After serving with the Scots Guards from 1944-48, he read English at Oxford and then, following a brief flirtation with insurance at Lloyds of London, decided to join the antiquarian book world and was employed by Jaques Vellekoop at EP Goldschmidt.
He owned Sanders of Oxford from 1958-63 and was then persuaded by Anthony Hobson to move to the ‘other side’ of the trade and join Sotheby’s.
Lord John ran the enormously successful book department there for some 18 years before founding Bloomsbury Book Auctions in 1983 with ex-Sotheby’s colleagues Frank Herrmann and David Stagg.
This remarkable triumvirate presided over a much-loved and respected firm for 17 years – Frank providing the commercial brains, Lord John the gravitas and knowledge, and Stagg the drive and energy. Lord John was also a brilliant auctioneer, a point acknowledged by numerous members of the trade who wrote glowing tributes to him in an Album Amicorum, produced in the style of a Bloomsbury orange catalogue, on his retirement in 2002.
His quiet authority in the often-frenzied atmosphere of an auction was reassuring and persuasive, committing many a bidder to go “just one more” with a tilt of his head and a charming smile. He was unflappable, courteous and quick with dryly humorous remarks when appropriate.
In the days when buyers’ names were announced on the fall of the hammer, to one frustrated trade bidder who did not know the buyer of a string of lots and loudly challenged Lord John on the rostrum: “Who’s that? Blackrock?”, the gentle but firm reply came: “Barkworth, sir.” And then, a fraction later, ”His bark worth than his bite.”
At one auction in the 1970s Lord John was tasked with introducing the (then 10%) buyer’s premium to the book world and, as a result, the entire ABA membership present staged a theatrical walk-out from the saleroom.
He duly conducted the sale to a much-depleted room, the trade members having left a few discreet sentinels to observe proceedings and, more importantly, to execute commission bids on their behalf!
Bloomsbury was a vibrant and happy ship, sailing under the watchful eye of the snuff-taking, bewhiskered ‘Admiral’, Lord John.
It was also a family affair, with his beloved wife Isabel (who pre-deceased him by a few years) running the subscriptions and mailing lists, and son Andrew (of Bennett & Kerr) lending his support with weekly attendance to catalogue and assist on sale days.
The ultimate testament to Lord John’s influence over his staff is the fact that many of them still work together and, most significantly, in a similarly blended atmosphere of scholarship, kinship and fun.
I like to think that Lord John has now joined Frank and Stagg in that great auction house in the sky. As Lord John sidles up to the other two, Stagg looks up, glances at his watch, and then says sarcastically: “Oh, there you are.”
Many of us owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for the kindly and erudite way he introduced us to and helped us grow in the book world. Even more will remember him with the utmost respect and affection.
RIP Lord John.
Rupert Powell Deputy chairman, Forum Auctions