Beautiful as the private press editions may be, it is difficult to picture the ‘customers’. Most private presses do little for promotion, do not sell their editions through the usual bookstores and have a circulation at which a normal publisher would smile pityingly. Interviews or studies mostly concern the typographic qualities and aesthetics. We are well informed about the content. But one rarely reads anything about the final destination of the private press edition: the collector’s bookcase. A recent history of Dutch bibliophily is a happy exception. What type of people are these bibliophile book collectors? And how do they acquire their books?
Bibliophiles gathering together
Bibliophiles seek each other out. The explanation is obvious. After all, an enviable purchase for the bibliophile, for which he happily hands over hundreds of euros, can be for another person a pile of dusty paper. Even this very thought is a crime for a collector. He or she especially wants to discuss his or her hobby with the like-minded and show off their treasures to fellow enthusiasts. Thus clubs and societies of book and often manuscript collectors had arisen by the nineteenth century. An aspect of these was often the personal printing of editions.
Gatherings such as these were a flourishing phenomenon especially in England.There were three types of clubs: the so-called ‘printing societies’ who had beautiful books printed for their members; ‘bibliographical societies’ which, as their name suggests, focused on bibliographic knowledge; and the ‘book clubs’, such as the Roxburghe Club, where enthusiasts and bibliomaniacs met. In Germany the Literarischer Verein zur Herausgabe älterer Druck- und Handschriften had a similar objective; in Flanders the Maetschappij der Vlaemsche Bibliophielen arose; in France the Société des Bibliophiles François; and in the Netherlands the Vereeniging ter bevordering der oude Nederlandsche letterkunde [Association for the promotion of old Dutch Literature], founded in 1843, whose members collected old manuscripts and printed matter and discussed the contents. Some collectors, like Willem Bilderdijk, did not shrink from copying a manuscript themselves in order to have the text in their possession. Bilderdijk’s interest was clearly in the content, not the form.
Sometimes an individual, as a lover of beautiful books, would have a book printed for their own use, which could be regarded as an early form of the private press in action. J.C. Hacke van Mijnden was one such book lover: he had filled many years translating Dante’s Divina commedia. The colossal resulting book was printed at his request in a limited edition and distributed by the wealthy translator to libraries and institutions.
In the late nineteenth century, when more interest in book design arose, clubs and groups once again came into existence with the specific intention to stimulate a better quality of printing by organizing exhibitions. Among the reformers were bookbinders and artists, and later authors as well, but apparently no bibliophiles. One of those clubs was the Vereeniging Kunst toegepast op boekbanden [Association of Art applied to bookbindings], founded in 1895. The number of members in the 1897–1898 fiscal year was ’42 ordinary and 30 interested members’.The association issued a periodical, De boekband [The bookbinding], and organized several exhibitions.
Gradually, the idea penetrated the community of book-lovers that the outside of a book could not be dissociated from the inside. ‘The real book enthusiast,’ as typographer A.W. Barten stated in 1904, is one ‘who not only appreciates content but also has feeling for the way it has been produced, such as print, illustration, binding, especially those objects that are made by artists in harmony with the contents’.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the drive to enhance the quality of printing caught on. Some artisan associations were formed, often with people who had a printing training or who were connected to a periodical. In Ons vakblad [Our trade paper], a monthly for ‘the art of the book in the Netherlands’, which first appeared in 1909, they were called trade unions or ‘study clubs’ such as the ‘Vereeniging tot veredeling der grafische kunst Studieclub “Amsterdam”’ [Association for the improvement of printing study club of ‘Amsterdam’] or the typography study circle ‘Voor Vak en Kunst’ [For Profession and Art] in Nijmegen.
Such clubs were also active in Bergen op Zoom, Haarlem and Zaandam. Exhibitions and competitions were organized and members were kept up to date with news about technical matters. In this early period, the famous letter designer S.H. de Roos acted as a jury member in competitions. The members of these clubs were young people working in the printing trade. It is not certain whether they also collected books; this hobby was no doubt financially beyond them. A higher social class seemed to be concealed behind other clubs, such as the Vereeniging Boekband & Bindkunst [Society for Bookbinding & Binding Art] or the Vereeniging ter bevordering der Graphische Kunst [Society for the promotion of Graphic Arts]. Many artists, for example, were members of the Vereeniging ter bevordering der Graphische Kunst. (LK)
An example for Dutch bibliophile clubs in the twentieth century must have been The Limited Editions Club (LEC), founded in New York in 1929. This association, in fact a kind of bibliophile book club, had no less than 1500 members, who, for a fixed subscription, were sent beautiful illustrated books. One Dutch club of bibliophiles was the Bibliofielen-Liga Eelderwolde [Bibliophiles League] (originally named ‘Den Enck’).
The club was founded by H. Prakke (later, he became director of publishers company Van Gorcum) and members met regularly. They were book-lovers in the broadest sense. Not only did they read them, they also produced a newsletter under the baffling title of De eikel [The acorn] that included ‘a curious combination of cut, paste and printing’. Later, using an ‘old copy press’ a joint production, Het open veld [The open field], was created in 1923, on which Hendrik Werkman and Bertus Smit worked together. The run amounted to 25 numbered and signed copies.
Collectors also found each other in the Nederlandsch Verbond van Boekenvrienden [Dutch Association of Book Friends], founded in 1925: the archive is now kept in Museum Meermanno.
Menno Hertzberger was allegedly its founder. Members were people from the trade: an antiquarian bookseller; a librarian; a publisher; a typographer and a scientist – in short, enthusiasts with a professional background.
H. Prakke of Bibliofielen-Liga was also a member. ‘Do you prefer to choose wealthy bibliophiles as members? Or does someone like me come into consideration in my capacity as bookbinder (specialty: repairing old bindings)?’, as the question was submitted to the board. The bookbinder was allowed to join. However, in total no more than 100 people were members of this club. The membership fee was five guilders, in exchange for which the association organized exhibitions and lectures. Interests were quite diverse, from medieval manuscripts to popular books.
