Let’s begin with a story.
It is 1722, probably raining. Admiral Sir John Norris looks with concern at the image reflected in the large giltwood mirror of his new drawing room at no. 7 Albemarle Street. One of the black silk buttons in his waistcoat has come undone. He sighs, leaves it as it is, and walks on. A protruding belly-line is a small price to pay when one no longer sails the Artic seas of the Hudson Bay defending the interests of the British Empire.
Out in the street, the horse-drawn carriages march orderly one after the other and without fuss now that someone has had the good sense to establish a one-way system in this busy part of London. Years later, however, the world will not remember this street for being the first of this kind but for a little calling card left by a disgruntled marquis at a private member’s club, not far from no. 7.
The card, white and without ornaments, would have been rather unremarkable had it not been for the message the marquis left written on it. The message could have been rather boring too but, unfortunately, the marquis did not have the good sense of using less explicit terms to name the person whom it was addressed to (a certain Oscar Wilde who had been seen in the company of his son). Mr Wilde did not appreciate the use of such accusatory terms, so he took libel action and well, the rest is history.
But I deviate.
Let’s go back to the house.
It is the beginning of the 19th century. Admiral Morris’ reflection in the mirror has long gone, and no. 7 Albemarle Street is now the beautiful Hotel Grillion. The hotel is not only beautiful but also fashionable and even frequented by French kings on their way to claim their throne (Simmons, 1971, p.211). On this night, however, the hotel is filled with the raucous voices of the members of the Roxburghe Club. As customary, they have marked the start of their annual anniversary dinner with their toast to the immortal memory of John, Duke of Roxburghe…
… of Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Boccaccio of 1471, of Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer, the inventors of the art of printing, of William Caxton, father of the British press [and others; and] the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club and the cause of Bibliomania all over the world.
The Valdarfer celebrated in this toast, a first edition of Bocaccio’s Decameron bought by the Marquess of Blandford in 1812 at a record sum of £2,260, is now part of the University of Manchester’s library. Sitting next to it (or close enough but also scattered around different sites) are hundreds of books whose story is also connected with our house. These books have never been the subject of a famous toast. Many are cheap-looking, pamphlet-sized and printed on increasingly yellow paper. And yet, they deserve as much recognition as those early rarities because, for a time, they carried the dreams of many future readers and bibliophiles. These books were the result of the efforts of a super-hero sounding organization called the National Book League. This blog is a short account of the story of this league (or the little information that I have managed to find about them). It is also about how and why I came across them, and as you have read, about the house which became their headquarters. Speaking of which…
It is now 1945 (still raining). Outside no. 7, John’s eyes travel all the way from the front door to the barely-there roof of the house. He has his doubts. The beginning of the war saw a bomb-blast shatter most of the windows, and after many other explosions, only rats feel safe enough to wander inside. It will need a lot of work, he says, but after five minutes of silent contemplation, he makes up his mind. The League needs a place to thrive. This is it.
One year later, the words of the former poet laurate and first president of the National Book League, John Masefield, would echo across a fully-refurbished no. 7 Albemarle Street:
Here is a house where the world of books [can] have its centre, and genius of all kinds a welcome, where those who use and make books [can] come together for discussion and mutual encouragement and where the power and range of books [can] be revealed by exhibitions (quoted in Simmons, 1971, p. 211)
The allusion to collaboration is key for this new league. So far, the National Book Council (formed in 1925) has served the commercial interests of publishers and booksellers with initiatives like the (fabulously named) Book Information Bureau (1927), the Library of Books about Books (1929), or the launch of the National Book Tokens (1932) and the Children’s Book Week (1941). The war, however, has changed things. It has spurred an unprecedent crave for reading material. An article in the Literary Review of that year tells us about the thousands of yellow-jacketed books used as “powerful instruments of electoral propaganda”; about (rather boring-sounding) books like Trevelyan’s English Social History becoming as sought-after “as silk stockings or Scotch whisky”; about the inclusion of paper for books “high up on the Government’s list of absolute necessities” and of the “mushroom publisher and the fungoid bookseller” (…!) who wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon of this new craze for books (Hadfield, 1945, p. 74).
It was thus evident that the initiatives of the NBC needed to be supported by a more robust and all-encompassing system of publicity, classification, and dissemination across bookshops and public libraries if it were ever to meet this demand. Enter the National Book League.
The NBL aimed to become a public association where “all sections of the professional world of books [were] equally represented” (Hadfield, 1945, p. 74). This meant broadening the remit of the NBC to include the interest of writers (represented by the Society of Authors) and most significantly, readers, powerful now in their condition as subscribers. In doing so, it became a body devoted to the promotion of books and the love of reading across people of all ages, interests, and abilities – the same principles driving the work of their successors (and less fabulously named) BookTrust.
