26 — Mr Molini. The next figure in our sequence is deftly characterised by Karslake — “In the foreground, standing up, white-haired and soft-hatted, is the late Mr. Molini, an amiable, much-respected bookseller, of Italian descent, and, like Stibbs, a bit of a ‘character’. All day long he did nothing but munch biscuits, which he carried about in a side-pocket; giving him, so somebody said the other day, the appearance of a rabbit”.
Frederick Fowler Molini (1818-1895) was born in the City of London on 21st February 1818 and baptised at St. Lawrence Jewry on March 25th of that year. He was the son of Charles Frederick Molini and his wife Elizabeth Blain, an Anglo-Italian bookselling family already established in London as well as Florence. Molini was largely brought up in Paternoster Row, where his father had a shop for many years, later moving to 17 King William Street, off the Strand, by the mid 1840s. The younger Molini appears to have taken over the business, by now at 27 King William Street, after his father’s death in 1860.
Frederick Molini was certainly a serious and respected bookseller. He dealt mainly in French and Italian books and in 1866 supplied the British Museum with forty-two works by or relating to Dante, as well as frequent further treasures, like the first edition of the “Pensées de Mr. Pascal” sold to the Museum for seven guineas in 1870. On occasion he also acted as the Museum’s agent at auctions. In 1865 he married Maria Pyatt Donne (1846-1926), the daughter of a silver engraver, at Camberwell, and although two children died in infancy, his elder daughter, Edith Beatrice Mia Molini, lived on until the 1950s.
Quite how ‘indecent’ the prints and books were that he was charged with ‘scandalously selling and uttering’ in 1875, it is now impossible to say. The Society for the Suppression of Vice (founded by William Wilberforce and subsumed into the National Vigilance Association in 1885) had tipped off the police that Molini’s business at his new premises at 37 Soho Square should be looked into. A police stooge, a civil engineer named Harrison, was sent in and “after some conversation several purchases of indecent books and plates were made, for which high prices were charged”. A promise was also made that in a week or two an album might be available, “the most lovely work of art that had ever been seen, but the price of it would be £200”. Chief-Inspector Harnett rapidly applied for a warrant to arrest Molini and to search the premises. Twenty-one books and 295 prints were seized. The highly respectable firm of Dulau & Co., who also traded from 37 Soho Square, were mortified when initial newspaper reports involved them in the case. Retractions were duly made, while Molini was sent for trial. There it was claimed that the material in question must have been smuggled in from the continent, “as it was impossible that such things could have been brought over to this country in any other way”. The plea was guilty, Molini’s lawyer admitting that “he could not for one moment contend that these pictures and books were not indecent”. In mitigation, he made several points illustrative of the curious moral compass of the time — the books were all in foreign languages and rather expensive: there was therefore little danger of their corrupting the servants or falling into the hands of the poorer classes, which appears to have been the most important thing. Several character witnesses were called on Molini’s behalf, it was also noted that he did not advertise this kind of material, but he was still sent to prison for two months (without hard labour) and fined a hefty £50.
The remainder of Molini’s career, until his death in 1895, passed less molested by the pages of the popular press. He lived variously in Camberwell, Streatham and Peckham, in later years describing himself as a literary agent, as well as a bookseller.
27 — The seated figure in a round hat just beyond Molini is something of a mystery. Roberts identifies him as Mr H. Stevens, but Henry Newton Stevens (19) is plainly seated on the opposite side of the table and has already been discussed. The other commentators are silent, but in that Roberts mistook Stevens for Bertram Dobell (1842-1914), it may be that this is simply a case of the transposition of the two names. Known portraits of Dobell were made later in life and from different angles. It is impossible to be certain, but this may be him and we would be surprised at his absence from the picture — he was a regular in the rooms. Frank Herrmann recounts in his history of the auction-house that on one occasion “little Bertram Dobell, bookseller and poet” tried jestingly to open the bidding on a very valuable lot with a bid of one shilling. Tom Hodge, at the rostrum, chided, “Come, come, Mr. Dobell, you ought to know better than that”. Exuding injured innocence, Dobell replied, “I’ll give a shilling for any lot, Sir”. Hodge let this pass, but a few lots later a bundle of worthless books came up for which there was no bid. “A shilling to Mr. Dobell”, announced the auctioneer. Dobell protested that he had made no bid, to which the answer was that the entire room had heard him say that he would give a shilling for any lot — and Hodge kept him to his word for the remainder of the day.
