Editor’s note: On June 26, 2019, Dominic Winter Auctioneers will be auctioning the Library & Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey. The sale features 440 lots arranged in chronological order, beginning with a 15thcentury Books of Hours. Orskey was well known world-wide in the book trade. He made frequent trips to the United States, where he was taken under the wing of the legendary American bookseller and antiques dealer Timothy Trace. In New York he delivered books to the Astors, where, he remarked, ‘even the bellboy carried a machine gun.’ The sale’s catalog can be viewed online here. The following is an introduction to the sale prepared by Nathan Winter, Director and Specialist of Libraries & Collections, Fine Art, Old Master & Modern Prints, Continental Books & Music at Dominic Winter Auctioneers.
We are delighted to present the library and picture collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey. A significant figure in the British book trade for over sixty years, he was renowned for his uncanny ability to discover rare books and otherwise unnoticed treasures. Born the only son of Polish Jewish émigrés who moved to England during the First World War, Martin narrowly escaped death at the outbreak of the next war in 1939, when the evacuation ship on which he had been due to travel was torpedoed resulting in the loss of all children on board. Martin had stayed behind at his father’s request to look after his mother, who had broken her arm. He was subsequently interned as an enemy alien in a prisoner-of-war camp on the Isle of Man, but released when it was realised that many wartime internees had as much reason to dislike the Nazi regime as any. After a curtailed national service, and seemingly lacking any obvious academic potential, he tried a variety of jobs without success in the years immediately after the war, including hairdressing and acting.
Following a stint on stage as a spear carrier, the actor Bill Owen (of Last of the Summer Wine fame) advised ‘quit while you’re ahead’. He did, however, purchase six large folio architecture books for £4 at Sotheby’s, selling five of them at a profit. The sixth volume (James Gibb’s Book of Architecture) was abandoned at Leicester Square Station because it was so heavy! This led to similar forays, where he would buy an old volume at one shop and sell it at a profit in another down the road. In 1949, on the recommendation of George McLeish, the affable bookseller at 22 Little Russell Street, Martin applied for the post of book cataloguer at Hodgson’s Auction Rooms in Chancery Lane. He got the job and stayed for fifteen years. As O. F. Snelling the auctioneer at Hodgson’s (and later Sotheby’s) recalled, Martin ‘was completely unmethodical, undependable, hopelessly inaccurate, and inefficient, but … for all his shortcomings, the Hodgsons recognised his value in cataloguing and lotting the books’. According to fellow bookman Peter Brewer, ‘Martin was in his element and there could not have been a finer apprenticeship … they were old-fashioned employers … paternalistic but also indulgent, so Martin was able to make his own decisions. He quickly learnt who were the leading players and who bought what’.
As time went on, Martin’s book-hunting activities increased, as did his knowledge, confidence and contacts. Recognising a need for affordable copies of rare and out-of-print books, he formed the Holland Press with Paul Dinnage, one of the earliest reprint publishers. In 1954 their first publication was a reprint of Vicaire’s Bibliographie Gastronomique. Eventually he left Hodgson’s to set up on his own, initially in a very small shop next to Ciancimino’s antique shop on the King’s Road, then later on the Fulham Road. Drawn by the ‘thrill of the chase’ Martin travelled ever further to purchase libraries or collections: to country houses in Scotland and to the Garrison Library in Gibraltar with Ben Weinreb.
Martin’s book collection reflects his eclectic interests and eye for distinctive and unusual rarities in the fields of science, alchemy, medicine, economics, education, gastronomy, Americana, natural history, English literature, and typography. Notable items include a 15th century Book of Hours, Thomas Milles’ Custumers Alphabet (1608) with the author’s autograph annotations, Pallavicino’s satire on the Jesuits, The Whores Rhetorick of 1683, Patrick Campbell’s Travels in North America (1793), George Edwards’ beautifully hand-coloured Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-51), and a rare gingerbread mould in the shape of a hornbook. Martin had a sense of fun and a fondness for the peculiar, so it is no surprise to find a copy of the anonymous 1722 satire The Benefit of Farting Explain’d (usually attributed to Jonathan Swift) among the many 17th- and 18th- century English literary rarities. The pictures and prints collected by Martin and his wife Josie also display a fine eye for quality, and include English naïve paintings and dog portraits, Indian miniatures and Company School botanical studies, watercolours of domestic architecture, a set of five unrecorded Restorationera allegorical prints of the senses, and the rare satire by Sutton Nicholls on the new phenomenon of book auctions The Compleat Auctioneer (circa 1700).
O. F. Snelling called Martin ‘Prince of all the book runners’, adding ‘I know of less than a dozen booksellers who have turned over rarer and more valuable items’. He was a familiar face here at Dominic Winter Auctioneers and he was one of our first 100 clients. He expressed a wish many years ago that his library should be dispersed here, so that others might experience the thrill and enjoyment of buying, owning and collecting, as he had.