Obituary: Sir Tobias Rodgers Bt

"J. F. T. Rodgers, Rare Books", the last catalogue read, and below, in small type, "Prop Sir Tobias Rodgers Bt". It was not vainglory but his self-quizzical sense of irony, the ridiculousness of life, that prompted this last extravagance. In the world of books he made a small but distinct mark, unforgettable to all who knew him. To them, he was always Toby, handsome, witty, tirelessly and endlessly reading, learned in all sorts of recondite ways, a giver of parties, helpless somehow and au fond unhelpable, but always irresistible.

He was born in 1940, the son of John Rodgers, a pillar of J. Walter Thompson and later Radio Luxembourg, one of the founders of History Today, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks from 1950 to 1979. Taking Churchill's advice always to live outside your constituency, the family settled at Groombridge, and there Toby was brought up. He got a scholarship to Eton, and another to Worcester College, Oxford. The Fellows' Library at Eton was then inaccessible to boys, so it was not until he got to Oxford, where Colonel C.H. Wilkinson and John Sparrow encouraged young bibliophiles, that a sense of the extra quality of reading old books in the original editions entered his life.

By great ill-fortune he was struck down by meningitis just before he was due to take his finals, and being incapacitated before rather than during the examinations was unable even to get an aegrotat, which would have been at least a degree, as well as an agreeable anachronism.

He had not fully recovered when he went out into the world to look for a living. After a very short time teaching English in a language school, he found his way to Bernard Quaritch, the great antiquarian booksellers, then in Grafton Street. E.M. Dring, the managing director, had not long before lost his close colleague and friend Oliver Howard, who had died untimely, and was looking immediately for a bright young man to help, but with an eye further ahead for a successor. Rodgers was not to know this nor the startling impact that his letter asking for a job, on Brooks's Club writing paper, made at Quaritch's. But Dring, who had a prescient sense for talent, was not misled by that or Rodgers's rather lackadaisical manner (he was still far from well) when he came for interview just before Christmas 1962.

He began work at Quaritch early in the New Year, and, although it was hard for him to adjust to the old-fashioned discipline and venerable surroundings, he realised that he had found his metier. He learnt a great deal from Ted Dring and became immensely fond of him, as he of Rodgers. This did not stop their having rows, sometimes respectable rows, when Rodgers's great learning and independent judgement suggested changes in ways of selling books that had hardly altered since the 19th century, sometimes less so when Rodgers arrived late or was late back after lunch. But gradually his style - he could write like an angel - began to find its way into Quaritch's staid catalogues.

His moment of glory came with a special catalogue on trade and commerce, which he entitled How to Get Rich. He got away with that, but there was another row when Dring asked him to write an introduction; Rodgers refused and walked out. Next morning he came in with a perfect introduction. It began, characteristically: "This catalogue consists of the bottom of a remarkable West Country barrel." It was, however, his swan-song at Quaritch's.

The constrictions of a large firm stirred longings for independence, and in May 1968 he set up an independent business with his friend Paul Grinke, up some very steep steps in Bruton Place. They began with two catalogues, the first Grinke's on art and architecture, the second Rodgers's, on English Books 1510-1740. It was the time when the Royal Institution was selling its older books and there were rich pickings, particularly books of the Huguenot scholar Louis Dutens. The mixture was, in the event, too rich, and Grinke and Rodgers amicably went their separate ways in 1970.

Next year Rodgers published his first independent catalogue, A Small But Important Collection of Elizabethan and Stuart Liberature. This was no more, in fact rather less than, the truth; its chief achievement was the identification of Youths Witte, an allusive miscellany, as the work of Robert Greene. Five more such catalogues followed, each one with its share of books that no one else would have found or seen the signficance of, all described with the same eye for quality of text or condition, in words as felicitous as witty.

It was this that led me to ask him to write for the quarterly magazine the Book Collector. He did - occasionally; it was a joint agony for it hurt him to write as it did me to wait and wonder if it would ever come. But what he wrote when he did was so well worth waiting for that the cost seemed unimportant. There was a wonderful piece on a Proust exhibition, his note pointing out, in the middle of a correspondence on genuine deaths by falling from library ladders, that the composer Alkon did not so die, but was crushed by a bookcase falling on top of him.

In 1978, with Justine Budenz, a refugee from Christie's, Rodgers opened a bookshop in Cecil Court. He called it Quevedo, and the name of the Spanish visionary, novelist and scholar was apt. Increasingly in love with Spain, he kept a stock as much Spanish as English, always early and out of the way. But shopkeeping was not really his line. Regular hours, indeed keeping the place open at all, never seemed to matter very much. One day, he shut the shop for good and moved the stock, eventually, to Charlotte Street, where, for the time being, it slept.