Dobell was born at Battle in Sussex in 1842, the son of a journeyman tailor who later became disabled. His early life was unremittingly hard and difficult, but starting out in life as a grocer’s errand-boy, later a porter, brought up in poverty, without much education, Bertram Dobell used his newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop (opened on meagre savings and some outside help in 1868) as a platform to start a book business that was to become one of the most famous in the world. Issuing his first catalogue in 1876, he was the first bookseller to find premises on the Charing Cross Road, opening a shop at No. 54 in the newly built and just opened street in 1887. A second shop across the road at No. 77 followed in 1894. His life story — the rediscovery of Thomas Traherne, the rescuing of James Thomson, his own reputation as a poet, etc. — has often been rehearsed. The easiest point of reference is the biography (compiled by his great-grandson, my friend and colleague the late Anthony Rota) in the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, but he was memorialised even in his own lifetime in Samuel Bradbury’s 32-page tribute, “Bertram Dobell : Bookseller and Man of Letters” (1909). Arthur Quiller-Couch noted that, “He is at pains to make his second-hand catalogues better reading than half the new books printed, and they cost us nothing”. On his death in 1914, the “New York Times” blazoned the story under a quadruple-tiered headline, the first element loudly proclaiming, “DOBELL, FAMOUS BOOKSELLER, DEAD”.
As A. Edward Newton described him, “Old Dobell is in a class by himself — scholar, antiquarian, poet, and bookseller. He is just the type one would expect to find in a shop on the floor of which books are stacked in piles four or five feet high, leaving narrow tortuous paths through which one treads one’s way with great drifts of books on either side. To reach the shelves is practically impossible, yet out of this confusion I have picked many a rare item … and let me observe that the prices of this eighteenth-century bookshop are of the period”. Dobell was also the founder of a distinguished bookselling dynasty, a son, a great-grandson and a great-great-grandson all in time were to serve as presidents of the ABA.
28 — Mr F. Locker-Lampson (1821-1895) — another poet — “On the right of Mr. Molini, seated, is the aristocratic figure of Frederick Locker-Lampson, poet and bibliophile, whose splendid Rowfant Library has just been acquired by Dodd, Mead & Co. of New York. I remember Mr. Locker (as he was then), chatting with me on booky matters, and saying “Don’t you know there is a social revolution going on?” He was referring to the breaking up of the old private libraries, and their acquisition by the new rich men. Upon another occasion I tried to tempt him with some bibliographical rarity, and, with a most expressive shrug of the shoulders and inflection of the voice, he said, ‘No! I’m getting old’” (Karslake).
Born at Greenwich Hospital into a naval family, Frederick Locker became Locker-Lampson after marrying his second wife, the children’s writer Hannah Jane Lampson, daughter of Sir Curtis Lampson, of Rowfant, Sussex, taking the Lampson name to succeed to the family estate. Originally a clerk in a broker’s office, later at the Admiralty, he became a man of leisure and substance when in 1850 he married his first wife, Lady Charlotte Bruce, daughter of the Earl of Elgin — the man who brought the Elgin marbles to England. His first book of poems, “London Lyrics” (1857), was a popular success, much reprinted in the nineteenth century. His talent was essentially modest — vers de société and vers d’occasion — Thackeray once told him, “I have a sixpenny talent, and so have you; ours is small-beer, but, you see, it is the right tap”. Aside from Thackeray, he was also a friend of Trollope, Lord Lytton, Matthew Arnold, the Brownings, Carlyle, George Eliot, Dickens and Tennyson — his daughter Eleanor married Tennyson’s son Lionel in 1878 (her second husband was Augustine Birrell).