The largest group were the fans of ‘fine letters’, that is, the editions of De Zilverdistel and other typographical delights. For a short time the members received their own newsletter, Voor onze boekenvrienden [For our book friends] for which copy was ‘borrowed’ from another book magazine, Het boek. A plan that did not come to fruition was the ‘evening talks’ that would be held by a private collector at his home. What certainly featured amongst the triumphs were the book exhibitions the association organized. In addition, voting for the Best Verzorgde Boeken [Best Designed Books] (incidentally, not from the private presses, but professional book publishers) is due to the association.
That there were more interested parties than members is demonstrated by the fact that in 1931, in over two weeks, there were no fewer than 849 visitors to the exhibition of Best Verzorgde Boeken. In 1932 the Nederlandsch Verbond van Boekenvrienden found it necessary to merge with the Vereeniging Museum voor de Grafische Vakken’ [Museum for the Printing Trades] but this cooperation was terminated in 1938. Between 1940 and 1942, a few instalments of the Nederlandsch Verbond van Boekenvrienden’s own journal called Imp. appeared: a beautiful publication that, due to the limited edition, has since naturally become a popular collector’s item itself. But other initiatives in the field of book design attracted a wider audience.
‘During my childhood, I do not recall having any other books in my hands than books of the Wereldbibliotheek [World Library]’ said Johan Polak. He would become the most renowned Dutch collector of the period after the Second World War. ‘I can still describe the bindings exactly’.
What was so special about the books from this publisher? The Wereldbibliotheek (WB), also called the ‘Maatschappij voor goede en goedkoope lectuur’ [Society for good and cheap literature] was an attempt to instil some bibliophil into the common man. Although it did not concern private press editions the English private presses had inspired the WB.
The director, Leo Simons, had stayed in England for a considerable time. The WB brought out tastefully bound books of good literature at a low price. This was possible because the runs were high. It seems that this approach worked, and that people could get a taste of bibliophily thanks to the WB books. In any case, Johan Polak was convinced of this. (LK)
For the first Dutch private press, De Zilverdistel, such a members’ club also seemed to be a solution. This was not because of social considerations but in order to generate sufficient custom for each publication. A prospectus was circulated to arrive at a Vereeniging der Vijftig [Association of Fifty] ‘whose members commit themselves to subscribing to Dutch works to be published by De Zilverdistel’. A subscription was for a minimum of two years in order to give the press a little financial certainty.
Next to booksellers such as Scheltema & Holkema and Meijer (who probably sold the books on to private individuals) members included artists such as R.N. Roland Holst and Rie Cramer. Also on the list was W.A. Engelbrecht, who, besides being a business partner of a ship broking firm in Rotterdam, was also a bibliophile. As a member of the Vereeniging der Vijftig, he not only received editions of De Zilverdistel, but also supported the press financially.
He actually was not so much a collector of private press editions, but rather of atlases, travel books and journals. This collection endured a fire in 1931 and the flood disaster of 1953, yet after his death in 1965 it was still valued at no less than three million guilders.
Another early association was de Vereeniging Joan Blaeu [Joan Blaeu Association], founded in 1916. The group formed in response to the publication of a book on graphic arts in the Netherlands, the limited edition of which generated much enthusiasm. Its founders came from different fields: publishers such as C.A.J. van Dishoeck; writers such as P.C. Boutens; and later, artists like Jan Veth and R.N. Roland Holst, and collectors such as D. Scheurleer. The aim was to stimulate interest in well-designed books by offering special books to its members.
In the first year the association succeeded in recruiting 100 members. Still more poets and publishers became members as well as the private presses. The highest number achieved was 200 members. After 1921 the association dipped a little and in 1931 there were only 49 members left. In the end, the association produced only four books and one exhibition with an accompanying catalogue. One of these books was a two-part edition of Bredero’s poems in 250 copies which were also sold to non-members. But the connoisseurs savaged it.
In 1938, the Vereeniging Joan Blaeu was disbanded and the Nederlandsche Vereeniging voor Druk- en Boekkunst [Dutch Association of Printing and Book Arts] was launched. The aim was the publication of typographically well-designed works and bringing together those interested in them. The association was able to recruit about 250 members who handed over an annual 15 guilders. In 1961 the association was as good as dead but in 1995 it received a new breath of life.
The Vereeniging was productive as well, which is to say that some printed material was produced which ended up on members’ bookshelves. One could also describe the annual fee as a ‘subscription’ that the members paid for new works to be printed. In 1955 the association wanted to set up a membership recruiting campaign that included high schools. The idea was to interest young people in the beautiful book, so their membership would cost just four guilders. It is not clear whether this membership recruitment campaign was carried out.
Another ‘productive’ association is the Stichting De Roos (founded 1945) which produces two or three publications a year for 175 members. Committee and members meet at ‘Roos lunches’ which are organized biannually. Of the three founders, two were collectors of bibliophile books and prints: Chris Leeflang and G.M. van Wees. The latter was also a member of the Nederlandsche Ex Libris Kring [Dutch Bookplate Circle].
After the war, the interest in the foundation’s work was overwhelming. ‘The existing book hunger apparently manifested itself in this way – good books were scarce and here people saw an opportunity to get their hands on them’. For some time there was even a waiting list. That ordinary books looked poor and shabby due to the paper shortage would have played a role in this interest. Current membership comprises mostly ‘private’ bibliophiles, some of whom live in Belgium. Professionals from the book trade and institutions such as libraries are also members.
Of a very different nature is the Genootschap voor Tegennatuurlijke letteren [Society of Unnatural Literature], a literary club founded in Nijmegen; besides celebrities (in those days), such as Johan Polak and singer Robert Long, a few owners of private presses are or were members. These printing press members collectively exhibited their editions in 1987: Ger Kleis, Ton Leenhouts, Johan Polak, David Simaleavich, Paul Snijders and G.M. van Wees. Under the imprint ‘Amor Vincit’, the Society published several books itself. Characteristic of the club is an interest in homosexuality.
