A selection from Clara Tait’s collection, photo by Uneesah Khalil

Prizes to encourage incipient and impecunious student book collectors have been commonplace in the United States for many years. The University of London has been among the first British universities to follow suit, after the University of Cambridge (2006), in the same year as the University of Oxford (2013/14) and before three Scottish universities, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and St Andrews, explains Dr Karen Attar.

London’s prize, the Anthony Davis Book Collecting prize, is generously funded by lawyer and London graduate Mr Anthony Davis. It aims to encourage undergraduates and postgraduates of the university and its colleges in their collections of books and manuscripts by recognising a collection formed by a student at an early stage in their collecting career.

The books should be related in some way, and should have been assembled for pleasure rather than for sheer utility. The winner receives £500 to buy a book for him/herself, and collaborates with Senate House Library’s curator of rare books to spend £250 on a book for the Library’s special collections. He/she is also invited to give a paper for the Institute of English Studies’ seminar series on book collecting, and gets to display a selection of books in Senate House Library.

The three years since its launch have seen a succession of entries on widely differing collections and an increasing level of interest, with no fewer than 15 submissions in 2016. The earliest prize winner was Hazel Wilkinson, with a collection on ‘The everyday canon from Tonson to Penguin’; this comprised editions of works by major English poets from Spenser to Tennyson, published between 1758 and 1957 and put together to tell a social history of the reading of these canonical authors.

By contrast, Malcolm Corrigal’s 2015 prize-winning collection featured international camera club publications from the 1950s onwards. The 2016 winner was Clara Tait, a part-time MSc Psychology student at Birkbeck, University of London with a collection entitled, ‘These were the hours: Nancy Cunard and the Hours Press 1928-1931’.

‘Dazzling and defiant, Nancy Cunard placed herself firmly in the literary circles of Paris and London in the 1920s and 30s, and her experimental Hours Press offers a glimpse of the impassioned innovation of writers during the uncertainty of those interwar years,’ explains Clara. Her collection around the English-American shipping heiress, begun by a chance discovery on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Paris, aims eventually to assemble the 23 books published by the Hours Press, including works by authors such as Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and Laura Riding; to include important publications by Cunard; and to bring together biographical works and novels which include Nancy as a character.

Each year the judges have also recognised the runner-up. In 2016 this was Arendse Lund, a MA student in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at University College London collecting on ‘Saga editions and transmissions: the changing agency of translations’ (below).

ST Lee Book 2

‘I loved reading Icelandic sagas as well as the history writers, such as Saxo Grammaticus,’ writes Arendse, ‘and to support my developing understanding of Old Norse I often used translations either into Danish or English. Some of these translations were new, some older, and since I have published translations myself, my interest was piqued how translations had functioned over time as the tool to transmit knowledge of the texts. I bought several translations into Danish and English of the same texts from various periods and compared them. I found the translations no less interesting than the originals.’ Her collection shows a progression from scholarly to popular texts and demonstrates how changing views of editions and sagas ties into history and nationalism.

Books from Clara’s and Arendse’s collections, selected and described by them, are on display until mid-September in the special collections area of Senate House Library. Do come and look!

Dr Karen Attar is an associate fellow at the Institute of English Studies and Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art. Her research interests and expertise are in library history, especially of 19th-century private and institutional libraries, and bibliography.