In the following years, the NBL produced hundreds of lists of publications and selected bibliographies sponsored by authorities in every field. It also published books on all sort of topics and made sure they were present in every public library. The phones of the Book Information Bureau continued to ring with thousands of questions and requests for recommendations (61,000 in 1968 according to Simmons, 1971, p. 213), whilst the Children’s Book Week was expanded with awards for authors under 30 and literary festivals like BookBang, the first of its kind (and apparently, a total disaster despite the inclusion of a live circus for the kids!). Nevertheless, as a result of all these initiatives, by the 1970s, Mansfield’s vision had realised: No. 7 Albemarle Street had truly become “the centre of the world of books”.
There is something else, however, that the league organised and that happened in this house: book exhibitions. Enter now the author of this blog.
And a pandemic.
As well as a former member of the stock management team, I am a PhD candidate in museology researching book exhibitions. During the hard months of lockdown, the stock team worked closely with other departments helping with reading lists and students requests to make sure they had access to as many resources as possible. We also took time whilst at home to “spring-clean” databases and bring book records up to date. This is how I came across the NBL. Ever since I started my research, I have been on the lookout for publications about “books” and “exhibitions”. It was then no surprise that my eyes were immediately drawn to the hundreds of exhibition catalogues produced by the league that showed up in one of these lists.
I simply had to know more.
Unfortunately, it has been a struggle to find detailed information about the league other than the two articles that I have been citing throughout and a few other entries about items at UCL and the Wellcome collection. I have also contacted BookTrust with not much luck, although they are working on it! The exhibitions were not suitable for my research either. According to Hadfield, most of them aimed to provide “material of exceptional display value for librarians” (1945, p.74) and therefore, they were closer to the displays in bookshops and public libraries where people can find new books and recommendations than a museum-like type of exhibition. The number of “themed-displays”, however, was impressive, one per month, and the amount of people who saw them when on tour around libraries across the country exceeded three million in 1964 (Simmons, 1971, p. 213). Equally impressive was the variety of subjects to which they dedicated these shows. This is a list from the university library catalogue that gives an idea of this variety:
- Catalogue of the Bookplate Exhibition at the National Book League September 1972 / exhibition arranged jointly by The Bookplate Society & The Private Libraries Association 1972.
- Bloomsbury group: [catalogue of] an exhibition arranged by the National Book League, 1976.
- Flower books and their illustrators: [catalogue of] an exhibition arranged for the National Book League / by Wilfrid Blunt.
- Wood-engraving in modern English books: the catalogue of an exhibition arranged for the National Book League / by Thomas Balston. October-November 1949.
- Hans Christian Andersen, 1805 – 2nd April – 1955 : catalogue of a jubilee exhibition held at the National Book League / arranged in association with the Danish Government, in co-operation with the Royal Library, Copenhagen, and Dr. R. Klein. Organizer: Elias Bredsdorff.
- The Bible in English life: [Catalogue of] an exhibition arranged by John Stirling for the National Book League at 7 Albemarle St., London.
- Word and image. 6, Isaac Rosenberg: (catalogue of) an exhibition arranged by the National Book League. 6, Isaac Rosenberg 1890-1918: an exhibition arranged by the National Book League, 1975.
- Walter de la Mare: a checklist prepared on the occasion of an exhibition of his books and mss. at the National Book League … 20th April to 19th May 1956.
- Bookplate designers, 1925-1975: catalogue of the Bookplate Society’s Third Biennial Exhibition, held at the National Book League, 7 Albemarle Street, London W1, Saturday 16th to Thursday 28th October 1976.
- An exhibition of the work of three private presses: Saint Dominic’s Press/Ditchling, Edward Walters/Primrose Hill, Saint Albert’s Press/Aylesford, at the National Book League, & Albemarle Street, London W.1. from 14 July-4 August 1976 : catalogue / devised and presented by Brocard Sewell ; under the sponsorship of Linotype UK and the National Book League.
- Bernard Shaw: catalogue of an exhibition at 7, Albermarle St, London to celebrate his ninetieth birthday: July 26 to August 24 1946.
- The Festival of Britain exhibition of books / arranged by the National Book League at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
These titles (and many more) are part of the special collections held both at Main library and the John Rylands Library and can be requested by anyone with an interest in the subject. In my case, I managed to track down and buy two beautiful exhibition catalogues which are now part of my own collection (I told you they were not expensive).
It would be great to know more about this wonderfully named league and see any surviving pictures of the exhibitions held at 7 Albemarle Street. What a wonderful place it must have been! And how grateful I am to have had the chance to “meet them” in the midst of this terrible pandemic! Just like everyone at the University of Manchester Library, it was inspiring to know about the passion and dedication that this group had put into bringing books to people in a time when they were so much needed. I hope you have enjoyed learning about their story too. And if you happen to know where I might find more information about the NBL, please comment below or get in touch!
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Connect with me @theTLtweets
Simmons, C. (1971). The National Book League. Elementary English, 48(2), 210-214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41386870
Hadfield, J. (1945). The National Book League and the Librarian. Library Review, 10 (4), 74-77. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb012080