In recent years, the Nederlands Genootschap van Bibliofielen [Dutch Society of Bibliophiles] has been the most prominent society, but the interest of the approximately 150 members is, with few exceptions, mainly in the old book. In the society’s Jaarboek [Yearbook], which has been appearing since 1992, there is little attention paid to private presses.
It is striking that collecting clubs focusing on one single author often have a bibliophile edge, such as the active group of people who collect the works of writer and tv-personality Boudewijn Büch who died unexpectedly in 2002. This phenomenon is connected to the amount of bibliophile printed matter existing of such an author’s work: there is a great amount concerning Boudewijn Büch.
Next to Boudewijn Büch, Gerard Reve also has active collectors, who, besides looking for bibliophile editions and pirate editions, are also interested in bits of toenail and other paraphernalia of the great Dutch writer (Reve often accompanied his letters with some hair or a nail clipping). Reve collectors unite in the Gerard Reve Genootschap [Gerard Reve Society]. The Büchians, divided into The Blue Poet Society and ‘Büchmania’ are prepared to emulate Büch’s distant travels and even collect DVDs of the Lassie rice television commercials in which their hero figured.(LK)
Bookplate for W.A. Engelbrecht. MM: MBE 03919. (MM)
Bookplate for G.M. van Wees, by J. Buckland Wright. MM: SA 07080. (MM)
Hella S. Haasse,Twee verhalen. Utrecht, Stichting De Roos, 1993. MM: Archief De Roos. (MM)
Ludovico Ariosto,Orlando furioso. Eerste zang in de vertaling van Ike Cialona. Utrecht, Stichting De Roos, 1994. Cover proof. MM: Archief De Roos. (MM)
Ludovico Ariosto,Orlando furioso. Eerste zang in de vertaling van Ike Cialona. Utrecht, Stichting De Roos, 1994. Page proof. MM: Archief De Roos. (MM)
Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso. Eerste zang in de vertaling van Ike Cialona. Utrecht, Stichting De Roos, 1994. Letter of 22 February 1994 with printing proofs. MM: Archief De Roos. (MM)
Private collectors: the authors
While the private collectors of the early nineteenth century were especially looking for old books and manuscripts, in the 1880s interest grew for unique and special copies.It is the writers themselves who endeavour to make from their work a beautiful and ‘most special’ book. They are also lovers of beautiful books and not necessarily as part of an association. For example, the poet Willem Kloos had, for its day, a spectacular library of approximately 17,000 titles. These included superb illustrated works by and about nineteenth-century poets, such as the second edition of Poems by Jacques Perk ‘decorated’ by Th. Nieuwenhuis.Poet Henriëtte Roland Holst also collected bibliophile books; that is to say, she had 50 in her possession.
When one regards the whole spectrum of book-lovers of the past 100 years, writers stand out as a striking category of bibliophile collectors. Writers are both enthusiasts and interested parties. Sometimes they make up the basis of a private press like De Zilverdistel. Among the major collectors there are always a few writers. These days one thinks of bibliophiles like writer Gerrit Komrij, who made a couple of explicit remarks on the subject: ‘The bibliophile is a glutton, a pig, a common hoarder. Books are for him not an end but a means. A means, with a veneer of civilization, to behave like a savage with a bow and arrow racing through the jungle, fiercely striking down everything that gets in his way’.Komrij has brought many editions into existence with Sub Signo Libelli, Ger Kleis’ press, for instance by writing a cycle of ‘homosexual poems’ to order.
The writers who stood at the cradle of De Zilverdistel were, as previously stated, collectors themselves. P.N. van Eyck, for example, had not only De Zilverdistel publications, but also the complete Palladium series, furthermore in perfect condition. He also possessed several series of A.A.M. Stols. In 1972, 18 years after his death, the J.L. Beijers auction house sold his library. The size of the poet and critic Greshoff’s library is unknown, but initially he emphatically presented himself as a bibliophile and published regularly on bibliophile subjects. Later he wrote: ‘Although I am totally alienated from bibliophily this does not prevent me defending the Beautiful Book against the indifferent money-grubbers.’
J.C. Bloem also had a considerable library and was known as a bibliomaniac. He was simply addicted to books and, as he bought more than he could afford, he had huge debts. These were perhaps as high as the stacks of books in his library that, according to his partner Clara Eggink, as a whole resembled a ‘miniature skyscraper city of books’.Naturally he had the Palladium series and Zilverdistels and he gave them special treatment.
As he wrote to Van Eyck, ‘The day after tomorrow I will bring Doofhof [Maze], the Sterren [Stars] and Uitzichten [Views] to Amsterdam to be bound by Brandt. Then will you be so kind as to transcribe the dedications in Doolhof and Sterren; I will tear them out to show you what they say’.Bloem also had editions of A.A.M. Stols from the Trajectum ad Mosam and the Halcyon series.
The bibliophile editions of the Zondagsdrukkers are of a later date. It seems that Bloem usually received his bibliophile editions from the respective authors because they bear handwritten dedications from them. He also had several books printed on behalf of E. du Perron.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the writer and critic Du Perron had various editions printed by a Brussels printer: private poetry anthologies of work by Slauerhoff, Roland Holst and Jan van Nijlen, among others. For him it was not a matter of the book’s beauty but the perfection of the composition, the selection for the anthology. ‘It just pleased him to give some nice books that he liked to his friends,’ said Jan van Nijlen.
