now found many books which bore the unmistakable marks of her ownership. I longed to

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In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete.

Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.

Three uncomfortable years later I was anxious to see if anything had been missed in that initial operation. Tristan Garel-Jones, an MP friend of Alan Clark’s at that time, thought I had little chance of getting any books out of him. ‘The maverick Mr Clark’ didn’t need money and his wife hated things to leave Saltwood. However, a visit was arranged.

The castle is completely detached from its suburban neighbourhood and well defended. You arrive at the locked wooden gates of a barbican, locate an entry-intercom and contemplate the painted silhouettes of Rottweilers. Dogs howl when you press the buzzer.

Alan’s wife Jane apologized for his having had to go up to London. She took me across a lawn to the Great Hall, once an Archbishop’s Hall of Audience and which Kenneth Clark had turned into his library. There is a photograph of him here, his womenfolk in the background, examining a portfolio at the long refectory table; and here, at various junctures in his political career, Alan would kneel to speak to God. The room is a place of deep peace and ancient damp. The bookshelves run high up bare stone walls and are covered in netting to keep birds off.

I had had three years to learn about Edith Wharton and now found many books which bore the unmistakable marks of her ownership. I longed to add them to the library, but how?

At this point Alan’s sister Colette decided to sell the bungalow that Kenneth Clark had built for his retirement and which she had inherited. It contained the cream of her father’s books. Her brother had tried to persuade her not to sell them, but without success. Fortunately I was able to track some of them down to a shop in London. Kenneth Clark’s autobiography and other writings led me to books closely associated with his life, friendships and interests. There were various Bernard Berenson volumes, including one that the young Kenneth Clark had annotated extensively at Winchester, a fine collection of Aubrey Beardsley, Maurice Bowra’s books with inscriptions (dull but regular), an unpublished Betjeman poem in manuscript which fell out of one of Edith Wharton’s books, Alberti, Van Gogh’s Letters, and other art books with his index-notes on the endpapers. Armed with these, my prospects brightened. I offered them in part exchange for Edith Wharton’s books.

On my second visit Alan Clark took me to every location in the castle that might harbour Edith’s books, including an archive room up a narrow stone staircase. There were no books there but I noticed a landscape by Cézanne, a lithographic reproduction possibly, dusty and folded. Cleaned up, it might have graced the wall of a Fulham kitchen. However, my offer was instantly dismissed. Clark said it wouldn’t buy him a plate of shrimps at Wilton’s.

He asked me to find various books for him in the trade, Eric Gill’s Twenty-five Nudes and Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England among them. Of the books I coveted he had an inconvenient fondness for a copy of William Orpen’s An Onlooker in France, 1917–1919 from which he had once removed Edith Wharton’s bookplate. Loose in the book was a postcard with a colour illustration on silk of a town in flames, captioned ‘Bapaume, 1917’. On the back a Tommy had written that a rat had got into his tent and eaten his birthday cake. Clark loved everything about this copy, even the stains on the faded green cloth, and was reluctant to exchange it for a better one. I soon got a letter from him – ‘I fear I have terrible news. I am pining for the Orpen’ – in which he proposed ‘a little light subterfuge’ whereby we’d stick Wharton’s bookplate into another copy. Then he relented, but he clearly had strong feelings about the Great War: he had toured the battlefields of France and Flanders on his honeymoon and been outspoken about the generals in The Donkeys, while Edith Wharton had herself visited the Front and lived through the war in the rue de Varenne in Paris, and been decorated for her work on behalf of refugees.

A pattern developed whereby I would identify Edith Wharton books on one visit and negotiate for them on the next, often several months later. I was required to ‘replace the divots’ with suitable books, normally with the emphasis on appearance rather than content. In Clark’s study, for instance, he favoured the mellow tones of old calf, whereas in the Great Hall he’d diversify a uniform run of books with a splash of gilt. As we suited my imported volumes to the shelves, I remarked that it was like flower-arranging. To his credit he entirely agreed – no cant there.

My last visit to Saltwood in Alan Clark’s lifetime was in April 1999, only a month or two before he became ill. Up till then I had never been denied any Wharton book but I was still uncertain whether I would obtain them all, for I knew I was trying the Clarks’ patience. On a previous occasion Alan had said, ‘I find it admirable that you should devote your whole life to reconstructing Edith Wharton’s library; it is also a thundering nuisance.’ Now a sizeable heap of her books was at stake. He rubbed away at the lozenge-shaped panes of an oriel in the Great Hall while I arranged books. A film crew was expected (the windows were probably being cleaned for their benefit). It is a big room so we spoke up clearly. He enquired after my father, his fag-master at school – how old was he? Why wasn’t he in the Lords? – questions he often asks of himself in his diaries. What did my elder brother do? I said that he farmed – ‘you mean he runs the estate?’ – and hunted the hounds, expecting him to mind that. But no, he said he wasn’t anti-hunting . . .

Meanwhile I didn’t seem to have brought enough books. ‘Ah,’ said Clark, coming over to inspect my progress, ‘you’re running out of ammo.’ Then, climbing to a high shelf, I dislodged something with my foot and it crashed to the floor. ‘You foolish youth!’ he cried. We found a framed Christmas card and broken glass. ‘The Queen Mum! Jane will be furious. The deal’s off . . . a bad omen, anyway.’ However, as he put it, ‘we finally dealt’. After I had loaded the Wharton books into my Renault Five, we drove the fifty yards to the gateway. ‘You haven’t swindled me, have you?’ he asked, with his feet on the dashboard. I didn’t think there had been any swindling. We had had one thing in common, however, the feeling that certain books do belong in certain places. To that extent we were men of principle.

With the kind co-operation of a generation of Clarks (Alan, Colin, Colette) more than six hundred books were reunited with Edith Wharton’s library. Jane Clark has come across a few more during the past five years. When I turn up to collect them, Saltwood is still an enchanted oasis, but Alan Clark lies beneath a large stone on the lawn.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © George Ramsden 2006

In January 2006 Edith Wharton’s library returned to the shelves of one of her former homes, The Mount, near Lenox in Massachusetts, which she built and lived in from 1905 to 1913. The Mount and its gardens are open to the public annually from May to October. A version of this article first appeared in Matrix (No. 25, December 2005).


About the contributor

George Ramsden worked at Heywood Hill’s bookshop for three years, and then ran Stone Trough Books, first in Camberwell and then at 38 Fossgate in York, trading in secondhand books, editing, book-designing and publishing (see Slightly Foxed, No. 5).

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