Obituary: H. A. Feisenberger

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE GREAT diaspora of German Jewish intellectuals in the Thirties changed the world in many ways, and the book trade more than most. Many of these refugees were cut off from their former profession by custom or the need for qualification, as well as language, and found that their knowledge of books, the result of education and leisure, offered a better prospect of a livelihood. Hellmut Albert Feisenberger, "Feisy" to all who knew him in his adopted country, was one of these. His wide learning, generously bestowed, brought him a living and many friends in the trade over more than 50 years.

He was born in 1909 in Magdeburg, his father, a circuit judge, Jewish, his mother Christian. Four years later, his father was appointed to the Supreme Court, then situated at Leipzig, and the family moved there. Their son went to St Thomas's Church School, where Bach taught music between 1723 and 1729. He never lost the soft lilt and accent of his youth, which gave his later perfect English a special charm.

The Depression hurt the family less than most, and on leaving school he went to Grenoble University to learn French, which he spoke fluently. He then went to Berlin, intending to follow his father in the law. He had not finished his university course in January 1933 when the Nazis came to power. He only stayed on to take his doctorate, and then, with money provided by an uncle, escaped to London on 6 June 1933, spending his first night in the Ivanhoe Hotel, near the British Museum.

England was not completely unfamiliar, since he had once been on holiday there, but it was not easy to find a job, nor to get money out of Germany to support himself meantime. He thought of the law, but was deterred by the different legal system. Others he approached were sympathetic, but had no position to offer. Finally, with some money raised in Germany, he got himself taken on as a junior partner in Davis and Orioli.

Irving Davis was the unlikely partner in England of Norman Douglas's Florentine friend Pino Orioli. He spoke five languages fluently, although his main love was Italy, and was one of the few booksellers with a wide interest in books other than English. He was also chronically short of money, and Feisenberger's modest capital, on a half-share basis, made it possible to invest in stock he could not otherwise have afforded. In return, he undertook to teach his partner, 20 years younger, the elements of the book trade.

With this, Feisenberger entered a magic world. Davis, shy and sometimes distant, patently preferred finding and reading books to making money, and so did he. Davis had an eye for the unusual, the unsuspected interest in a book, that appealed to his well-educated mind. Davis's friends among the Bloomsbury Group, Selwyn and Tanya Jepson, Catherine and John Carswell, and in particular Eric Bligh, most widely read of booksellers, became his friends. He met other compatriots who had taken the same decision, the energetic Henry Zeitlinger at Sotheran's, gentle Ernst Weil, E.P. Goldschmidt, first to come and most learned of all.

It was the example of Weil and Zeitlinger that turned his attention to early scientific literature, which was to become his speciality. His knowledge of the 15th- and 16th-century texts of physics, astronomy, anatomy, medicine and botany was encyclopaedic, and he soon acquired an equal familiarity with the more recent landmarks of scientific discovery, of which John Carter at Scribner's had just produced a pioneering catalogue. All this was complemented in Davis's mind with literary texts, calligraphy, books on festivals and fireworks, the theatre and wine and food, to make the Davis and Orioli catalogues, never diffuse, lively and learned as well.

The coming of the Second World War put an end to this. There was not enough business to support both of them, and Feisenberger, rejected for military service after determined efforts to enlist due to his poor sight, found work as a part-time cataloguer at Sotheby's. There he met again an old friend, Joan Mair, whom he had first encountered when she was working for Eric Bligh, who was to dedicate Tooting Corner, that memorable account of a rural Surrey childhood, to her. She had joined Sotheby's before the war, and in 1940 married John Mair, a promising author and journalist, already in the RAF, who was killed in 1942. Three years later, she and Feisenberger were married.

By now the war was over, and Feisenberger decided to set up on his own, later going into partnership with Richard Gurney, publishing altogether 18 catalogues, in which his knowledge of scientific books was fully deployed. But the difficulties of running a business in those austere days were considerable, and scholarship always came first in his mind; in 1952 the partnership was dissolved and he went to Dawson's of Pall Mall as their chief cataloguer. There he stayed until 1960, when he joined Sotheby's in the same capacity.

The great expansion of Sotheby's business then provided a wonderful opportunity for him, and his wide knowledge of books and also, by now, all the main booksellers found a proper outlet there. The catalogues for which he was responsible were singularly effective, and are potent evidence of his discrimination and descriptive skill. He remained at Sotheby's, of which he became an associate director, until his retirement in 1975, returning for another five years as a consultant in 1983.

His knowledge and gift of exposition were put to a further test in the preparation of the exhibition "Printing and the Mind of Man" at Earls Court in 1963. As a member of the historical sub- committee whose task was to select some 500 books that had most influenced human thought and action over 500 years, he undertook all the scientific books, ranging from the great medieval encyclopaedia of St Isidore of Seville to Fermi and Pontecorvo's patent for controlling nuclear fission. In all, he helped to choose and then catalogued over 120 books, more than any other contributor.

It was not easy to sum up the contents and significance of such works in a few words, and his descriptions were a model of clarity and succinctness. An illustrated and expanded version was published subsequently, which remains a lasting monument to his scholarship and its influence on the history of science.

After his retirement, he went to live in Galloway, in a remote but beautiful house on the hills above the Solway Firth, far from his bookselling haunts. Later, he and his wife returned to London, where he resumed his contacts with the book trade. In 1992 Joan died; he carried on indomitably, but as he grew frailer he went to live with his eldest son and family in America, and there he died.

Feisenberger was much more than a learned bookseller. He was the life and soul of any party, as generous with his own hospitality as delighted to receive others'. His thin frame was always encased a l'anglaise in an elegant double-breasted suit and bowler hat (worn long after others had given them up), which contrasted rather incongruously with his Germanic features and horn-rimmed spectacles. His learning was lightly worn, and extended beyond his scientific speciality; he could discourse easily on art and architecture, and he had a special affection for the English landscape, particularly the North. He was kind and sympathetic to beginners and those younger than himself, remembering his own hard start in life.

The emigre booksellers are fewer now, but H. A. Feisenberger was one who left a lasting mark on the profession to which he turned.

Hellmut Albert Feisenberger, bookseller: born Magdeburg, Germany 14 March 1909; married 1945 Joan Mair (nee Greenall, died 1992; two sons); died Orlando, Florida 27 August 1999.

Comments