Lord Wardington

Collector of maps and atlases whose library was rescued dramatically from a fire

Tuesday 12 July 2005 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the extreme north-east corner of Oxfordshire, tucked in between Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, quite near the site of the Civil War battle of Edgehill in 1642 and nearer still to the 1644 engagement at Cropredy Bridge, is the village of Wardington, lying on high ground between 400 and 500 feet (120-150 metres). The manor house of the same name, built on the site of an ancient nunnery in 1665, contained, until last year, a notable private library of rare antiquarian books comprising early English bibles, incunabula (i.e. books from the infancy of printing: issued before 1500), fine bindings and - collected by Lord Wardington - a magnificent collection of atlases.

In April 2004, in the early morning while Lord and Lady Wardington were abroad on holiday, a devastating electrical fire, starting near the roof, swept through one of the two wings of the house. While the house burned, their daughter Helen managed a dramatic and miraculous rescue of all the books, with the aid of a human chain of village inhabitants, from the ground-floor libraries where the books were housed, to the lawn, while the fire brigade desisted from flooding the valuable contents. The rescue was 100 per cent successful as all the valuable books, according to carefully maintained inventories, were saved intact and unharmed.

Compensation from insurance will effect the necessary rebuilding of Wardington Manor, optimistically scheduled for Christmas 2006, but Lord Wardington will not now witness its completion.

Christopher Henry Beaumont Pease, second Baron Wardington ("Bic" to all his friends), was a descendant of Edward Pease, a Quaker and the railway projector who collaborated with George Stephenson to build and maintain the first railway line from Stockton to Darlington in 1825. His grandfather John William Pease, with his brother-in-law Thomas Hodgkin, founded the Newcastle bank of Hodgkin, Barnett, Pease, Spence & Co that was taken over by Lloyds Bank in 1902-03.

John was an avid book collector in a wide range of subjects with a particular love for the works of the incomparable wood engraver Thomas Bewick. Also, he was instrumental in acquiring the huge collection of bibles formed by Francis Fry for the British and Foreign Bible Society. On his death the Bewick collection was presented to the Newcastle City Corporation. The rest of the library was divided in three and Bic's father, John William Beaumont Pease, chose incunabula and bibles as his share. As Master of the Percy Foxhounds, 1904-10, he hunted with four bachelor friends from a rented house in Brackley, Northamptonshire. While out hunting he saw Wardington Manor in 1916 and bought it the following year. He became chairman of Lloyds Bank in 1922 (he was also chairman of the Bank of London & South America) and was created Baron Wardington in 1936.

He had married in 1923 and Bic was born in 1924, growing up at Wardington Manor surrounded by beautiful books that his grandfather had acquired during that golden age of late-19th-century sales from Syston Park, Haigh Hall and Hamilton Palace, now dramatically and unforgettably shelved in the limed oak bookcases of the cathedral-ceilinged main library of the manor facing south over the top lawn.

From interests in geography and philately, born in his schooldays at Eton between 1933 and 1942, Bic decided to augment this substantial family library with a comprehensive collection of important and rare atlases. From 1955, when he bought his first rare book, atlases and geographical texts became the prime focus of his collecting passion, which continued unabated almost until his death (although he was also able to acquire a number of his grandfather's books that had passed to his uncle and aunt after the 1901 division). In common with a number of his British contemporaries, Bic was occasionally waylaid by the purchase of an expensive colour-plate natural history or topographical book and many of these were subsequently sold to enrich the atlas collection as prices rose.

The individual maps in these more than 700 titles number, by the collector's reckoning, some 60,000. There are two dozen editions of Ptolemy's atlas, including the elusive first illustrated edition (published in Bologna in 1477), known as the first illustrated atlas of the world, here in its contemporary Nuremberg binding. As well as 10 editions of Ortelius, there are the great multi-volume compilations of Blaeu, Hondius and Jansson (including examples of the far rarer appendix volumes). The celebrated Italian composite "Lafreri Atlas" (Venice, c1570 and later) contains 190 maps and was owned by the family of Admiral Andrea Doria. Splendid examples of atlases of navigation, or "sea atlases", are numerous, in Latin, Dutch, English and French editions from the 15th to the 19th centuries. British cartography is represented from Christopher Saxton's atlas of England and Wales (London, 1579), across the centuries, including copies of all the Ordnance Survey from 1801 to the present. Classical geography texts, without maps, include Strabo, Geographia (Rome, 1469), the first printed book on the subject and this copy from the library of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth.

