Books & Manuscripts

The Piece That Started My Collection: Annette Campbell-White

By Martin Dean
To coincide with the publication of her memoir, a new exhibition featuring the extensive rare book collection of venture capitalist Annette Campbell-White will open on August 24, sponsored by Sotheby's. The collection features a number of Modernist authors, and highlights include manuscripts and correspondence by Virginia Woolf and letters by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. We spoke to Annette ahead of the opening to find out more about her passion.

Sotheby's: What began your interest in collecting books?

Annette Campbell-White: It didn’t start with a decision to collect books; rather, book collecting just entered my life organically. I always loved books and reading as a child and young person, and when I was looking for work in London in the early 1970s, I happened upon an antiquarian book shop. One of the items in that shop, among a few other books of Modernist authors, was this tiny hard backed book, made with hand made paper, containing a limited edition of T.S Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon.'

This limited, signed edition of T. S. Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon” (1928) was the purchase that started a lifetime of book collecting. (Drawing by E. McKnight Kauffer. © Simon Rendall.)

S: What was it that drew you to that work, and what made you consider it your first ‘collected’ book?

ACW: What drew me to the book was the fact that it was signed. I was so young and so naive that I had no idea that authors did produce signed and limited editions of different works. T. S. Eliot was a poet with whom I was very familiar, and I happened to know this poem well from my schooldays. I took it as a sort of sign that life was going to improve, so felt I had to stretch to buy this little book. Once I bought it, having spent so much time in that book shop, I decided that once I had a bit of money, I was going to buy more rare books. And so it went on from there.

Annette Campbell-White. Photo credit: Reenie Raschke

S: You’ve written a memoir, Beyond Market Value, A Memoir of Book Collecting and the World of Venture Capital. Do you consider your book collecting a form of escapism from a busy career, or an application of your skills as a venture capitalist?

ACW: It was definitely the former. Book collecting is a private world you can vanish into and visit with the writers, look at illustrations, think about the writers of the times you collect – it takes you completely away from the world of finance and business.

S: Your collection is particularly focused on Modernism, and you worked to collect rare editions of all one hundred titles listed in Cyril Connolly’s The Modern Movement. Can you tell us more about your attraction to Modernist works?

ACW: It started serendipitously with that first purchase, because Eliot is one of the cornerstone Modernist writers. I found that I knew a number of – certainly the English – writers of the Modernist movement. However, initially I focused on the poetry of the First World War. That’s a limited field, but of course a number of those poets were writers of the Modernist movement as it is defined. I knew a little of the French and American authors on the Connolly list. It’s a period that appeals to me – both historically and of course, because the literature is profound. It’s a product of reaction to the convulsive times of the late 19th and early 20th century, when literature changed to reflect more than merely the narrative and even the moralistic, to reflecting a more inward examination of the human condition.

S: Have any pieces in your collection been love at first sight?

ACW: Well, a recent acquisition comes to mind and that’s one of fifteen proof copies of Stèphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, which I bought at one of the Pierre Bergé auctions that were carried out in several parts by Sotheby’s and Pierre Bergé Associés in, I think, six parts. This was a sort of vanity auction for Bergé’s collection but my, he was a great collector. What a fine collection of literature he had. Anyway, I resisted until I saw this on offer in, I think, the fifth sale. It is the key work of Modernism in my opinion, because many say that this was the work that started the Modernist movement. I had to buy it.

The hand of the wartime censor meant that the original version, probably written by Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917, remained unknown for many years. (© Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the Estate of George Sassoon.)

S: How do you go about finding books for your collection? Do you have a wish list, or is it more impulse driven?

ACW: Now it’s more impulse driven. When I was collecting the Connolly list, it was a wish list to find not only the books of the list, but fine, inscribed and related copies of those items. Now it’s collecting letters, manuscripts as well as books, involving authors – still Modernist authors – but I travel further afield now in my collecting choices. For instance, I have a lot of the art and writings of Mervyn Peake, who could by no stretch of the imagination be called a Modernist... a fantasy writer, perhaps. I have a peculiar attraction to the Titus trilogy. But I collect intensely authors in whom I really have interest – Verlaine, for example, who was not mentioned by Connolly for some reason. I find most books these days at auction, but occasionally a dealer has something fine to offer.

S: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when collecting books, and what advice would you give to a new collector?

ACW: I made many mistakes with my early collecting because I was finding my own way. Focus is important. I made a number of trips down blind alleys until I focused finally on Modernism. I spent far too long with works of fine print after the First World War collection had stalled. Condition is key; I didn’t understand that at first. Literary letters should say something of interest – I personally don’t think that a letter thanking someone for a dinner adds anything to the conversation about that author. If you don’t have funds at your disposal, find a subset of the area that interests you where you can afford to assemble a collection. For instance, in Modernist terms, those Ariel poems reflect a lot about the early Modernist movement in English writing and they were and are very affordable.

CLICK HERE to view the details of the exhibition.

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