There was too much else to engage him. He could never resist the good things in life, and some of the bad ones too. "Nothing that he eats does him any good, and nothing that he drinks does him any harm," said his servant of the last life fellow of Trinity. The same was long true of Toby Rodgers. Women loved him and did their best to feed him, but nothing filled out his wraith-like thinness; otherwise a diet of Gauloises or more awful Spanish weeds and vodka seemed to have no other effect on him. He travelled a lot: to Spain often, to Czechoslovakia with the art dealer Kasmin, to Burma for a long time. And he gave the most memorable parties in and around his flat in Warwick Avenue. You would be summoned at short notice or none, and there would be wonderful food and drink, and such people: the famous, the brilliant, the difficult, the unknown - a model here, a taxi driver whose conversation had amused him. It was a wild mixture.

But nothing seemed to be coming of it. He became more reclusive, drank too much: "What's become of Toby?" his friends would ask nervously. Then, suddenly, the magic returned. Last year another catalogue appeared, with all the old diversity and charm, and then another, if anything more diverse and delightful. But with the books, there was a faint music in the air, a fleeting habanera, that seemed to die away, as when the gods deserted Antony. Ill he visibly was, but he had given up drinking. Why did he have to go just when the magic seemed to have returned?

The joke was always on him, writes James Fergusson. Tobias Rodgers was a sublimely comic figure, ridiculously tall, painfully thin, with lugubrious voice and (for a long time) moustache to match. He told stories of what might have been - dead-pan stories, himself their butt - of how he nearly bought this, nearly sold that; of how, again, he might have made his fortune. There would be a hint of infinite sadness, and then - then, he would writhe with laughter.

The last 20 years of Toby's life, when I knew him, were a celebration of failure: a triumphant assertion that the individual was more important than the system; a fiesta of perverse integrity. Toby was a brilliant linguist, as able in Turkish as Basque, who never found a use for his languages except in ingeniously complicated holidays and imagined art- smuggling heists. He was an expert on the Spanish Civil War who never wrote the book on anarchism which he for 35 years intended. He was an elegant and economical writer who, indeed, hardly wrote anything; an unlikely career as a restaurant reviewer for Vogue faltered after barely one meal. He was a gifted pouncer on girls who never sustained a lasting relationship; a keen cook who almost gave up eating, an enthusiast for gardening, for bridge, for racing, who would do anything rather than work but deplored his indolence.

He was, too, an extraordinary and generous giver of parties - when he turned up to them. He threw enormous dinners round his ping-pong table; he organised massive communal firework displays for Guy Fawkes Day. But sometimes there was a slip between cup and lip; on one occasion his dinner guests were so alarmed when they found themselves massed on the pavement outside his brightly lit house pealing on the bell that they called the police. On gaining entry, they found his French windows open and the trail of his footprints across a dewy lawn. Toby had run away.

If he didn't run away, he could fail altogether to buy food for his guests, or buy food (I remember once a huge, delicious sea bass) and be too drunk to cook it. Toby had a drink problem. But, as with many drink problems, it was not so much a drink problem as a life problem. He saw himself as a hero in an unequal struggle: a struggle with his father, even after his father had died; a steady tussle in the book trade, where he was the only person in step and all other dealers had given in to some suburban Mephistopheles.

He told me once, a few bottles on, that he was the best, the best, cataloguer of old books living, there was no one to touch him. It was late. One nodded. The last time he had produced a catalogue was in the late 1970s from Quevedo in Cecil Court, the shop that was never open. Then, in January 1996, out of nowhere, from J.F.T. Rodgers of Charlotte Street (another shop that was never open, underneath the Oldie), came 100 Rare Books on 100 Different Subjects, a catalogue that was sui generis, quirky, seductive, various, perfectly formed.

In an unusual prefatory note, he described himself as "more of a boulevardier than a bookseller" and the spirit of the boulevardier flowed beguilingly through the catalogue. "I cannot imagine," he wrote of one item, "who would want to buy a volume bound in about 1760 containing works on painting, the cedars of Lebanon, designs for country houses and what the female beau monde of Edinburgh wore in 1756. I hope that such a person exists."

The books were on all subjects from archery and lunacy and the human digestion to vipers, calligraphy and the wine trade, farmhouse design and the fall of Granada. The highlight was a miniature he asserted to be by Nicholas Hilliard, at pounds 28,000, but equally interesting were his (few) items under pounds 100, or, at pounds 700, the printed account of he first Sahara crossing en automobile, 1924, inscribed by Monsieur Citroen himself and, much later, David Hockney. The catalogue was a tour de force, and Bernard Levin, of all people, devoted a whole column to it in the Times.

A second catalogue followed in October, More Rare Books on Very Diverse Subjects, equally deft and diverting, and a third was promised of books on the Ottoman Empire - "scant but rare and in the finest condition". Now it will never appear. The old rogue; there are only his footprints in the grass.

John Fairlie Tobias Rodgers, antiquarian bookseller: born 2 July 1940; succeeded 1993 as second Bt; died London 19 January 1997.

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