G.H. ’s-Gravesande was, like Greshoff, a literary critic and he possessed a large number of private press editions.And like him, he published on his hobby, including the book De herleving van de Nederlandsche boekdrukkunst sedert 1910 [The revival of Dutch printing since 1910] which appeared in 1925. His hobby, which grew into a true passion, started in 1909 at 27 years of age when he published a poem by himself for a select company. In his obituary, even the word ‘passion’ was found wanting and was therefore replaced by ‘deep faith, yes, a love that is a cult, resembling a religion’.
He must have had a wonderful collection from which he drew great joy: ‘What life withheld from him in happiness and joy, a text in the elegant, new letters of the master printers S.H. de Roos and Jan van Krimpen on pristine paper by Van Gelder in a handsome edition from De Zilverdistel, Palladium, the Kunera Pers, the Trajectum ad Mosam or the Halcyon series seemed to pay him a return tenfold’.The collection of ’s-Gravesande was auctioned in 1966; it then numbered about 4000 titles. (LK)
Private collectors: the patrons
Besides the writers and graphic designers there was another notable group of enthusiasts and collectors of bibliophile editions. These were the wealthy enthusiasts and patrons such as W.A. Engelbrecht, Paul May, M.R. Radermacher Schorer, Bob Nijkerk, E. van der Borch van Verwolde and Johan Polak – and probably still some others who have not sought publicity. It was, and is, about people, mostly men, with a well-filled wallet who liked to surround themselves with culture. Today, wealthy Dutch count out a fortune for a place in the skybox of the football stadium, but in the decades just before and after the Second World War it was quite different. Then the lucky ones often spent their money on books.
Not all private press editions are expensive but Zilverdistels certainly are, costing between €500 and €1000. Editions of Stichting De Roos can also be expensive. The publisher Stols, one of the largest and one of the most commercial private presses (although this does almost seem contradictory), showed a good grasp of this when he named one of his series (in English!) ‘To the happy few’. Who were these happy few?
Little is known about Paul May. This banker at Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co. in Amsterdam invested in the Heuvelpers and must have been a great lover of limited editions.On the outbreak of the Second World War in the Netherlands, 15 May 1940, he and his wife committed suicide. His book collection, including not only modern bibliophily such as the Kelmscott Press, the Heuvelpers, the Bremer Presse and De Zilverdistel, but also many eighteenth-century books, was estimated at over 63,000 guilders in 1940, a considerable sum for those days. The collection was auctioned in Switzerland, but not until some years after his death.
M.R. Radermacher Schorer was the director of a fire insurance firm as well as a bibliophile. In his Utrecht home, he had four ‘library rooms’ for approximately 10,000 books. They were classified by size (as Johan Polak did later) with a ladder against the bookcases so he could reach the top shelf. Radermacher Schorer went down in history as an influential patron.He held a salon in his home in Utrecht and invited friends such as artist Charley Toorop, writer Jan Engelman and others.
In 1947, inspired by Swiss bibliophiles, he tried to convince the Dutch enthusiasts of the Beautiful Book to join forces in a society. He was thus a great collector but he himself saw it differently. ‘Look, I’m not a collector,’ he said. ‘I do not run my legs off for a first edition and I am not willing to pay excessive prices, although I do admit that a first edition sometimes gives an unparalleled expression of the atmosphere of the time’, he explained to the readers of De groene Amsterdammer in 1949.He not only gave money to impoverished artists, but also advised them how to handle it. Hence, for instance, he managed the money made over to J.C. Bloem in the form of the Constantijn Huygens Prize.
Radermacher Schorer’s passion for private press editions must also be considered as a form of patronage. By buying the editions, usually directly from the publisher, artist or typographer, he supported the printers and writers. He also received gifts of books from A.A.M. Stols. For Radermacher Schorer, the private presses were breeding grounds for typographic innovations and therefore deserved his full support. ‘Here first attempts are undertaken, here are experiments dared,’ he said, and he compared the bibliophile printers with ‘laboratories’.His purchases were a way of keeping in touch with the people who fascinated him: ‘Through the creation of my extensive book treasure, in which the youngest of all have also earned a place, I have become acquainted with many’.Thus he bought generously, an average of 300 editions a year; he administered them as an amateur librarian and carefully adhered shelf mark labels on the books (now no longer a bibliophile characteristic).
Converted into money, the growth of his collection represents an annual expenditure of 2500 guilders at a time when the guilder was worth seven times as much as the euro is now.He strove for completeness with a mathematical precision. A large part of his collection has found its way to the Museum Meermanno by way of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. He also threw himself into being an advisor to A.M. Hammacher who wished to organize a library of bibliophile editions for the Kröller-Muller Museum, a plan that was not realized. Nor were Radermacher Schorer’s plans for the association of ‘Het Schone Boek’ [The Beautiful Book].
It was a coincidence that Emile Baron van der Borch van Verwolde was born in 1910, the same year that De Zilverdistel started; but he certainly was a great book collector, particularly of bibliophile editions. Bibliophily was in the family, including his uncle M.P. Voûte who was a formidable collector although he was more interested in content than form.The young Emile chose private press editions as his collecting area and devoted all his money to it. He was a law student and did not have much to spend, but he bought almost everything A.A.M. Stols issued.
On 9 October 1931, Stols reported to John Buckland Wright that ‘a certain Emile Baron ... etc. would like to have 30 ex. of Rimbaud printed (two verses). He is very rich and enthusiastic’ wrote Stols, ‘We shall have to lead him with care’. Afterwards, Emile’s mother found that they had not done this sufficiently. They had delivered books and had made credit arrangements for money that the young man did not have. His accounts for 1931 and 1932 show that the then barely 21 year old Emile had spent more on Stols’ editions than the annual income of a skilled tradesman.
