Obituary: Simon Nowell-Smith

Claire Preston
Friday 29 March 1996 01:02 GMT

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Each morning Simon Nowell-Smith's first order of business was scanning the daily newspaper obituaries. He would explain that he was checking to be sure he hadn't died without knowing it. That such a confusion might arise is not surprising, for if he had any views on the next world he must have imagined heaven as a place much like earth: a comfortable, hospitable house, filled with superb rare books, a serious cellar, set in a well- tended and abundant garden, and above all presided over by someone quite a lot like himself.

Although he will be remembered as a great bibliophile and bibliographical scholar of the highest order, his career was varied. His longest tenure was with the Times, where between 1932 and 1944 he was a member of the editorial staff, including two years as Assistant Editor of the Times Literary Supplement; during the Second World War he was a member of the Naval Intelligence Unit.

He was appointed Secretary and Librarian of the London Library in 1950, a post from which he retired in 1956. Later positions included the presidency of the Bibliographical Society (1962-64); the Lyell Readership in Bibliography at Oxford (1965-66); and trusteeship of Dove Cottage (1974-82).

His lasting avocation, however, was rare books: the focus of his collection shifted over the years, and he would as readily sell ranks upon ranks of his treasures as buy them if a new interest took hold and he required cash to finance it. In the late 1970s, for example, he aimed to acquire first editions of the early volumes of most English poets from the Romantics to the present. In those days he would be equally gleeful in the possession of Hwomely Rhymes by William Barnes, the Dorset dialect poet; Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants in pompous morocco-bound quarto; and Eliot's signed dedication to Virginia and Leonard Woolf who had printed his Poems (1919) and bound it in raucous homemade Bloomsbury wallpaper at the Hogarth Press.

The emphasis became rather more grand after 1983, the year he was asked to exhibit a selection of his books at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. On this occasion he decided to offer his very best and most covetable inscribed volumes, under the punning title "Wordsworth to Robert Graves and Beyond". This sepulchral wit was confined to the catalogue, however; the collection itself was at this time inspired with new life and immediately began to recreate itself.

In the years following the Bodleian exhibition, during which he had been buying and selling vigorously, visitors to his house were taken aback not only by the uncharacteristically huge gaps in the once-thronged shelves, but also by a bare wall where once a giant cabinet bookcase had stood, now summarily dismissed from service. Nowell-Smith had been getting rid of many minor items in order to buy into his new enthusiasm, first edition inscribed or association copies of the very best and greatest poets.

The idea of change in any collection was for him the signal fascination. A collection is an infinitely perfectable entity; the work is never quite done; the appetite is always whetted by the prospect of tracking down desiderata and of establishing their strange bibliographical histories, anomalies and absurdities. The focus of his own collection at any time was principally guided by literary taste; he was not a man who would collect what he could not read with delight. But the bonus of the book as an object with interest and qualities in its own right enhanced his pleasure. It was as well for his purse as for his taste that he was able to afford the very best of English literature.

Born in 1909, Simon Nowell-Smith was educated at Sherborne, where his father, Nowell Smith, a former Fellow of Magdalen, Oxford, was headmaster, and at New College, where he read Greats. Although he lived in London for many years, Nowell-Smith never really left Oxford. His principal dwellings were in Ewelme in the Fifties and Sixties, and Headington Quarry from the late Sixties (only in the late Eighties did he move into Headington itself, where he spent his last three years in a nursing home).

After the death of his wife Marion in 1977, he felt his rambling stone house, Quarry Manor, was too much for a single man, and so built himself an elegant bungalow at the bottom of his large garden; the new abode was quickly dubbed "Quarry Minor". From this house, after a prolonged period of bereavement, he began to re-establish both his collection of books and his wide circle of friends. Handsome even in old age, he reverted to an earlier sartorial wit; sporting a selection of unusual ties (his favourite was one made of red lame), a trilby and a walking stick, he could often be seen in the Bodleian working on his latest bibliographical project, or buying cheeses and coffee in the covered market, or taking people to lunch. In 1986 he married Judith Adams, an American art-book dealer resident in England.

He was the author of six books of his own, notably The Legend of the Master (1947), on Henry James; Letters to Mac-millan (1967), a history of the publishing house; and International Copyright Law and the Publisher (1968), still a standard work on the subject. He kept his literary output very much in the background, and would deprecate past achievements; he was made uneasy by ostentation and was embarrassed by eulogy. An encomiastic account of his bibliographical career by one of his acolytes was subject to intense editing and modification before it was reluctantly allowed into the Book Collector; he would not permit himself to be compared to the famous men of antiquarian books; the charming portrait photograph of him which hangs alongside other luminaries such as T.S. Eliot in the stairwell of the London Library worried and distressed him in the implied comparison.

Appreciation of simple pleasures remained with Simon Nowell-Smith always. He loved parodies, doggerel, limericks, and clerihews (which he composed readily, often in Greek). He grew fruit and vegetables and until late in life made his own bread. He was unfailingly generous to his friends in matters large and small, offering a Chassagne-Montrachet for lunchtime drinking, or lending sums of money to those who seemed to require it. Although he claimed to be a great snob, in fact he loathed pretension of any kind, and to those who did not properly understand his habit of cutting people for this fault seemed mercurial.

He looked at the obituaries every day as a sort of recursive joke. He himself wrote plenty of them for the Times, but only because they had the inestimable advantage of being about other people. He would regard all tributes to himself with dismay, including this one.

Simon Harcourt Nowell-Smith, writer, collector and librarian: born Winchester 5 January 1909; editorial staff, the Times 1932-44, Assistant Editor, Times Literary Supplement 1937-39; Secretary and Librarian, London Library 1950-56; Secretary, Hospital Library Services Survey 1958-59; President, Bibliographical Society 1962-64; married 1938 Marion Crichton (died 1977; two sons, one daughter), 1986 Judith Adams; died Headington, Oxfordshire 28 March 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in