Obituary: Eric Barton

Timothy d'Arch Smith
Friday 06 June 1997 23:02

Eric Barton was perhaps the last upholder of a once-ingrained tradition in the antiquarian bookselling fraternity, that of customer intimidation. Nobody better practised this age-long observance, poised on the knife-edge of querulousness and effrontery, of barring, by hook or by crook, any prospective browser from entering his shop. "We are closed, sir, closed," Barton would call out from his desk as the door was pushed open. "I am here only on urgent and personal business. I must ask you to leave at once."

In Barton's case this eccentricity, honed to a fine art, was deployed to test the seriousness of a collector who, if persistent and stout-hearted enough to force an entry into, again traditionally, chaotic premises, found himself confronted by an old-world courtesy divorced as far as it possibly could be from original, choleric, intolerance: further, that a knowledgeableness about stock largely of an ephemeral nature - postcards, magazines, posters, letters, memorabilia - extended into scholarship of a high order, especially in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and A.E. Housman and the life, as well as the writings, of Oscar Wilde.

Proprietorship of the Baldur Bookshop, Richmond, a Surrey landmark over which he had autocratically presided since 1936, had brought him in touch with a fair number of distinguished figures in all walks of life on whom he was prepared to discourse in the most genial and entertaining manner imaginable.

At Lord's, as an MCC member, he occupied a favoured seat in front of the pavilion on the Tavern side. Here, a raincoat of unambitious cut concealed an oppositionally dashing ensemble: lemon-yellow jacket, sharply pressed trousers. Hands were rested on a walking-cane. Snow-white hair, such as there was, was trimmed monthly by Trumper's of Curzon Street, where aristocratic gossip was enthusiastically garnered. As much as the game in progress, Barton enjoyed observing his fellow members, not all of them - despite the club's exclusive reputation among those who have never spent a day at "Headquarters" - possessed of a similar suavity to his own: whom as they passed before him he would adroitly and perceptively pigeonhole with characters from his favourite novelists, Dickens, Thackeray, Henry Green, Anthony Powell.

Fading eyesight was eventually to rob him of the pleasures of the summer game, an affliction he bore with stoicism and great good-humour. "Tell me," he asked one day as he fruitlessly raked the field of play with his binoculars. "Who's batting?" I supplied the name of the two batsmen at the wicket. "No, no. With the greatest possible respect: which team?"

Eric Barton was born in 1909 at Kew, the area of London he was to inhabit all his life, and was educated at Battersea Grammar School and University College London. Aged 18, he went to work for a publisher. Later he did a stint with the antiquarian firm of Dulau & Co, eventually setting up first in partnership, then, as befitted his independent spirit, on his own.

After the Second World War, in which, excused from front-line service because of a perforated eardrum, he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, shortage of capital deprived him of a distinguished library of French books which might have changed the course of his bookselling career. Yet with the ephemeral treasures he did market - the comic postcard, the children's book, the memorabilia of murder (he was a Jack the Ripper buff as well as an authority on the acid-bath murderer, John George Haig) - he had a closer affinity than with the grander, more mainstream, expensive landmarks of the printer's art.

This concentration on minutiae did not blind him to the necessity for public action on two important literary fronts: the preservation for the nation of Dylan Thomas's boathouse at Laugharne; and the erection of an LCC plaque on the Tite Street house of Oscar Wilde. Both enterprises were crowned with success.

Timothy d'Arch Smith

Eric William Wild Barton, bookseller: born Kew, Surrey 7 May 1909; married 1948 Irina Rowlands-Wisbeach (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died London 21 May 1997.

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