His monthly payments were far from sufficient but he still had his grandfather’s legacy at his disposal. He had his purchases beautifully bound in leather by Elias P. van Bommel. His mother finally was forced to buy all copies of a Swinburne edition, Dolores, and Emile had so many debts that he was put under legal restraint. He went to work at Stols as a volunteer – which must have been like trusting the cat to guard the cream. In spite of all, he graduated in 1940. During the war he took part in resistance activities, was betrayed and executed in 1943. His mother died in 1966, at which point the last Swinburne copies finally came on the market.(LK)
Ex-libris van Paul May, door L.W.R. Wenckebach. MM: V 00557. (MM)
M.R. Radermacher Schorer, 1946, door Nico Jesse. (Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam)
Ex-libris van Emile van der Borch van Verwolde door J. Buckland Wright en A.A.M. Stols. MM: SA 07057. (MM)
Johan Polak and M.B.B. Nijkerk
The publisher Johan Polak (1928–1992) was also supported by his mother, with whom he lived long after he had become an adult. He said he had learned to read when very young and was therefore full of reverence for the book. Before the war, the company Polak-Schwarz had a factory for fragrances and flavourings and because the president Dolf Schwartz, as a ‘chemical genius’, was able to make a sugar substitute, some family members were able to avoid deportation to a German concentration camp. Others were arrested, interned or went into hiding.
The money of the factory poured back into the lap of the family and in 1961 the 33 year old Johan Polakbecame a millionaire. He had previously served an internship with the publisher Geert van Oorschot, whose publishing house of the same name was known for its aesthetically designed publisher’s list, and he studied classical languages. His money went into books.
‘His library,’ as biographer Möller so beautifully phrased it, ‘was not just a fortress against the outside world, but more especially an altar on which he celebrated his own “literary” Eucharist’. Others were not permitted to enter the library. For Polak, the essence of his bibliophily lay in bringing the spirit of the poet nearer: by touching the books and holding them on high, he could call on the presence of this spirit for a while as a comfort to himself. Those wanting to see one of his books had to have clean hands and take their shoes off so that the books were left untainted and sacred.
Baron van Westreenen, the early nineteenth-century collector who laid the foundations for the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, was characterized by similar behaviour. He obliged his guests to ‘first don brand-new dressing gowns over their clothing and brand new slippers over their shoes’ before they were permitted to see the books.A library is for the collector as a church is for the pious. This was clearly a fairly widespread sentiment with collections: at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg until the late nineteenth century it was the custom that gentlemen must don a white tie prior to entering.Dutch television viewers retain vivid memories of appearances by Boudewijn Büch who brought special books forth while wearing white gloves. (Incidentally, experts believe that it is better to handle a fragile book without gloves.)
There is another similarity with the Baron. Johan Polak collected more than just books: Egyptian art works; old masters; contemporary art; and more. He had a weakness for editions of the poet Leopold who was a classicist like him. Polak bought several sets of Leopold’s poems that were published by De Zilverdistel and the Kunera Pers: Cheops and Oostersch [Oriental]. These editions were especially popular with collectors. A copy of Oostersch was actually stolen from the room where Leopold lay dying.Besides the books of the De Zilverdistel, Palladium, Nypels and Stols, Polak had a soft spot for the private presses of Ger Kleis (Sub Signo Libelli) and Jaap Meijer.He bought not only editions, but if there was a prospectus and it came on the market, he bought that too. In his library, the books were arranged partly by size and series so that the whole presented a formal appearance.
After his death in 1992, the auction house Beijers of Utrecht auctioned a portion of Polak’s books. It was then shown that he not only had numerous private press editions, including Zilverdistels, Palladium volumes and many Stols editions, but also the 49 editions of the major Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and four incunabula. The collection brought in more than two million guilders. Since then, new portions of the collection have come onto the market in waves, for example, the many luxury editions of the work of the poet Boutens that Polak collected.
One of the Leopold manuscripts in Polak’s possession was originally from another collector. M.B.B. Nijkerk exchanged the manuscript with Polak for a copy of the rare Naenia of P.C. Boutens that Nijkerk wished to have (his son Karel Nijkerk donated it to the Museum Meermanno in 2005).
The collection of Bob Nijkerk (1894–1987), a metal trader, was legendary. He had a weakness for the editions of A.A.M. Stols which he bought together in complete sets. He also owned the editions of the Kunera Pers, De Zilverdistel, Folemprise and Palladium, in short, the pick of the bibliophile presses. In addition, he collected the more modern private presses, such as Sub Signo Libelli and the Eliance Press. Like many collectors, he had some handsome bookplates made by the graphic artist John Buckland Wright and others. There also exists, once again, a collecting circle for bookplates.
Nijkerk revealed how he came to become a collector in an unpublished lecture. As a youth he had became caught up in a discussion with peers about edifying the masses, bad taste and mass production, when the discussion turned to the importance of typographical appearance in the perception of the contents of a book. One of the debaters nudged him and said, ‘Isn’t that something for you, bibliophile books’ because it was known that the family Nijkerk was wealthy. ‘Well,’ said Nijkerk, ‘I started collecting, at first of course in the wrong way like any collector, thinking that I, snuffling around the book stalls, would find something, but as I went I learned that this was not the way.’
Building a network could surely be described as one way. Nijkerk knew everyone in that small world and invested heavily in his expensive hobby. In 1935, he set up a new series, ‘Ursa Minor’, together with Stols and Greshoff. He even bought Stols a set of Fleischman matrices from the prestigious Parisian Société des Bibliophiles François for 750 guilders. When he did not buy books from a store or publisher, he had them made himself.Like many more collectors, Nijkerk was also devoted to mapping out his collection. He outsourced this job to Rien Marsman, the wife of the poet H. Marsman; both were good friends of the Nijkerks. She earned 0.75 cents per hour, a fee that the poorly-housed poet’s family could put to good use. While Rien described the books at the kitchen table, the poet was upstairs in the nursery working on his poetry.It is not certain whether bibliophily is inherited, but it is a fact that Karel Nijkerk, the son of Bob, also collected. His father’s collection went to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and to Museum Meermanno. (LK)
An exceptional collection was that of bibliographer Dirk de Jong (1910–1973) whose reference book Het vrije boek in onvrije tijd [The free book in un-free time]on clandestine and illegal editions of the Second World War was partly based on his own collection. ‘The hundreds of underground prints, periodicals and books’ that he collected during the war ‘stood in his house in The Hague’s Bezuidenhout, fully exposed in the bookcase’ and they survived two bombings. First the rear of his house was struck on 1 March 1945; as he remembered, ‘I then cleaned this collection that had been buried under rubble and plaster and put it in another room on my desk. On 3 March, when the block where I lived completely disappeared, standing atop the mountain of debris of about 13 metres... my desk with this collection in neat piles, as if nothing had happened. And it was being protected against looters by two SS men’.His collection is now part of the library of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde [Society of Dutch Literature] in Leiden.
