Rex Nan Kivell's Bookplate part 2
Collecting books, commissioning a bookplate and the fine art and expense of bookbinding
7 November 2014
Reginald Nankivell’s first job after leaving school in Christchurch was as a bookbinder, a passion for which he never lost. Progressively, as he polished himself from plain ‘Reginald’, into the stylish art dealer and debonair collector Rex (later Sir Rex) de Charembac Nan Kivell, he lavished great attention on his acquisitions, commissioning beautiful and durable bindings and housings for his many books and manuscripts. Whenever I call up such an item from Nan Kivell's collection, I eagerly anticipate the clamshell box or fancy binding he has fashioned for it. Rarely am I disappointed. His passion for books and attention to detail, with an eye to preservation and future use, make them a joy to hold and explore today.
One researcher has rather imaginatively suggested that Nan Kivell's obsessive interest in binding and protecting his books came from his need to cover his past and his origins, which were complex. His circumstances were not particularly career-advancing in the early twentieth century. That analysis can wait for another blog post or, if you are interested, listen to my 2013 Bettison Oration at the 2013 Adelaide Festival of Ideas about Nan Kivell’s curious life and collecting here.
The same writer went on, somewhat improbably, to suggest that Nan Kivell moved to Tangiers in Morocco, where he spent the last decade of his life in his mansion, El Farah, because of his passion for the bookbinding medium morocco. Morocco, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is a "fine flexible leather made (originally in the country of that name) from goatskins tanned with sumac, used especially for book covers and shoes." Rather, I see his interest in fashioning appropriate bindings for his works as being more related to his considerable ambitions for the collection and to his training in New Zealand as a youth. His residence in Morocco and its more favourable climate, I think, is more likely the result of his severe, later crippling, arthritis. He also had a Tunisian partner, Mizouni Nouari and the ambience and exoticism of Morocco no doubt appealed to them both, for many reasons, more than just the climate and food.
Nan Kivell understood, even as he was building it, that the collection's remarkable density would be of unparalleled use to future scholars examining the history of Australia and the Pacific region. He also recognised that the material, no matter how utilitarian in appearance it might sometimes appear, needed to be cared for, for the centuries ahead. Sometimes even the most ephemeral items, and, as such, often rare items, such as broadsides or pamphlets, have expensive elegant bindings or clamshell boxes.
It is not surprising, then, that he had an expensive bookplate made and printed for his burgeoning collection. Nor is it surprising that the distinctive identifier of his library features books, given his passion for them and the scale of his collection. The Library holds over 5000 rare books in the Nan Kivell Collection and there are many other items in the voluminous collection featuring his bookplate. Designer and artist Henry Wilkinson must have printed thousands. However, Wilkinson was commissioned in 1949 and the collection kept growing until his death in 1977. Presumably, Nan Kivell must have ordered more bookplates to be printed as the number of collection items that needed branding grew. I’m not sure what the lifespan of a steel engraved printing plate is but surely Nan Kivell and Wilkinson must have pushed it to the limit with his bookplate.
It seems the first known bookplate or ex libris is this one shown above. Known as Igler (hedgehog), it was created for Johannes Knabensberg in Germany in 1450 and, unlike Wilkinson's engraving, was a woodcut. The following volume found online is a useful analysis of the forms and evolution of bookplates or ex libris. Sadly, we don't have a copy in our collection.
On those rare occasions when Nan Kivell was formally photographed for posterity or captured in a commissioned portrait, he usually chose to have a selection of his handsomely bound books in the background, as can be seen here.
Nan Kivell claimed his first love was books. He also claimed that his interest in books, collecting and dealing came from the experience of working in his youth in Sidney Smith’s bookshop in Christchurch. The owner would let him mind the shop and read and borrow books. To a child from a family of modest means and limited education, this must have been quite a privilege and an opportunity to educate himself. He said he must have had the first library collection in New Brighton where he lived in Christchurch. However, it appears that the only Sidney Smith in Christchurch at that time was a printer not a bookseller. There was an A.D. Smith that did run a bookshop, which still exists, but not a Sidney Smith. Nan Kivell told many stories throughout his life and it is difficult to get to the bottom of some of them. I hope to travel next year to investigate further Nan Kivell’s collecting and life. Hopefully this will render some of the opaque spots in his story more transparent.
