26 June 2016

A signature on a fly-leaf

 Urbain Grandier

One of the pleasures of a second-hand book is speculating about the person behind an inscription on the fly-leaf. It is always nice if a date is given; sometimes there is a message as well (To dearest Mary, Xmas 1949), which makes you wonder who Mary was, to whom and why she was dear, what happened to her after 1949, and under what circumstances her Christmas present found its way to a second-hand bookshop.

In 1973, at a shop in Long Crendon, I acquired a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I used to buy many second-hand books and this was one I had never got round to reading. It had remained half forgotten on my shelves, the lettering on the spine becoming less and less legible as the years passed. The other day something made me decide to seek it out.

The edition was issued jointly by the Readers’ Union and Chatto and Windus, and is dated 1954. Francis Helps is written on the fly-leaf in an old-fashioned hand:

As this is an unusual name, I idly ran a web search, not expecting to come up with more than an unreliable or ambiguous result, if that.

However, a Francis Helps is listed on a number of sites to do with fine art. He was an English artist, born 1890, died 1972. You can see a selection of his work here, for example; a brief bio can be found here:

‘Francis Helps was born in Dulwich. In 1908 [he] studied at the Slade School of Art where he was taught by Henry Tonks and Fred Brown. In 1915 Helps volunteered for service with [the] Artists’ Rifles Expedition, serving in France. In 1924 he joined the 1922-4 Everest Expedition as an official artist, completing 80 paintings and drawings, most now in America. Between 1931-34 Helps taught at the Royal College of Art, then volunteered to be evacuated with it to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1940-44. From 1953 until his retirement Helps was head of the school of paintings [?] in Leeds, where he settled. Helps showed with [the] RBA [i.e. the Royal Society of British Artists], of which he was elected a member in 1933 and in 1924 had a show at [the] Alpine Club Gallery of his Himalayan work. Further shows were at City Art Gallery, Leeds in 1959, Manor House Museum and Art Gallery, Ilkley in 1971 and South London Gallery in 1979. His work is represented in a number of public galleries (see BBC Your Paintings).’

Had my copy of The Devils of Loudun really belonged to this talented and adventurous man? The signature is that of someone who was educated at a time when copperplate writing was taught – around the turn of the last century, say – and the 1972 date of death is consistent with the date of my purchase, 1973. Maybe his library was disposed of by the executor of his estate; maybe this particular book ended up in the London auctions, where the proprietor at Long Crendon told me he often went for his stock.

On Portrait of an Indian Woman, 1924 I found this signature:

Here again is the signature on the fly-leaf:

It is possible that it was Helps’s eyes that directly preceded mine in reading the words printed on the pages of my copy; that it was his mind that processed and reacted to the gloriously hubristic rise of Urbain Grandier, whose errors of judgement, moral turpitude and general idiocy prepared him for his fate – of being tortured and then burnt alive as a result of the political manipulation of moral hysteria. I wonder what Mr Helps made of it all, he whose life had apparently been as productive as it had been blameless. If he had read the book on receiving it in 1954 (the Readers’ Union was a book club) or shortly afterwards, he would have been about the age that I have reached now, with perhaps the same weary opinion of politics that informs Huxley’s book; Huxley was sixty when it was first published.

The connection between Helps and me is as fortuitous as it is tenuous, but it tickled me to think that I was following in the visual footsteps of such an Englishman. It also made me rather sad. His art would now be denigrated by snobs and philistines; his patriotism and sense of duty despised; his interest in and evident respect for the people he encountered in Asia dismissed as patronizing, or worse.

On page 19 I found this:
There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines. Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves. ‘Feeling good’, they naturally assume that they are good. Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.
Now why should that have made me think of our present moral hysteria? And why does it make me glad that I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and prefer instead to read a second-hand book?

1 comment:

Mike Julien said...


I have a Bible from 1845 that has a whole family tree inside the front cover, covering four or five generations. I never thought to Google any of the names, maybe because I purchased the Bible in the days before Google (remember them?), but I think I'll dig out the book and start searching. It is interesting to think of someone reading their Bible and entering this family tree information 171 years ago.

Welcome back!