Boudewijn Büch (1948–2002), who spread great enthusiasm for the editions of Sub Signo Libelli and who made the first television report in 1982 about bibliophily in the Netherlands, still had a few editions from this press in his possession when he died, according to the auction catalogue. Editions from the Avalon Pers, the Klencke Pers and A.A.M. Stols also remained in his collection and he had one Zilverdistel (Novalis). Of his total estate of more than 100,000 books, it seems that the private press editions formed a very small part; however, during his life Büch had already sold his bibliophile collection to the antiquarian Aenigma, several years after the bookbinder David Simaleavich had done so.Büch seems to have had more of a passion for libraries and because they are always closed when you need them, he started one himself. ‘What I have brought together over the decades could be called an eclectic collection […] an amount of books, art and other types of artefacts created out of my own curiosity’. Büch also revealed that he did not go to auctions, but sent ‘agents’ because the prices went up if he bid himself.Büch was rather more of a bibliomaniac than a bibliophile.
Those who think that fanatical collectors are always wealthy are mistaken. Nol Sanders (bookshop Minotaurus) said that he does not have the impression that his clients are by definition fabulously wealthy. ‘A couple from the east of the country regularly come to buy something. He works at TNT, they really have to save up,’ he gives as an example.Recent bibliophile printing is indeed quite affordable, but whoever is going to really collect and has tapped into the hunting instinct, will have to dig deeper in their pockets. An original solution to this problem was thought up by Simaleavich: as a bookbinder, he worked for almost all the modern Dutch presses and asked (in exchange for a lower bill) a copy of each issue in the different versions for his collection: stitched, bound and de luxe. His sales catalogue included editions of Sub Signo Libelli, the Regulierenpers, In de Bonnefant, the Literaire Loodgieters [The Literary Plumbers], AMO, Ser J.L. Prop and other printers.
Dealers who focus on the private press book are often collectors, like Steven A. Bakker (of the antiquarian firm named after De Zilverdistel), and the printers themselves as well. Van Royen had a rich library of English, American and German editions: Kelmscott Press, Vale Press, Doves Press, Eragny Press, Ashendene Press, Woolly Whale, Bremer Presse and Janus Presse. The collection is now spread amongst his descendants and part has been auctioned off.
Even contemporary ‘marginal printers’, such as Hans van Eijk (In de Bonnefant) manifest themselves as collectors. Van Eijk built a collection of Nonesuch Press, Rampant Lions Press and, above all, Officina Bodoni.He is one of the Dutch members of the international Private Libraries Association.
Within the ranks of the Nederlands Genootschap van Bibliofielen are only a few active collectors of private press books, such as Jaap Schipper, printer of the Statenhofpers, who has collected a broad collection of international private press books.
Another member is Adri K. Offenberg, who for years worked for the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana of the Amsterdam University and was later a consultant for the British Library. He owns the complete work of a university colleague, the printer Jaap Meijer, and, in addition, representative selections of editions of the Bayard Pers, Carlinapers, Eliance Pers, Mercator Press, Sub Signo Libelli and the Tuinwijkpers. (LK)
Sale, trade and distribution
A Dutch bibliophile can search long and in vain for ‘fine printing’ in a bookshop such as those of the Selexyz chain. They do not sell it. Apart from a few exceptions, private presses editions are not available from mainstream bookshops. Instead one must go to fairs, specialist bookshops, antiquarian bookshops or internet addresses.
Minotaurus, located in the Saint Antoniesbreestraat in Amsterdam, is such a specialist. According to one of the founders, Nol Sanders, the shop is the only one of its kind in the Netherlands. For more than 20 years, he has taken printed matter from private presses on consignment: the shop is open five afternoons a week. It is a kind of hobby because he cannot live from the average number of one-and-a-half customers per day who enter the shop.
What kind of people are these customers? Sanders could give no definite answer to that question. They are mostly men, but there is sometimes a woman amongst them, usually older, however, the young actor Roef Ragas also belonged to his clientele. Often the people who buy private press works are themselves engrossed in their own presses. They find each other at fairs and also at the friends’ day of Museum Meermanno.Collectors do not need to go to the shop in Amsterdam; they often go directly to the printers themselves.
Many private presses have joined the Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge which undertakes joint activities in order to promote the sale of printed and other material. Such editions are announced and distributed through the foundation’s bulletin and newsletter. The foundation is represented at trade fairs and exhibitions where bibliophile editions are brought to the attention of an interested audience. Hence, the Stichting attends the Small Press Festival in Utrecht, Poetry International and was also present at the Frankfurt Buchmessse in the early years. In 1979 the Stichting organized its own market and on 22 August 1981 there was even a market for marginal printers held in the department store, De Bijenkorf, in The Hague.With the De Bijenkorf event the foundation succeeded in achieving a low-threshold market place.
In the 1980s, sales fairs and marginal printers’ markets were very frequent, about five per year. From this, Ernst Braches drew his conclusion: ‘Over the years this has showed that the buyer’s preference at manifestations and marginal printers markets is less about the typical product of the ‘minipresse’ (the rapidly produced alternative product) and more about the increasingly better designed work resulting from the typographical marginal printers’.He implies that activist printed matter was less popular with buyers than bibliophile works.