As an entity, the atlas collection was Bic Wardington's achievement alone, and was shelved apart from the main library of inherited books. In recent years, his increasing physical inability to handle these monumental large folio volumes, combined with the onset of heart disease and culminating with the shock of the fire, brought him to the sudden decision in March this year to dispose of the collection. The sale of the Wardington Collection of Atlases and Geographical Texts, all meticulously catalogued by the collector himself, will be conducted by Sotheby's in two parts, the first to be held in October, the second in October 2006. It is the most extensive and valuable collection devoted to cartography, all assembled by an individual book collector, ever to be offered for public competition at auction.

Bic Pease was a captain in the Scots Guards Regiment in Italy during the Second World War and he confided to his wife, many years later, that this of all his life's achievements was the one of which he was most proud. His battlefield experience was cut short three weeks after the landings at Anzio by a German shell that left enough shrapnel in him to prevent any future MRI scans.

Upon demobilisation he joined the firm of stockbrokers Hoare & Co, where he was made partner. The firm became Hoare Govett in 1950, the year Bic succeeded as Lord Wardington, and he remained there until 1986 when he retired from the City of London. For many years he was a member of the Council of the Stock Exchange. During his bachelor years he shared a flat above Lloyds Bank in St James's Street with his younger brother, Bill. Their father had owned, as well as Wardington Manor, a large house at Lepe in Hampshire, on the Solent overlooking Cowes, where the family took regular sailing holidays. This house was left to Bill in 1950 and the two brothers remained closely united, maintaining and developing their shared wine cellars in both Oxfordshire and Hampshire.

Bic's days as a bachelor were numbered in the 1950s as he relentlessly pursued his greatest passion of all, the beautiful former model Audrey Dunfee. They were married in 1964 and adopted three children, Lucy, Helen and Will. In addition to his hectic life as a stockbroker Bic Wardington was a City of London Alderman and had other charitable and benevolent interests, particularly the Athlone Trust (giving help for adopted children's education).

He became the first Chairman of the Friends of the British Library when it was founded in 1989, was Vice-President in 1994 after he stepped down as Chairman, and became President in 1999 upon the death of Lord Eccles. As Chairman of the Friends he proved a formidable and determined recruiter for it among associates in the City and an advocate in other areas of influence, while his own financial experience and shrewdness were very helpful. These, allied to his friendship with and knowledge of the library via Helen Wallis, the scholarly and enthusiastic BL Map Librarian for many years, made him a very fitting first chairman.

His patronage, for over 40 years, of contemporary British bookbinders is reflected by his commissioning of more than 150 bindings from over 50 binders, mostly on modern bible texts and atlases for the Wardington library, and his constant and continual support has made a significant contribution towards keeping the tradition of fine craft binding alive today. He attended courses at the Adult Education Centre in Bolt Street and was later made an Honorary Fellow of Designer Bookbinders. He was a member, too, of the Roxburghe Club, that most celebrated and selective of bibliophile groups, where he enjoyed a notable term as Treasurer.

Internationally, he, with Audrey by his side, was an eager attendee at congresses and colloquia of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie in continental Europe. Farther afield, he belonged to the Grolier Club of New York (where he was elected by unanimous acclamation to Honorary Foreign Corresponding Member in 2004) and was awarded the Sir Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting by the Gleeson Library Associates at the University of San Francisco in 1994.

An avid squash and tennis player in his youth, he was unstintingly generous with the benefits of his membership of the All England Lawn Tennis Association, holding paired seats at Centre Court and Court One at Wimbledon, which he often gave out to friends, in addition to his own seat in the Members Enclosure.

Aside from his books Bic Wardington's lifelong devotion was to Wardington, both the manor and the village itself (for many years he was captain of the village cricket club). One of his greatest attributes was a constant acknowledgement of his own good fortune, by virtue of his birth and his inheritance, coupled with a genuine desire to offer helpful support, in a most active way, to those less fortunate than himself. The villagers repaid this kindness to the full, on that fateful day of 16 April 2004, when they all linked up to form that human chain of rescue.

Stephen C. Massey

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