A Pre- Post-Mortem Addition to a Book Collection
Book collectors can all recount the many ways in which this or that item entered our collections. Gleeful purchases from dealer catalogues, bloodily won auction acquisitions, tips from friends leading to “finds,” book show or antiquarian book store trophies, all help to form the collector’s background mosaic of sources. This is just a little story of yet another avenue, a story of how I acquired a book which I would give all the world to personally return to its previous owner’s animate hands.
My collection of books and materials relating to the Mosher Press had become a marvelous research base from which the new bibliography, Thomas Bird Mosher–Pirate Prince of Publishers… (Oak Knoll Press & The British Library, 1998), would come into existence. In the process of writing that book I sought someone who would be THE best person to write the book’s Introduction. Through a rather tortuous search I finally found somebody in Canada who was indeed the most fitting choice: a highly respected and revered expert on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian literature, and an avid collector of The Mosher Books to boot — Dr. William (Dick) E. Fredeman.
At first Dick Fredeman and I corresponded by snail-mail and then later by e-mail with an occasional phone call in between, and when I finally asked him to write the Introduction he gave an unqualified “Yes!” Dick was in the process of editing the collected letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but he took a break from that work to write the Introduction which perfectly complements the new bibliography and for which I owe this man an unpayable debt of gratitude. Beyond that Dick also offered criticisms and changes in the book’s entries and for three years we were in weekly and many times even daily contact.
You’ve heard about how love affairs have happened over the Internet? Likewise a deep friendship can develop with confidences shared and secrets kept. Along the way we discovered some coincidences which seemed to make our e-mail “meeting” special. Dick often marveled that my own initials “PRB” formed what was the object of his life-long studies: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I too was amazed to find out that Dick was adopted and that his pre-adoption name was Richard Merrill which just happened to be the pen name –unbeknownst to Dick– of the object of my own passionate study: the publisher Thomas Bird Mosher. It seemed as though we were long meant to be life-long friends.
Understand now that I never met this man in the flesh, or at least not until “the word” came to me from his son: “Dad was dying and probably won’t last until this Saturday” he said in a Monday morning phone call to me. The Canadian doctors misdiagnosed Dick’s three-month illness and it turned out to be pancreatic cancer. I was stunned, but moved quickly to purchase a plane ticket to fly across the continent to Vancouver that Wednesday. Dick had told me that if he died shortly before his 71st birthday, his four regrets in life would be leaving his wife, not seeing his son and grandchildren grow up, not finishing the Rossetti letters project, and lastly never having had the opportunity to meet with me face to face. I was determined that at least one of those regrets would be forever erased from his regrets list.
When I was in Canada visiting Dick Fredeman for four days, I was unsure about just when I would return home. I could have stayed longer with the length of his illness possibly extending several days, a week, or even longer. I finally decided that my original arrangements to leave on Saturday, July 10, should hold fast. The family was in good hands and I felt I played my helpful role with a certain dignity and to a meaningful conclusion. I only had my parting words to give to Dick before leaving.
Our final parting was far more dramatic than I had anticipated with all of us in tears. On this last day Dick wanted to make a final trip down to his library to give me something. He was quiet but adamant about it, and lamented that he hadn’t realized that my leaving was so eminent. His son and I carried him down the steps in his wheelchair but when we finally got down to his library he was unable to recall just what it was that he wanted to give. After waiting for several embarrassing minutes–embarrassing for Dick, to us just filled with pity and sorrow–with his son unsuccessfully trying to revive his father’s memory, I finally intervened and said I knew just the thing.
I rushed upstairs and picked a book of my own choosing having previously gone over his library and other rooms of books in detail over the previous three days during Dick’s resting periods. I avoided all the obvious choices of books which included books of great monetary value, and opted instead for what I considered an apt choice to remember this friend, world renown Pre-Raphaelite scholar, and helpmate. I took a book off a hallway shelf, rushed back downstairs, and handed Dick a copy of a Pre-Raphaelite work: William Bell Scott’s A Poet’s Harvest Home: Being One Hundred Short Poems. With an Aftermath of Twenty Short Poems (London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893) also from the library of Thomas Bird Mosher with his bookplate. Dick held it in his hands and pressed it to his forehead like he was trying to decide something. He finally said under his breath that this was good choice. I think he grasped the significance of the gift.
I asked Dick and the family for one of Dick’s own WEF leather bookplates. We wheeled him over to a small chest of drawers and he slowly pulled out a binder filled with his leather bookplates in three different colors. I selected the black one and Dick feebly indicated that he wanted it affixed to the facing recto side of the first free flyleaf directly across from Mosher’s bookplate. The book now carries both plates recalling that this book once found its loving home in the libraries of these two significant individuals. This diminutive book now resides with the other steadily growing but presently 295 volumes from Mosher’s library downstairs in the Mosher collection. My eye usually alights upon it when I enter the M&M (Mosher & Music) room. All those books from Mosher’s library had been dispersed far and wide after the two 1948 sales, each book being sent on its separate journey. What stories they would tell if they could recount their many owner’s homes and the different shelves they rested upon. Some of them neglected, to be sure, but others are infused with meaning far beyond what their authors or their publishers ever foresaw. The story above is just a fraction of what this little volume has been through, a small glimpse to the personal side of provenance one might say.
Later upon closely inspecting this little book, I noticed a familiar design which I had seen elsewhere in Mosher’s publications. Indeed, if you had a copy of Mosher’s 1911 catalogue you’d be able to turn to page 5 and there see the result of yet another “borrowed” image from England’s book productions. The catalogue’s reproduction of the image–designed by William Bell Scott–is the same size as the image in the book: a mystical scene of an old oil lamp burning brightly with a nude torso of a human being forming its handle, and the light illuminating an open book which prominently features a large star on its page. Dick knew how much I appreciated making connections involving British graphics found in Mosher’s productions, and this would have pleased him as much as it did me. It’s a wonderful addition to the Mosher collection, but I’d rather personally have Dick back so I could put it in his outstretched hands. I miss you Dick; I always will.
Fredeman, William Evan, Ph.D., FRSC, FRSL, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of British Columbia; noted author on the Victorians, especially the Pre-Raphaelites; Guggenheim Fellow; avid book, antique, and art collector; died at home in Abbotsford on July 15, 1999, four days before his 71st birthday.
There you have it, a little story–albeit a sad one–out of the pages of a Mosher collector here at the Bishopric of Lancaster County.
— Philip R. Bishop