Ger Kleis of Sub Signo Libelli has seen the private presses become more commercial: ‘The trade has crept in unnoticed. There are collectors who want to have everything no matter the cost; you see that especially with editions of the usual Dutch writers. It can leave a bad taste in the mouth. It can cause you trouble. But then again, you can’t do without the collectors’.With Sub Signo Libelli it was the custom to organize a preview at the completion of a new edition where author, illustrator, translator, binder and interested people gathered in a collective ‘glorification of the book’.
Of course it is also possible to acquire private press editions at auctions where they are usually brought together under the separate category of ‘fine printing’. Today, Zilverdistels are so expensive that they are usually auctioned by item. In 1972, the library of P.N. van Eyck was auctioned at the Beijers auction house. Unsurprisingly he had a handsome collection of ‘fine printing’ and 16 Zilverdistels, the complete series. The auctioneer was about to put up the volumes by item when Bob Nijkerk stood up in the audience and protested. In his opinion, the Zilverdistels ought to be sold in one lot because they were so collected. This created uproar in the auction room because those present did not agree with him. Collector Henri Dirkx responded that it was quite correct that other collectors were able to complete their own collection of Zilverdistels with loose volumes.In the 1980s there was much demand for post-war marginal printed works but now the boom appears to be over and prices have normalized. (LK)
Nieuwsbrief Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge, (1977), 2, front. MM: T 084. (MM)
Nieuwsbrief Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge, (2002) 101, cover printed by Alex Barbaix (Pastei). MM: T 084. (MM)
Nieuwsbrief Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge, (2003), 105, cover printed by Frans de Jong en Martijn van de Griendt. MM: T 084. (MM)
Nieuwsbrief Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge, (2007), 119, cover printed by Tineke Zaadnoordijk. MM: T 084. (MM)
Nieuwsbrief Stichting Drukwerk in de Marge, (2009), 129, cover printed by Roel van Dijk (Presse d' Escargot). MM: T 084. (MM)
Prospectuses and catalogues
Obviously, collectors can always go to an antiquarian bookshop. The collector H.W. Bosscha regularly went along to Gijsbers & Van Loon of Arnhem or Beijers of Utrecht to ask for ‘a thin little book containing something special, a dedication or suchlike’.The antiquarians of course know their regular customers and bring exclusive editions to their attention.
Some antiquarians themselves ordered editions with private press printers. Willem Huijer had seven books published this way.Other antiquarians had the sole rights of sale of certain editions: André Swertz dealt in the editions of Sub Signo Libelli in the Utrecht period of printer Ger Kleis. Some booksellers specialize in private press editions and send their regular customers a catalogue from time to time in which the books are appealingly described. Fanatical collectors keep a close eye on the catalogues. One collector describes what sometimes happens when two people have their eye on the same book in the catalogue: ‘You’re furious when you’re tricked out of it. At the Rai Art and Antiques Fair, for example, they’re not allowed to pre-sell, but you may reserve an item to be the first to inspect it. I’d called the antiquarian beforehand and said, “Once it opens, I’ll come and see the book and buy it right away.”’ This concerned Boutens’ In den keerkring: ‘I came running up and there was that man selling this book to someone else!’
Some antiquarians are known for the quality of their catalogues, which are provided with interesting bibliographic information. This applies for example to the catalogues of the Schuhmacher firm. The antiquarian Schuhmacher is well-stocked with many private press editions, acquired amongst other means by purchasing entire libraries of writers who were also collectors. The Schuhmachers, half brother and sister, bought up the libraries of the poets Jan van Nijlen, Jan Engelman, A. Marja and a few others. ‘I find that the selling of books comes only in second place. In the first instance we are collectors and we want to know about everything about a book,’ said Max Schuhmacher who died in 2007.Wilma Schuhmacher now runs the business.
In Klein uitgeven [Small editions], a sort of catalogue of several Dutch private presses such as Helikon, Mikado Pers, Exponent and so forth, Theo Gaasbeek presented the results of a survey on small publishers. The results suggest that, to help meet their wants, the purchasers of editions from these presses are approached by direct contact or through the authorized bookshops. Private presses also make extensive use of direct mailing campaigns. In addition, the printers take part in trade fairs where they ‘perform with their own work’ as the selling exhibition is called.Drukwerk in de Marge organized its own market, which was held in the Koningszaal of the Artis Zoo from 1988 to 1997. Nol Sanders, one of the initiators of the fair, had to make an end to the annual event because Artis significantly raised the rent.
In 1999, the Leiden Boekkunstbeurs [Book Art Fair] commenced, at an annual cost of €11,000 to the foundation, part of which is recuperated through income from the stall rental and admission fees. During this fair, the Puetmann Prize is awarded to a beautiful new edition.The Beurs voor kleine uitgevers [Small Publishers’ Fair], originating in 1977, is not yet out of breath and carries on still. Apart from the collectors, the private press publishers also buy from each other there.
Many collectors are printers. The world of private presses is a small one. Ger Kleis remembers the atmosphere at the first marginal markets: ‘At the book markets you now met the collectors as well; often interesting people with whom in many cases you maintained a long correspondence. It was regrettable that sometimes you must read that their partners had called a halt to their collecting passion. There were those who even unfolded their entire private life in writing, for whom the pleasure they found in our editions meant a pleasant compensation for their sometimes quite ordinary existence’. These customers were also contacted directly by the printers through the distribution of a prospectus, previously a costly affair because of postage, now all too easy by e-mail. Some prospectuses provided a faithful idea of the announced edition by including a sample of the type, layout and choice of paper of the book, or by adding a specimen page as, for example, De Zilverdistel would do.
Before the Second World War, such prospectuses were printed in several languages and distributed internationally and the editions were often advertised in book-lovers’ periodicals. After the war, prospectuses did not reappear until the 1970s, usually printed on random paper remnants, sometimes simply typed and copied.
