David Watkin’s Book Collection and Library

Elephants on the Half Landing, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

Johnson’s Dictionary

For a man who earned his living through images, David Watkin was astonishingly confident with the written word, reading and writing and declaiming. At various stages of our friendship I remember his completing Thomas Mallory, Proust and The Faerie Queen. He took particular delight in Shakespeare’s plays and mined deeply within the two volume edition of Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) , a first edition of which stood on the half landing besides other monstrously large tomes  such as The Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition 1911), Camden’s Britannia, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen, Gerarde’s Herbal, The Holy Bible and the works of Archbishop Temple, and Virgil.

The books are dispersed now. Their reader is dead. The spaces within the house have different uses. It is time to reflect on what this Library was, and what it meant to the rest of us.

The Main Body of the Library stretched along the long wall of the Lounge and the wall by the door to the Sauna. Shallower shelves housed his triple- deckers and miscellaneous fiction, The lower, deeper shelves held the elephantine art books and posh bindings. His selection of art books was generally disappointing. You could find coffee table books and elderly Phaidon monographs with poor reproductions. Fine Art as a subject did not interest him, he once told me. He needed to books to make a visual point with a show and tell, that’s all.

The Library at the Mews, over the SteinwayOther books were shelved in stray corners of the Lounge, 1. general reference books along a barred window (rendering the interior even more gloomy and dependent on the wall lights),2. a small selection of books on a side table with vaguely distinguished bindings,3. a shelf of dull brown Trollopes from the Folio Society near the front door,4. Current reading piled on the side tables with occasional presents from friends. When Jozef was working at Sandpiper, the best academic remainders on music and politics lay amongst them.

The books along the wall before you reach the Sauna door were modern firsts and editions of plays, many with associational letters, doodles and his own photocopied MS.1. the Scribners’ edition of James’ Novels and Tales.2. Arnold Bennett and Hilaire Belloc (Chesterton was upstairs)3. the Constable Complete Melville, damaged after David’s death by a rain water cascade.4. De La Mare and both Lawrences, T.E.and D.H.,5. a large selection of the works of John Cowper Powys,6. and Bertrand Russell by the yard and Viginia Woolf by the foot in original wrappers.

Through the door to the Store Room, Sauna and Log Pile, there was a shelf above head height with Agatha Christie, Rex Beech and other crime writers. The Store Room to the left through this door was where the Poetry sat in exile, presided over by a first edition of Paradise Lost. At a convenient height  were his general books on Literature and a gloomy wall of political history and literature where Barbara Castle and Tony Benn (his living hero) jostled with Dick Crossman and the black jackets of the Watkin Hitler collection. In an alcove in this room was a collection of largely unthumbed film books (Tony Richardson, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tati)  and boxes of scripts sent him over the years and the lists of crews he had worked with.

Straight ahead from the Lounge is the old sauna, once no doubt the scene of much hanky-panky, frequently hinted at by a reflective Mr.Watkin. David took it as a poignant comment on his libido when he confessed that this Palace of Fun had been converted into a repository of his filmic material, in VCR and DVD formats. For someone who seemed not to have watched his own films let alone everybody else’s, the comprehensiveness of the collection was surprising. He started buying DVDs I suspect when he heard that the Extras might provide a range of reflections on his work by the director or (more fraught this) by the production designer. Arriving for lunch one day I was played a conversation between Mike Nichol and Steven Soderbergh on the visual distinctions of Catch-22. The other function of the films was to reconstruct the cinema watching of his childhood, with a complete collection of the Charlie Chan, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and The Thin Man films.

David Watkin

In the downstairs lavatory was his collection of Music Books, largely rambling titles by and about his favourite composers, conductors and soloists. Here forbiddingly high was a half shelf of Ethel Smyth (A Three Legged Tour of Greece, A Burning of Boats, What Happened Next), alongside books on Beecham and Delius. These toilet books were rarely modern works, but foxed and drab with perky titles by musicians reconciled to their lack of public charisma (On and Off the Record, The Pleasure was Mine, I’m Not Making this Up you know). The five volumes Robbins Landon set on Haydn was unusual in being an ambitious scholarly work in his collection. While using the loo, I could see how many books he had on the Wagner Clan and Bayreuth. Yet the more accusatory works scrutinising the composer’s anti-semitism seemed to have gone missing after I had given them to David, part of a black hole of forgetfulness generated by his passion for the Ring Cycle.

