Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, uncovers the life of George Snowden, a printer turned Sotheby’s clerk who became a prominent figure in the Victorian book trade.
One of the particular delights of poring over local cemetery records are those serendipitous moments when a name on a burial notice is matched to a significant historical event or personage.
One of the most impressive on line blogs for bibliophiles is called ‘ “The Bookhunter on Safari” and it is there that I first came across the name of George James Snowden (1853-1910) who trained as a printer and compositor before joining Sotheby’s ( founded in 1744), where he became the Senior Sales Clerk at the age of 20 in 1873.
He retained the post for the rest of his life, frequently bidding against the room on behalf of anonymous commission bidders. I then noticed that he was the most prominent figure in a remarkable image from a 1884 book sale seated in the foreground at his desk in a room full of many of the most senior figures active in the Victorian book trade.
George, who was noted as being a popular figure in the book trade, had forced the famous 19c Book Seller Bernard Quaritch up to an unprecedented bid of £3,700 on a Gutenberg Bible at the Syston Park Hall ( Lincolnshire) sale in 1884 (although the eventual hammer price was £3,900).
The Gutenberg 42-line Bible price of £3,900 was at that time the highest price ever paid for a printed book before another record in the same sale was broken by the purchase for £4,950 of a 1459 Mainz Psalter.
Sometime later a charity event put on by George Snowden and his West Kent Amateur Comedy Company took place at the St.George’s Hall in 1905.
The evening was to raise funds for the Booksellers’ Provident Institution – a charity founded in 1837 – “for the mutual assistance and support of decayed booksellers and booksellers’ assistants, being members of the trade, and of their widows”.
To support this much laudable institution, all the principal booksellers, printers, and bookbinders of the metropolis became subscribers, either by donation or annual subscription. It is now known as the Book Trade Charity.
The 1884 print of the book sale at Sotheby’s auction room shows George diligently dealing with the paperwork seated in the foreground.
George Snowden appears to have been a much admired and generously minded figure in the book trade , described as ‘ unfailingly courteous’ but also as someone whose force of personality and confidence in the sales room helped to set for a brief while a world record price for a rare book by forcing Bernard Quaritch to make what was then an historic sales id.
Bernard Quaritch was described by The Times on his death in 1899 as “the greatest bookseller who ever lived”.
George died in 1910 aged 57 whilst residing at 64 Tressillian road. His widow Rosa died two years later in 1912 aged 60. The couple are buried together in Brockley cemetery.
Johann Gutenberg (image of the Gutenberg Bible left) holds the distinction of being the inventor of the movable-type printing press. In 1455, Gutenberg produced what is considered to be the first book ever printed: a Latin language Bible, printed in Mainz, Germany.
Books printed in Europe before 1501 are known as Incunabula.The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978, when a copy went for a $2.2 million. A lone volume later sold for $5.4 million in 1987, and experts now estimate a complete copy could fetch upwards of $35 million at auction. I wonder what George would make of these truly astronomic figures ? I rather imagine he would be too modest to comment!