It is as a book-collector that he is now chiefly remembered. Roberts knew him well and described his collection in some detail: “The late Frederick Locker-Lampson, whose lamented death occurred whilst the earlier pages of this book — in which he took much interest — were passing through the press, was an ideal book-collector. He cared only for books which were in the most perfect condition. The unique character of the Rowfant library, its great literary and commercial value, and its wide interest, may be studied at length in its admirable catalogue, which of itself is a valuable work of reference. Mr. Locker, for it is by this name, and as the author of “London Lyrics”,’ that he will be best remembered, devoted his attention almost exclusively to English literature, although of late years he had devoted as much attention as his frail health would allow to the formation of a section of rare books in French literature. It would be impossible to describe in this place all the many book rarities at Rowfant; we must be content, therefore, with indicating a few of the more interesting ones: Alexander Pope’s own copy of Chapman’s translation of Homer, 1611; one of the largest known copies of the First Folio Shakespeare, 1623; an extensive series of the first or early quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, about fifty in number — including the spurious plays — many of which were at one time in the collections of Steevens, George Daniel, Tite, or Halliwell-Phillipps. The library is rich in other writers of the Elizabethan period — of Nash, Dekker, Greene, Gabriel Harvey. There are also a long series of the first editions of Dryden; the earliest issues of the first complete edition of “Pilgrim’s Progress”; of “Robinson Crusoe” (the three parts); of “Gulliver’s Travels”, besides about a score of other ‘editiones principes’ of Swift, Pope, Goldsmith, Fielding, Richardson, Johnson, Gay, Gray, Lamb, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Thackeray, Dickens and many others. The two early printed books of especial interest are the “De Senectute”, printed by Caxton, 1481, and Barbour’s “Actis and Lyfe of the maist Victorious Conquerour, Robert Bruce, King of Scotland”, printed at Edinburgh by Robert Lepruik in 1571. The room in which the books are kept is virtually a huge safe; it was at one time a small ordinary room, and it has been converted into a fireproof library, with brick walls within brick walls; the floor of concrete, nearly two feet thick, and a huge iron door, complete an ingenious and effective protection against the most destructive of all enemies of books — fire”.
29 — Mr E. Walford. The last identified figure in this portrait of the sale-room, seated at the table in an inverness-cape and gazing intently at the auctioneer, is Edward Walford (1823-1897), antiquary, journalist and prolific author, responsible for perhaps a hundred separate publications. Born at Chelmsford, educated at Charterhouse and Balliol, ordained in 1848 and sometime schoolmaster at Tonbridge and Clifton, his earliest works were school-masterly or theological — for example, “A Series of Progressive Exercises in Latin Elegiac Verse” (1847) or “The Holiness of a Christian Child” (1850).
He soon turned to more general works of reference, especially in the compiling of biographical notes and sketches: “Hardwicke’s Annual Biography for 1856 : Containing Original & Selected Memoirs of Celebrated Characters who have Died during the Year” (1855); “Walford’s Records of the Great and Noble” (1857); “Photographic Portraits of Living Celebrities, with Biographical Notices by E. Walford” (1859). In 1860 he compiled the first edition of his “The County Families of the United Kingdom”, published annually for half a century or more.
He later turned increasingly to topography as a topic, writing pieces for “The Times” under the byline “Londoniana”. When Walter Thornbury, author of “Old and New London” (1873 onwards), died in 1876, Walford completed the final four volumes of that endlessly popular history by 1878, going on the write “Greater London”, published serially between 1882 and 1884. His relations with his contemporaries were not always smooth. He could be cantankerous. A friend remembered him as “the most facile of all journalists. There is probably nothing he could not have done had he set his mind to it. His besetting fault was a singular angularity of temperament — a stubborn obstinacy of honesty, so to speak— which bred enemies where he ought only to have enjoyed friendship. It is said of Matthew Arnold that he believed Edward to the most honest man alive” (Edinburgh Evening News, Tuesday 23rd November 1897).