OBITUARY : Kenneth Gardner

Kenneth Gardner was an authority in the field of Japanese bibliography and for many years a distinguished librarian first in the British Museum and after 1973 in the British Library. His death came a year after the publication of his Descriptive Catalogue of Japanese Books in the British Library Printed Before 1700. In recognition of this monumental work, he was presented in Osaka in February with the prestigious Yamagata prize, an annual award established by the Osaka prefecture in 1982 to honour foreign scholars. Gardner received in addition the Order of the Sacred Treasure (Third Class), awarded by the Emperor of Japan, in 1979.

Thanks to the generosity and foresight of such early collectors as Sir Hans Sloane, Engelbert Kaempfer, Philipp von Siebold and Sir Ernest Satow, the British Library inherited from the British Museum what is probably the most important collection of early Japanese books outside Japan. There are fine examples of almost every phase of evolution and revolution in the first 900 years of Japanese printing history up to 1700. The 637 items described in Gardner's magnum opus include early movable type editions, publications of medieval Buddhist monasteries, Chinese works printed in Japan, Saga-bon de luxe editions, popular literature with Ukiyo-e style woodcut illustrations of the Edo period and - those rarest of all Japanese rare books - the Kirishitan-ban, or books published by Jesuit mission presses. Gardner took on the task of compiling their complex bibliographical descriptions after his retirement from the British Library in 1986. It enabled him to bring his accumulated knowledge of Japanese literature and culture to fruition, distilling it between the covers of a single book.

Like many of his contemporaries, he built his knowledge of Japan on foundations laid during the Second World War. He was one of a small group of young men known later as "Translators V" who volunteered to learn Japanese for military purposes. He never discovered, he said, how useful had been the Japanese documents that he had translated and sent back to Britain from South-East Asia, where he served from 1944 to 1947. But the human encounters with the Japanese he interviewed and helped repatriate set the direction of his career. He readily warmed to the Japanese, and soon regarded them as people, not enemies. Indeed, his own life was saved by a Japanese army doctor after he had been wounded by an Indonesian sniper during the reoccupation of Sumatra in 1945.

On demobilisation, he enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, where he graduated with First Class Honours in Japanese studies in 1949. After five years as assistant librarian in charge of the Japanese collection at SOAS, he was appointed in 1955 as the first ever Japanese specialist in the then Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts in the British Museum. Within two years, he was promoted to the departmental keepership, while retaining responsibility for the Japanese collection.

The decades before his second promotion in 1970 to the post of Principal Keeper, in charge of all Western-language books, were Ken Gardner's golden age. He added numerous rare books and manuscripts to the Japanese collection, including the earliest specimens of printing so far known in the world (AD 764-70), the Buddhist mantras of Empress Shotoku. He also worked tirelessly to build relationships with Japanese academics and antiquarian bookdealers, to the lasting benefit of the British Museum and British Library.

The principal keepership took Gardner away from all duties connected with Japan for four years. The onerous responsibilities he undertook in planning the new British Library brought satisfaction, but the increased administrative load of a much larger department weighed heavily. After a period of illness, he returned as Deputy Keeper in 1974 to the Oriental department and to his beloved Japanese books and manuscripts.

Throughout his career, Ken Gardner was actively involved in Japanese studies circles, having served as President and Chairman respectively of the British Association for Japanese Studies and the Japan Library Group. For many years, he was honorary librarian of the Japan Society in London and shortly before his death completed a catalogue of books held there.

Despite his legendary perfectionism and disciplined mind, Gardner had a zany sense of humour, and enjoyed the Goons and other comic shows. He was blessed with a fine tenor voice which he exercised in church choirs and, in lighter vein, at regular reunions of Translators V, when he would sing a repertoire of Japanese wartime songs in the vernacular. His many colleagues and friends around the world, not least in Japan, will remember Ken Gardner as an outstanding scholar and librarian; and as a man of unfailing courtesy, gentleness and humility.

Yu-Ying Brown

Ken Gardner was Hertfordshire born and bred, and apart from his war years there he lived and died, writes Nicolas Barker. His father was a schoolmaster for whom the phrase "muscular Christianity" might have been invented. He kept a smallholding in a rather Chestertonian "three acres and a cow" way; Ken had to do the milking before he went to school.

He was good at languages, particularly Latin, but was not to pursue these, as he might have done, at university. He was only 18 when he was drafted into the Intelligence Corps. It was there that he discovered the affinity with the Japanese people that distinguished the rest of his life. It was partly chance that led to his becoming Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts only two years after he joined the British Museum, but no choice was better rewarded. The dozen years that he spent there then were a halcyon time, in sharp contrast to the unsettled and often unhappy sense of stress elsewhere in the museum.

This was already marked in 1963, when as part of the team responsible for the great "Printing and the Mind of Man" department I first met Gardner. His warm welcome, his tranquil authority, made an immediate impact. Later in the Sixties came the Dainton Committee and its Report, which was to have such a dramatic effect on the national libraries. It was unfortunate that at this time of far-reaching change C.B. Oldman, a commanding Principal Keeper of Printed Books, retired.

Gardner was his obvious successor, but the odds against him were overwhelming. The aftermath of the Dainton Report was the creation of the British Library, the bringing together of the British Central Library (for inter-library loans), the Patent Office and Science Reference Library with the British Museum Library. Severance from the Department of Oriental Antiquities was painful to Gardner, but the fearful task of presiding over a library which was now a piece in the ferocious game of reorganisation, with so many heavyweights fighting their own corner, was one that called for a force of character alien to his nature. It was characteristic that he soldiered on, uncomplaining, until he physically collapsed under the strain.

On his return to his old department as Deputy Keeper, he found solace not so much in scholarly work himself but the encouragement he was able to give his juniors, particularly David Chibbett, who he hoped would undertake the catalogue of early Japanese books, but who died at the age of 29. Returning to this task in 1985 and continuing after his retirement were a happy end for Gardner, made happier by the sight of the great catalogue itself before he died.

When I went to Japan in 1992, I found I had but to mention Gardner's name for faces to light up, Oriental reticence forgotten. At Tenri University, joint publishers of his catalogue, this was specially marked. This unassuming man could have left no greater memorial.

Kenneth Burslam Gardner, librarian: born London 5 June 1924; Assistant Keeper, Department of Oriental Printed Books and MSS, British Museum 1955- 57, Keeper 1957-70; Principal Keeper of Printed Books, British Museum/British Library 1970-74, Deputy Keeper of Oriental MSS and Printed Books 1974- 86; married 1949 Cleo Adams (two sons, two daughters); died Bengeo, Hertfordshire 19 April 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?