Prospectuses printed before a book was finished often contain inaccuracies or false promises; the announced print runs in particular should be taken with a grain of salt.During the 1980s, editions were so popular (especially those of prominent authors) that part of the edition was reserved beforehand and the collector received a prospectus with a note from the printer stating that the luxury edition was ‘already sold out’. Then, prospectuses were also sent to the newspapers and periodicals that signalled new editions. The daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad and the periodical Het oog in ’t zeil [The observant eye] often discussed these editions, additionally mentioning the contact address, supplying orders and thus sometimes even making reprints necessary. Sub Signo Libelli released a second printing of a few sonnets by Kloos in 1981.
While prospectuses were often in larger runs than the book itself (sometimes a few hundred) to serve as advertising to a wider circle, they have now become a collector’s item themselves. An additional feature of the prospectus is the possibility to personally maintain the printer-client relationship with a handwritten message or greeting, which can never have been bad for sales. (LK)
Small publishers’ fair (Beurs van kleine uitgevers), Amsterdam, 6 December 2009, photograph by Jan Dietvorst. (Jan Dietvorst)
A typology of collectors
According to the antiquarian Max Schuhmacher, people with the sign of the zodiac Virgo are all collectors, something he probably felt more intuitively than held as a proven conclusion.Such a typification whets the appetite for more. Is there something that collectors have in common other than their love for private press editions: a characteristic trait, a property or a social class or some such? Various psychologists and sociologists have researched this. At the very least, collecting may be understood as a kind of instinct.
The sociologist Jaco Berveling has closely and extensively examined the secondary literature on collecting and has come up with some interesting theories. According to him, collecting can even be explained biologically: it is a relic of a primeval hoarding instinct that we have in common with squirrels and field mice. You could say that collecting is locked into the human genes. Furthermore, buying something you like gives a kick. In other words, your body rewards you by giving you a good feeling. It has been neurologically determined that this type of behaviour can slide into becoming an aberration. In short, compulsive collecting is due to an abnormality in the brain.
Max Schuhmacher had the impression that collectors also like to search for more bibliographic details of their acquired treasures. ‘The individual wants to make his own discoveries, wants the illusion of “I am so clever”’.The prototype of the collector is at home with a particular subject, he wants to have the matter under control, to dominate a certain collecting area. Therein lurks, in part, the pleasure.
Boudewijn Büch saw it as a strictly personal thing: ‘The bibliophile book is preferably not read, it is an object of love and desire and lending is totally taboo’.
For the mysterious H.W. Bosscha, described as an ‘aristocratic looking, not really wealthy bachelor’, the book collection was like a secret love that he managed to keep hidden even from his family. Meanwhile he kept a kind of diary of all his purchases in which he wrote about what he had bought in a secret code. He set down in his testament that his collection was to be anonymously auctioned after his death, which is exactly what happened.Collector and actor Roef Ragas (1965–2007) said, ‘It sounds pretentious but you can see a certain beauty in it’. In particular Ragas owned many works from the Kickshaws private press: ‘fireworks for a limited group’, he called those editions. His book collection was a means ‘to master the chaos in your own little world’.
On his 75th birthday, the Flemish collector Henri Dirkx said that, as a bibliophile, he adored the book as a sex object and that this was not so far removed from ‘erotic perversity’. Thus his ‘sex objects’ were not to be read. For that he had ordinary cheap paperbacks ‘because you do not eat from a Delft dinner plate’.According to Freud, who also collected all kinds of things, collecting arises from an erotic compensation. Whether you buy a dog or surround yourself with snuffboxes, ‘every collector is a substitute for a Don Juan Tenerio,’ he said.The bibliophile as Don Juan?
Boudewijn Büch called the love for the book an ‘unnatural form of sexuality’.He continued: ‘Bibliophiles do it with a book. They smell it, caress it, put it in a prominent place for a while and throw amorous glances at it’. Büch declared in all seriousness that, to him, with a few exceptions, all bibliophiles are homosexual. ‘Even if only for the simple fact that heterosexual couples with a family cannot afford the attention and financial bloodletting’.
Is the world of the bibliophile book indeed a ‘gay world’, as Boudewijn Büch would have it? Hans Hafkamp gave a thought-provoking list of famous homosexual book-lovers.One prototype is the refined aesthete in J.-K. Huysman’s decadent late nineteenth-century novel, À rebours. In this story, Des Esseintes is a collector of special bibliophile editions. Of course there are enough heterosexual bibliophiles and the theory does not appear to hold, for example, amongst printers apart from a few exceptions. But nevertheless, small private editions, in which homoerotic love could be freely speculated on, were an appropriate outlet at a time when homosexuality could not be practised openly. (It certainly remains remarkable that this did not occur amongst lesbians, by the way). It seems more likely that such editions can be included amongst the secretly printed texts, such as erotica in general, that were often produced in small runs.
Ger Kleis gave this as one reason for beginning his private press Sub Signo Libelli, ‘I really wanted to publish all texts with which I had a connection’.For him this was ‘decadent’ literature or texts on homosexual themes. ‘At that moment I had the feeling that I would never have to tape my mouth shut because I could always print texts that I would like to publish, and besides I was thinking very distinctly about homosexuality’.
We cannot see into the future but it seems unlikely that private press collectors will decline in number. As books become more accessible and come to us increasingly as mass products through the bookshop or digitally by the internet, those which are rare and authentic will become ever more appreciated. The internet is a great leveller and digitization strips a book of its authenticity. A handmade object is incomparable to a pdf. Collectors of exceptional books, private press editions and other rarities will be able to order their treasures with greater ease. The printers can display their wares on the internet and the enthusiasts can find each other on their friends’ web pages or blogs such as the Boudewijn Büchmuseum or Boekengek.But for the rest, the private press will surely succeed in remaining ‘private’. (LK)