OBITUARY : Kenneth Gardner
Monday 01 May 1995
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.
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.
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