Peter Jackson

Man of parts who put together the largest collection in private hands of maps and prints relating to London

Saturday 01 February 2014 05:12
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Peter Charles Geoffrey Jackson, writer, artist and collector: born Brighton, Sussex 4 March 1922; married 1995 Valerie Harris; died Northwood, Middlesex 2 May 2003.

Whenever prints or maps of old London have been borrowed for exhibitions, television programmes or books, the name of Peter Jackson has invariably featured in the list of credits. Many seeking information about the capital's past sought his help because, apart from an encyclopaedic knowledge of London's history and topography, he owned what is thought to be the largest collection in private hands of material relating to London.

Jackson was a man of many talents – antiquarian, artist, author, bookbinder, broadcaster, sculptor – but his passion was London. For more than 50 years he was a magpie pecking away in antiquarian bookshops and salerooms. Prints, maps, drawings, books, ceramics, medals, playbills and ephemera associated with London were bought, catalogued and put in files or carefully mounted and stored in cabinets in his large house in west London.

Peter Jackson first came into the public eye in 1949 when he began drawing historical cartoons for the London Evening News. The Brighton-born artist had then recently left Willesden School of Art and heard that the newspaper wanted a weekly series on London, similar to Ripley's "Believe it or Not" cartoons in the Sunday Express. He sent off a few drawings with descriptive paragraphs and was subsequently invited for a meeting. Ideas were floated and the historical strips began. They lasted on and off until the paper closed in 1980. "London is Stranger Than Fiction" gave way to "The London Explorer" and "Somewhere to Go". They were all later published in book form by Associated Newspapers, and are now collectors' items.

His evocative "Saul of Tarsus", which appeared in the first issues of the Eagle comic, reflected Jackson's deeply held religious beliefs – he was a Sunday School teacher for many years – and was the first of many historical strips produced for the back page, though for Alfred Harmsworth's Answers magazine he returned to London themes with serials such as "Jack the Jailbreaker", a cartoon biography of Jack Sheppard, the early 18th-century robber from Stepney.

Accumulating information for the cartoons inspired Jackson and set him off on the lifelong trawl that netted his incomparable collection. The quest led to second-hand bookshops. "In those days," he said, "prints were stacked in boxes outside on the pavement marked 'Everything for sixpence', and I ransacked them for ones I liked." He became well-known in the salerooms and often an auctioneer would knock down a difficult lot to him, calling out before anyone else could make a bid, "Thirty bob, Mr Jackson – all right?" The greatest excitement was getting home and discovering what was in the boxes and portfolios. One early coup was his purchase, for less than £10, of Franz Hogenberg's rare 1569 engraving of the Royal Exchange, the earliest topographical engraving produced in England.

Very little escaped Jackson's attention or collection. Curators from national museums would cast covetous eyes at the 25,000 prints when they enquired about missing links in their holdings. Asked by one visitor for information about revelries held during the reign of James II, Jackson was able to produce pictorial references and a unique reminder of a historic occasion: a handbill issued in 1688 describing the firework celebrations on the Thames for the "happy birth" of James Edward Stuart – the Old Pretender. The only extant copy is in his collection and the British Museum borrowed it for an exhibition.

In 1990, for the exhibition "London Pride: a history of the capital's gardens", the Museum of London gathered enough material from the collection for several showcases. One display illustrated the Royal Horticultural Society's first flower show at Kensington in 1861. From 3,000 glass negatives in his collection (negatives subsequently donated to the National Monuments Record), the genial, ever-generous Jackson supplied photographs of the plantings and statuary in the show's Great Conservatory and added posters, admission tickets and prints and watercolours of the gardens.

An indication of the range of the collection can be gleaned from the books Jackson collaborated on with Felix Barker. London: 2,000 years of a city and its people (1974) was considered by Bernard Levin to be "the richest pictorial history of London ever compiled". Published in 1974, it remained in print for more than a quarter of a century, and was followed by A History of London in Maps (1990). On his own he produced London Bridge (1971), Walks in Old London (1993) and George Scharf's London (1987), a selection of the Bavarian-born artist's drawings of the Dickensian city.

A regular outlet for Jackson and part of the collection was the record, journals and maps published by the London Topographical Society. Jackson succeeded Professor W.F. Grimes as chairman of the society in 1974. He wrote the annotated notes for the 1969 reprint of John Tallis's Street Views of London, 1838-1840 (revised and reissued last year) as well as innumerable articles and drawings. His keys to Jan Kip's Prospect of London, Westminster and St James's Park (1720) will be published later this month in conjunction with the British Museum's celebratory exhibition "London 1753".

In 1998 "Old London Reconstructed", an exhibition devoted to his artistic output, was mounted at Guildhall Library. This included his bird's-eye perspectives of Tudor palaces, his sculpted figurines of London cries and illustrations for the engraved metal plaques that describe and identify places of historic interest around the City of London.

Last year, at a ceremony at Guildhall, Lord Briggs, President of the Ephemera Society, presented Jackson with the Samuel Pepys Medal for his contribution to ephemera studies.

Denise Silvester-Carr

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