David WatkinUpstairs, David kept his gems in his bedroom in a beautiful Lacquer Cabinet. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Walton’s Angler and sumptuously bound editions of the poems of Marvell, Wycherley, Yeats, Rochester, Thomas Gray, Drayton and John Taylor the Water Poet. Here were the Buccaneers of America and Pepys on the Navy.  What exactly was Roister Doister? he did tell me once.

Flanking the doorway in his bedroom were symmetrical deployed shelving with early literature in fine bindings, such as The Tatler and Spectator bought in March 1978 from Maggs for £675.00.  The second shelf carried rows of Fielding, Smollett, and a collection of Samuel Johnson.  Here are Francis Bacon’s works, Gibbon’s Decline and Miscellaneous Works. There were the basic texts  by Marlowe, Farquhar, and a 1681 Renard the Fox. Here was shelved  Gay’s Beggars’ Opera, with the History of James II by Charles James Fox whose blowsy features were approximated on a monumental bust that dominated the entrance of the house.

Shelved on the other side of the door were his collection of  Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Press, a correspondent whose waspishness appealed to David. Here were Charles Lamb, Thomas Peacock, Jane Austen and the British Romantics. Unsurprising was the representation of the writings of Swift. However I didn’t anticipate such a wealth of works of Richard Jeffries and George Borrow being on hand for the insomniac.

David WatkinFraming the double bed were collections of printed humour and frivolity, Richmal Compton, P.G.Wodehouse, Mark Twain  and a selection of rare children’s books. I see that in my notes, I had marked the Wodehouse books as ‘waterstained’, reminding me that their owner had been on location when Barry Martin acting in loco parentis rang him in a state of excitement that his Wodehouse firsts, mostly in original wrappers, had been soaked by rainwater penetrating the window sill. The insurance paid up and he kept the books, never one to discard otherwise readable pages.

In one cupboard, and locked in a specially constructed Solander box,  I found a collection of rather lurid pamphlets by Ralph Chubb, a disreputable Uranian poet who David would use to shock and delight his friends (Heavenly Cupid and Water Cherubs are characteristic titles). One of Chubb’s more ambitious books of verse tucked away in the Library downstairs was bound in the very corduroy from which boys’ trousers were cut.

David Watkin

Unbeknown to most of us, his huge collection of topography and books on travel were stored in a spare bedroom, often sealed behind a locked door. Yards of railway periodicals squatted at ground level, the Southern Railway Magazine , the Railway Magazine (Illustrated) etc etc. Books by such stalwarts as O.S.Nock, and C. Hamilton Ellis covered every known British line, with bibliographic paths leading to Trams and Ferries. There was respectable collection of books on Brighton and the Sussex area. I was surprised by how many W.H.Hudson publications he had acquired.  Pride of place was given to a huge album of press cuttings of Gladstone’s visit to his ancestor Sir Edward Watkin on Snowdon (Clara, p.54). This he was offered to him by a sharp-eyed David Plumtree, and it ended up with a Watkin cousin after David’s death.

All these books were needed, he said, in the same way that he needed all the musical repertoire on disk, to be on hand, to be perfectly sorted for the efficient retrieval of the right book, or the right track, whether it be day or night, whether he be sleepless, or just home after filming. He adopted rather a lofty attitude to Public Libraries. I remember taking him into the Brighton Record Library while I returned my loans. Looking around him in horror, he declaimed in a voice too loud for comfort, “Fuck me, is this all they’ve got?”

I chided him afterwards and suggested he made an offer of support to the Community Library. Mind you, neither was the Library too keen after his death in accepting his collection of cds. They must have balked at the time needed for cataloguing but perhaps someone remembered his intemperate outburst about their stock.

I don’t think his Library can make claims at being a repository for the perfect edition, the select and finely crafted bibelot. It was a working library dedicated to the needs of the one man, for his own specific needs based on whims and intellectual curiosity. It is noticeable that the Maggs Catalogue, No 1434/1 and 1434/2 A Reader’s Library (in two parts) scrupulously details the eccentricities and entertaining flaws to be found in the books after a lifetime’s use which would alarm those potential purchasers who prefers their books untouched and unopened.

The Library, David proves a point

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