Obituary: Alan Thomas

Martin Hamlyn
Monday 03 August 1992 23:02 BST

Alan Gradon Thomas, bookseller, born 19 October 1911, died London 3 August 1992.

ALAN THOMAS was a most multi-talented one-man bookseller, a familiar breed but tending to close specialisation.

Thomas handled, and savoured, a vast range of manuscript and print. If one links him vaguely with 'the humanities', one neglects Sir Karl Popper's belief that Popper's own enthusiasms had nudged Thomas towards science - via Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Leibnitz. If one calls him an 'early printed' man (nowadays anything pre-1800), even a medievalist, one ignores his interest in William Morris, private presses, or Lawrence Durrell, whose bibliography he came to write, and who praised 'the wonderful historic sense' which informed Thomas's whole career.

Alan Thomas was born in 1911. At 16 he entered the book world as assistant to Ernest Cooper, who owned Horace G. Commin, a large traditional bookshop at 100 Old Christchurch Road, Bournemouth. About 1934 Thomas met Lawrence Durrell, roughly his own age. He soon became 'virtually a member of the Durrell family'. Lodging modestly in Boscombe, possibly spending more on books than on food, he seemed to the Durrells' mother as thin as a rake. Perhaps the 'unpredictable' Durrell menage provided crucial stimulus to an intellectually as was as physically hungry young man, possessed of energy but no 'higher' education. Frank Sayers the bookseller told me that he and Thomas were close friends in early days on walking holidays. Once, when the term 'scholar manque' cropped up in conversation, a curious expression on Thomas's face convinced Sayers that at heart Thomas so saw himself. Readers of Thomas's later scholarly catalogues would find little manque about him.

In 1936, Thomas 'had the good fortune' (at 25 one assumes he would have earned the usual pittance of those days) to buy Commin's. He survived the penurious 1930s (assisted in the shop by Fred Baker, eventually 'swept away' to the bookseller Charles Traylen). After RAF war service, as an ack-ack sergeant, he returned to move increasingly towards 'antiquarian' material. Under Thomas, Commin's sold early Bibles, Gutenberg and Caxton leaves, Johnson and Conan Doyle first editions - and quantities of general books old and new. In 1956 he brought out Catalogue 140 and '95,000 Books on five floors' - and he sold out.

Thomas set up in his own name from 7a Wimborne Road with Catalogue No 1. Nearly 50 have followed, noted for quality, information, insight, long intriguing notes, and 'an amusing and wry sense of humour extremely rare in catalogues'. Growing reliance on the London auctions for stock inspired his move in 1965 to the tall early-Victorian house in Hobury Street, Chelsea, with its rooms full of books and an attractive town garden, his home for the last 27 years.

Thenceforth he missed few sales. He bought most notably at the Phillipps manuscript sales of 1965-77. They became 'a major feature of my life', he said. Anthony Hobson of Sotheby's confirmed that he hardly missed one of the 30-odd sessions. Thomas hoped they would go on for over, and was disappointed when at last the residue of all the residues went to HP Kraus. The greatest plums were of course fiercely contested; but Thomas made bold and imaginative purchases in varied fields and an array of languages European and Oriental. His resources must by now have been considerable, but his placing was inspired. Much of what the bad baronet, Sir Thomas Phillipps, had trawled in the wake of the French Revolution was lovingly exploited and fittingly relocated by Thomas a century and a half later.

Thomas's knowledge and contacts grew. His memory, and the industry required to research so deeply, travel so widely, and catalogue so fully, were remarkable. But he found time for talks and articles - on Johnson (he was a keen Johnsonian); TJ Wise; Ralph Willett (with a convincing re-attribution of the subject of a Romney portrait); on his first 45 years in the trade, a genial and entertaining address to the Rare Books Group of librarians, from the other side of the counter. He was a notable President of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, and instrumental in launching the first Book Fair. Speaking at the Savoy, and looking towards the Thames, he evoked Wordsworth's 'Westminster Bridge' with point and feeling. Or he could steer deftly into the whole sad Shelley story from a mention of suburban Boscombe, where the Shelley relics came to rest.

And he wrote his own book. Fine Books (1967) covered four subject areas (with 24 coloured and over 100 plain illustrations it cost pounds 1 10s). In 1975 he greatly enlarged it (as Great Books) to 13 subjects. Typically , his advertisement read, 'O that mine adversary had written a book. Well, now's your chance; I have.' As to subjects, he once maintained, 'Of travel and botany I am hardly qualified to speak'; of architecture (a great love) he would jest that he dealt in it until Ben Weinreb put it out of his reach.

For his 70th birthday in 1981 a handsome Festschrift appeared. Prefaced by Durrell, it presented illustrated articles by 33 of Thomas's customers - a reverse catalogue by buyers instead of seller - commemorating great purchases from him. Of one of these, the Wynkyn de Worde Book of St Albans (1486), identified by Thomas as a printer's corrected copy for the next edition - the only pre-1500 example known - I recall his catalogue entry over- stamped 'Sold to the British Museum'. But this did not state that, generously acknowledging the museum's confirmation of his (correct) hunch, he charged a fraction of the list price.

Thomas always respected the trade's old timers, who came up the hard way, the loyal assistants, the Fred Bakers. For Barbara Burge, writing of the film of Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, they were 'shrewd, honest and funny . . . convivial and jovial and conscientious and anarchic. They were not repressed members of the middle classes with the souls of poets.' For Thomas, a 'guv'nor' at 25, they were the doughty footsloggers of the bookish army. He likewise admired the self-taught (and scruffy) incunabulist Solomon Pottesman, memorialising him with an exasperated affection barely this side of idolatry. But rightly - 'Potty' was unique; without Thomas he would have soon been laughed into oblivion.

Love of the past can provoke despair of the present. Alan could be fiercely fogeyish; and it was strange to hear scorn of unprintable 'Socialists' from the lips of an admirer of William Morris (and occasional wearer of Morris's father's splendid waistcoat). I think he found the modern world sad, and once assured me that Morris would have been appalled by it. Independent bookselling offered a rare chance to carve out one's own destiny.

He managed that. He pleased his customers; he enjoyed the respect and admiration of scholars and colleagues. Having sold enough books in a year, he and his wife Shirley would take off, in a Dormobile, for whatever exotic location they fancied.

He liked companionable dining and talk, at which he excelled, Gilbert and Sullivan and walking - he was delighted when Shirley, recovering from an operation, could walk with him from Chelsea into central London. He must have enjoyed his luxuriating beard. His vehement views did not affect his courtesy. Above all, he was as much an enthusiast - for the arts, literature, the history of ideas and beliefs - at 80 as he was at 20.

(Photograph omitted)

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