Article by Jonathan Hopson
“About three years ago, P. H. Muir of Elkin Mathews had a customer (I believe an Englishman) to whom he could sell practically any book (mainly XVIIIth and XIXth century) which was the first about any discovery or social innovation”.
So wrote Graham Pollard, bookseller and bibliographer. He was also a Communist Party member and MI5 agent reporting directly to Maxwell Knight (aka ‘M’). In 1940 Pollard was involved in organising an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to celebrate the quincentenary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. The obscure customer was one Ian L. Fleming Esq. who lent 24 items to the exhibition, including the Nazi Party manifesto of 1920 and a first edition of Mein Kampf. The exhibition opened on 6th May, only four days before Hitler invaded the Low Countries, and closed shortly thereafter for fear of bombing raids.
Fleming had first met Percy Muir (right) in 1929 when he walked into Dulau’s bookshop in Old Bond Street, attracted by an advertisement for the latest D. H. Lawrence. The two men hit it off immediately and Fleming commissioned Muir to send him new books to read while studying at Geneva. The following summer he invited Muir to holiday with him in Kitzbühel. That year Muir left Dulau & Co. to join Elkin Mathews and took Fleming’s custom with him. This would prove so valuable that Fleming later joined the firm as a sleeping partner alongside Muir as managing director.
Fleming remarked in 1964:
“All I had done up to that time, aside from a great deal of studying, had been to begin collecting. I had decided, after concerning myself with first editions for a time, that I would collect books that signalised a right-angle turn in the world’s thought on any particular subject, a book of permanent value in the history of the world. I began to think through every human activity, from art to sports and physics and whatnot, and with the help of a great friend of mine who is still my bookseller, we got out a tremendous list of the great books of the world since 1800, which we arbitrarily decided to make the starting date.”
In June 1935, Fleming visited Muir’s Mayfair office with £250 made on the stock exchange and the novel idea for a collection of “milestones of progress – books that had started something … the first book on zip-fasteners, the first book on golf, bicycles, motor-cars, aeroplanes [etc]”.
Muir’s task was to research the project and he quickly found that Fleming had discovered something of a blind-spot amongst bibliophiles. While literary first editions were highly prized, those of scientific texts (including research papers and periodical offprints) lacked bibliographic documentation, were normally disregarded as out-of-date and could be picked up for a few pounds. Although Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was already an established ‘highspot’ and cost £25, Sigmund Freud’s Traumdeutung (1899) could still be obtained cheaply for £4. The most expensive item was Marx’s Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848) which commanded a price of £100 (though Fleming insisted on a £6 discount).
By the end of 1935 the initial investment was spent and over 250 titles had been acquired. Additional funds were forthcoming and Muir worked quickly, anticipating that his client’s enthusiasm would eventually wane. According to Elkin Mathews’ records, the last purchases were made by the end of 1938, by which time the collection numbered over a thousand books and articles.
For Fleming, book collecting was no scholarly obsession, but rather a gentlemanly pastime which offered opportunities for financial speculation and social display. He insisted his books be housed in custom-made fleece-lined black buckram cases, embossed with the Clan Fleming crest, and bearing morocco labels coloured according to subject. Costing £2.10s each, these were often more expensive than their contents and eventually accounted for an estimated quarter of the total expenditure, much to the chagrin of Muir who claimed Fleming rarely looked at a book once it was inside its case.
In Robert Harling’s opinion “I always think of a bibliophile as someone who simply cannot pass a bookshop. Ian could pass one as readily as he could pass a fish & chip joint”. John Hayward, editor of the Book Collector, remembered Fleming “was inclined to regard bibliophily as a weakness which had in his case to be justified by strenuous bouts of golf, bridge, and underwater swimming”.
Among his collection’s themes of science, technology, politics and socio-economics, it is the pioneering works on sports & pastimes that have the most personal relevance, such as Allan Robertson’s Golfer’s Manual (1857) and Capt. Webb’s Art of Swimming (1875). Of special interest is the Contract Bridge Blue Book (1930) by Ely Culbertson who devised the hand which Bond employed to defeat Hugo Drax at the card-table in Moonraker.
By the outbreak of war, Fleming had already lost interest in his collection. The books went into storage in the Pantechnicon warehouse (now the Alfred Tennyson pub) in Belgravia. They would remain there until 1963 when Fleming was approached by Muir to contribute to the Printing and the Mind of Man exhibition at Earl’s Court. Inspired by the short-lived Gutenberg exhibition of 1940, its aim was to display the advancement of knowledge through the development of printing, and claimed to be “the most impressive collection of books gathered under one roof”. As the largest private lender, Fleming provided 44 items (almost 10% of the total display) and, to his great delight, was invited to join the exhibition’s Committee of Honour.
Ian Fleming later bought a small magazine, The Book Collector, which is now probably the leading bibliographical magazine in the world. Percy Muir sat on the editorial board of The Book Collector journal with Fleming, which was published by Fleming’s Queen Anne Press.
The fullest account of why, how, and from whom Fleming acquired the books is Percy Muir’s article in The Book Collector, Spring, 1965. Though the idea was Fleming’s, the work was Muir’s, and the collection was made in a remarkably short time, largely concentrated in the last half-decade of the 1930’s. Muir comments:
“It would be invidious for me to speak too highly of the collection. Suffice it to say that in its formation is one of the proudest achievements of my life.”
The collection was then transferred to Fleming’s new home at Sevenhampton Place. After his death, it was left in trust to his son Casper. Following protracted negotiations, in 1970 it was sold for $150,000 to Indiana University’s Lilly Library, together with Fleming’s typescripts and personal copies of his fiction.
The Lilly Librarian David A. Randall had tried to buy the collection for the New York firm Scribner’s as early as 1950, but Fleming chose to retain it as a hedge against inflation. Some items were found to be in poor condition (since Fleming had lacked the patience to wait for better copies) and these were later sold as duplicates. Those remaining complement the scientific and medical collections donated by the pharmaceutical magnate Josiah K. Lilly, Jr, who had himself lent 31 items to Printing and the Mind of Man.
In 1971 the Library held an exhibition of works selected from the Ian Fleming Collection of 19th-20th Century Source Material Concerning Western Civilization and Muir provided an appreciation of its significance for the catalogue: “Modern civilization was fashioned in the nineteenth century … The Fleming Collection was an attempt to gather together, in first editions, the original contributions of the scientists and practical workers, the total body of whose work has been responsible for the modern revolution”.
The Library now holds Muir’s personal papers as well as the business archive of Elkin Mathews Ltd. Coincidentally, it also holds the archive of Bloomington native Hoagy Carmichael, the celebrated singer, composer and James Bond look-alike (in the eyes of Vesper Lynd and Gala Brand).
Fleming’s own manuscripts were housed in the collection with many of the earlier novels corrected by the author’s hand, the later less so. Fleming carefully preserved most of them, bound in quarter morocco of varying colours. His own copies of his books, many annotated, were bound in full morocco, also of varying colours, and were not uniformly first editions.
Ian Fleming was godfather to Muir’s daughter Helen. In the James Bond novel ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (published just before the date of this correspondence) a character is named in Percy’s honour; the British Agent ‘Alexander Muir’, Head of Station Z (Zurich), fittingly appears with a signal room hidden behind a book-lined wall.