Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Francis Edwin Murray: Bookplate

 
This fascinating bookplate for Francis Edwin Murray by W. R. Kean, is a brilliant example of how to present a particular impression to the world, an example of 'spin'. Murray was born in 1854 into a dynasty of booksellers and it would have been no surprise to anyone that he would go on to become a bookseller and publisher himself. In fact, he was extremely good at it and surpassed his grandfather and father in the scale of his business operations. By the time this bookplate was created in 1893, at the age of 39, Murray had shops in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester and his own publishing business. It is worth spending a moment dissecting some of the iconography within this image.
 
Clearly the figure is Murray himself, but if there was any doubt then this photograph of him does survive and we can see that the artist has done a good job with the likeness.
 
 
But on his bookplate Murray presents himself as a medieval or Elizabethan scholar in robes reminiscent of those worn by those with Doctorates in an academic setting: in such costume the bookshelves in the background become more of a library and nothing as base and tawdry as a bookshop with its associations of Trade. The modern day trend towards booksellers with postgraduate degrees in their specialist fields is indeed quite modern and for the most part a bookseller of Murray's era would have to hope for academic kudos by association rather than qualification. Murray is here simply helping that process along. It is also likely that Murray was nodding towards Caxton in his choice of dress for this portrait. The three roundels at the centre are actually nothing more than the civic seals of the three cities in which Murray had his shops, but they act here like seals of approval and are perhaps supposed to bring to mind the 'rosettes' that photographers and others would smatter on the back of their cards indicating they had won awards at various exhibitions. Overall, Murray is attempting to project an image that is respectable through-and-through; no money-grubbing tradesman he, but a man of letters and civic responsibility.
 
And in case that wasn't enough respectability, the portrait to the left is of James Stewart, Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland (although frankly this seems to be nothing more than a slightly adapted portrait of Murray again) and this was Murray's trademark. The names he gave to his shop premises derive also from the Earl (Stuart House in Leicester, Moray House in Derby and Regent House in Nottingham). It seems likely that Murray felt there was some genealogical link between his family and the Earl's.
 
All these elements, so far, are about status and position and they are almost the equivalent of heraldic arms which, of course, if you had, you would have included on your bookplate at this period. Murray, without real noble lineage creates a bookplate that is almost as good as a coat of arms. Under the words Ex Libris there is a 'motto' of sorts, a biblical quote from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25. This quote seems to me the crossing point between Murray's portrayal of himself as an unworldly and elevated scholar and his actual business of buying and selling books. The quote is from the Parable of the Virgins and it is what the wise virgins say to the foolish ones when the foolish virgins come asking them to give them some oil. Not to put too fine a point on it, the wise virgins say to the foolish ones, 'sod off and buy your own'. It's not the most subtle of lines but seems somehow appropriate for the cutthroat world of trade and commerce. The rest of the bookplate is about that business.
 
Central to Murray's position in the bookselling world, and indeed central to the design of the bookplate is a copy of a bound volume of The Clique which sits under Murray's hand. The Clique was a trade magazine that Murray founded and which placed him right at the heart of the bookselling establishment in Britain, The Clique continued for decades and was run for some time by Murray's son, it was also, from 1907, the official organ of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association. And because this bookplate is still very much about Murray as the king of the booksellers in the Midlands he is also holding a copy of Notts. and Derby Notes and Queries of which he was both publisher and assistant editor.
 
Now we are really into the nitty-gritty of Murray's business and the bookplate displays a pile of volumes from 'The Regent Library', two of which Frangipani and Vistas are seen as named volumes standing at the base of the design. In fact something slightly strange but probably unimportant is going on with the dates there as the bookplate is dated 1893 and the first edition of William Sharp's Vistas wasn't until the following year. And then, never swerving too far from the local, there is also a group of volumes depicting the Moray Library, issued from Derby and consisting of heavy-duty topographical works. Pictured in the bookplate are Payne's Derby Churches and Chantrey's Peak Scenery.



 
Its only when you get the magnifying glass out that the bookplate even begins to hint at anything other than the ultra-respectable man of letters that Murray wants you to see. In the Chesterfield-style bookcase is a single book with a name on it 'Austin Dobson'. Murray had, by all accounts, a brilliant collection of Dobson books and material, and seven years after this bookplate was drawn Murray would publish a full-scale bibliography of this then, still-living, poet and critic. Not that there was anything unwholesome about Dobson: of the poets at work at the end of the Nineteenth Century he was one of the more respectable, but the hidden volumes in the bookcase, the hint at poetry, these are the things which make Francis Edwin Murray a person of interest on this blog. Murray's 'other side', the one which isn't represented on this bookplate, was as both publisher and dealer in works of Uranian poetry, it was an 'under the counter' career which didn't really take off until later than this bookplate but it was clearly a side of Murray's life which completely contradicted the image presented here. I have written a little note here before about some of Murray's Uranian publications and Callum James Books has re-published Murray's Catalogue but not a whisper, really, of those things in this bookplate.

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