To return briefly to the bookplate, the coat of arms on the book cover with the motto non robore, ded spe can be translated as 'not with strength but with hope'. I found the motto written in pencil in Nan Kivell’s hand on a scrap of paper in his papers a while ago. Perhaps he was contemplating the future composition of the bookplate and how to brief Wilkinson. Originally the coat of arms and the motto were for the Tippets, another more ancient Cornish family. The Nan Kivells took over their identity when the Tippet family line finally ran out in.
It would be a fascinating though time-consuming exercise to try to calculate the sum spent by Nan Kivell on maintaining and protecting his collection. It must have run into the tens of thousands of pounds in a period when this was an awful lot of money. He favoured the famous Bayntun-Riviere Bindery in Bath founded in 1829 by George Bayntun and used them for over 30 years. George Bayntun is still going strong today, no doubt glad of their Nan Kivell legacy over the decades.
Most of the folders in Nan Kivell’s numerous boxes of papers in the Manuscripts Collection feature invoices and correspondence from Bayntuns. On their website today they write: "our eleven binders have between them served 337 years. We can also claim to have the largest collection of hand tools and blocks in the world (over 15,000) - some dating back to the eighteenth century and all still usable. We insist on binding in the traditional manner, using the highest quality materials - for example, the edges of all of our bindings are gilded by hand using 23½ct gold (which we prefer to 24ct)." I am planning to visit them next year in Bath. One of their binders has been working there since 1947, and I hope will recall the collector and his collection.
Nan Kivell lavished this kind of care on many aspects of the collection including, for example, expensive large black and white documentary photographs of items held, then bound expensively into volumes documenting his works and creating working copies preserving the original. In the way that some people obsessively fuss over their pets or their stamp collecting, for example, hunting trophies and grooming or refining and nurturing them, Nan Kivell laboured tirelessly over his acquisitions. Whilst he didn’t have a stamp collection per se, he did collect dogs and in his will, he makes very generous provision for them and their comfort after his death. He was a most generous man.
Nan Kivell's most significant project of documentation and, by association, acquisition, was Portraits of the Famous and Infamous. He produced this large-format book with his collaborator Sydney Spence in 1974, cataloguing the people who he believed were instrumental in imagining, exploring, documenting and settling the Pacific, particularly Australia and New Zealand. This volume, compiled over decades, cost him a small fortune and was tied up with the acquisition process of the collection itself.
Nan Kivell held out ambitions for it to be produced by the Library but this was not to happen. The alphabetically arranged list of 'portraits' featured over 2500 names and images associated with them and includes the likely figures of Cook, Banks, Bligh, La Perouse and the more unlikely figures of the Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay, Shakespeare, Johnny Day, the pedestrian wonder of the world and Jemmy, the faithful hound of Nan Kivell's favourite travel artist Augustus Earle. I will write more about this in future but flag that I am currently curating an exhibition of portraits from his collection for the Treasures Gallery, to be seen the second half of 2015.
The numbering system which Nan Kivell applied to his collection, which is still used in parallel to the NLA catalogue system, allocated a unique NK number to every item. However this was not based on any logic that I can determine. On the bookplate he didn’t record this unique NK number but in the top right hand corner instead penned in the date of production of the item and the number within the collection that item held. So if it was a book from the year 1820 and it was the sixth item which he had collected from that year then the number was 1820/6. Quite mad really! It may have been one of those ideas which seemed a good idea at the beginning and then, in practice, had to be slavishly continued for consistency's sake even after it proved to be of little help or purpose. It does bear further inspection.