Gavin Bridson: Bibliographer and librarian

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The Independent Online

As the son of a book-collector and grandson of an antiquarian bookseller, Gavin Bridson had bibliophily in his blood. His bibliographical output in graphic art printing and natural history illustration was prodigious. A Guide to Nineteenth Century Colour Printers (1975), jointly with Geoffrey Wakeman, was followed by Printmaking & Picture Printing: a bibliographical guide to artistic and industrial techniques in Britain, 1750-1900 (1984). After Wakeman's death in 1987, Bridson continued alone. His last letter announced the impending completion of his "Historical Directory of Graphic Arts Printers in the British Isles, 1750-1900" – if over-large for paper publication, then to be available online.

In natural history, his first publication was Natural History Manuscript Resources in the British Isles (1980, with Valerie Phillips and Anthony Harvey). The History of Natural History: an annotated bibliography (1994), revised in four volumes, will be published by the Linnean Society later this year. In 1990 came, with James White, Plant, Animal & Anatomical Illustration in Art & Science: a bibliographical guide from the 16th century to the present day. His exhibition catalogue Printmaking in the Service of Botany (1986) was followed by American Botanical Prints of Two Centuries (2003), for which he was awarded the medal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society in 2005 – in 1992, the Society for the History of Natural History had awarded him their Founder's Medal.

Gavin Bridson was the son of the BBC producer D.G. Bridson, and Vera Richardson, a fabric designer. After a disrupted and unhappy childhood – evacuation, with his twin sister, Hermione, was traumatic; his parents split up, and his mother converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to Braunton in Devon – Gavin was sent to Douai Abbey, a Benedictine foundation in Berkshire. There he nearly died of pneumonia and pleurisy, but apart from recollections of interminable chapel services and choir singing, school seems largely to have passed him by – he made no lasting friends, sat no public examinations, and left school at 16 to work in a television shop. He built his own radio and became a wireless ham.

Loving jazz, he began studying its history and buying records, eventually amassing a vast collection and an encyclopaedic knowledge. In later life, he never rested until he had researched every aspect of a subject, whether for work or a leisure pursuit. In 1954 he was called up for National Service in the Royal Hampshire Regiment, and saw active combat in Malaya (as it then was) as a drill sergeant in intelligence. This gave him a taste for detective work, which by a circuitous route, via the police, which he joined on being demobbed, eventually led him to bibliographical research.

He had envisaged being engaged in forensic work, but crime was low in Torquay and filling up a charge sheet by booking women parked on double-yellow lines not at all to his taste. He refused promotion, resigned and returned to live with his mother in Braunton (his sister had left home and he did not see her again for many years). He decided to train as a physiotherapist but, failing to get a grant, enrolled instead at North Devon Technical College where he worked for O- and A-level biology, botany, zoology and geography and met the 18-year-old Diane Sheppard, who would become his first wife.

A holiday job at Mr Smith's elegant Corner Book Shop in Ilfracombe led, through an introduction by a visiting bookseller, Ben Weinreb, to a job with Bernard Quaritch in London in 1962. The next year he married Diane and re-met his father book-hunting at Quaritch. Gavin Bridson was soon spending lunch-hours and weekends book- and print-hunting. It was not long before he was head-hunted by A.C. Townsend, the chief librarian of the Natural History Museum.

Bridson recalled the interview, with Townsend's answering the board's questions on his behalf, before the tongue-tied, self-effacing young man could get a word out. After a brief, happy time, Townsend died in a railway accident, and in 1969 Bridson left to become Librarian of the Linnean Society of London in Burlington House, having been elected a Fellow of the society in 1968.

The library was large and possessed Carl Linné's books, manuscripts and natural history specimens. In the next 13 years, Bridson, almost single-handed, moved the entire book-stock three times and devised the transfer of the catalogue from card to computer, laying down the basis of the current on-line catalogue. His system was the yardstick ever afterwards, every problem eliciting the question, as his successor, Gina Douglas put it, "What would Gavin do?"

In 1982 Bridson moved to the Hunt Botanical Institute in Pittsburgh, where he stayed for the rest of his life. His job as Bibliographer and Principal Research Scholar fitted the workaholic Bridson like a glove. One of his major tasks was to update the botanical bibiography the B-P-H (Botanico-Periodicum-Huntianum). By 2004 he had completed 33,000 titles.

He was a loyal and generous friend, a surprisingly good mimic, an evocative, though reluctant, correspondent. He kept his ties with England while finding enjoyment and fulfilment in what would seem an alien environment for one so quintessentially English. A good-looking, quiet man, always neat and elegant, in collar and tie when all around him were in jeans and t-shirt, he retained his soft-spoken English speech to the last. His marriage to Marlene Aglinski in 1988 brought him security and lasting happiness.

Robin Myers

Gavin Douglas Ruthven Bridson, bibliographer and librarian: born London 12 February 1936; Bibliographer and Principal Research Scholar, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Pittsburgh 1982-2008; married 1963 Diane Sheppard (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1988 Marlene Aglinski; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 10 January 2008.