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News & Updates Antiquarian Booksellers' Association Bryars & Bryars

"Replicas are often not the answer" - Christmas at London's Cecil Court

Cecil Court in London, a magical little street just off Leicester Square and for many a true sanctuary in one of the busiest parts of London. What a special place at Christmas time to wander around, find some presents and have a conversation with the knowledgeable booksellers who have been trading here for many years.
Emma Wesley 2022

Lined with bookshops and galleries and often depicted with its iconic gaslights, it holds memories for many book lovers.
Cecil Court has featured in a variety of films, "Victim" (1961), "The Human Factor" (1979), "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987), "Miss Potter" (2006) or "Last Christmas" (2019) and bookshops set in Cecil Court have cropped up briefly in various novels, such as Ben Aaronovitch's 'Broken Homes'.

But life for the booksellers and residents of Cecil Court is not always as romantic as it seems even though one would think landlords and the City of Westminster would protect such an iconic place. Over the years, west end retailers have had to fight many campaigns against high business rates and rents, but when the city started dismantling some of the gaslights, booksellers and residents joined forces and the "gasketeers" hit a nerve with the public and the press!

An interview with ILAB/ABA bookseller Tim Bryars of Bryars & Bryars

Tim, you are the co-owner of "Bryars & Bryars", one of the iconic shops in Cecil Court. When you don't fight campaigns and speak to the press about gaslights, what is your main occupation? What do you deal in?

Gas lamps were in danger of taking over my life - it was quite a battle! Ordinarily I lead a quiet life, buying and selling old books and maps. I have a range of interests - I've always liked early printed editions of Greek and Roman authors - but my main speciality is maps. I've been a co-organiser of the London Map Fair for over 20 years, I've written about twentieth century maps for the British Library, and I have a couple of book projects in the pipeline.

Many of us heard of the "gasketeers" through the press or colleagues in the trade. The gaslights in Cecil Court are nearly as iconic as the bookshops. What happened?

Tim Bryars at Cecil Court under one of the iconic gaslights worth protecting

One morning in June 2020 council contractors began digging a hole outside our bookshop. I asked them what they were doing, and they said they were just checking to see how easy it would be to convert 'my' historic working gas lamp to electricity. I was horrified. Gas street lighting began in Westminster in 1807, and it revolutionised urban living worldwide. The gas lamps give a gentle, Dickensian glow which cannot be replicated with LEDs. They don't use much gas, it would be more expensive to replace them than to maintain them, and there's a team of skilled lamplighters who keep them shining. They are old and beautiful, and as a world city Westminster's heritage belongs to everyone. It swiftly became clear that Westminster council had not consulted anyone properly before starting to remove them. It's an esoteric subject, but once people understood what was at stake I was able to build a broad, apolitical coalition which included heritage bodies and local amenity groups, architects, historians, photographers, tour guides and people who simply enjoy visiting London, or live and work here. Eventually our supporters ranged from actor Simon Callow, Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg and Andy Prendergast, National Secretary of the GMB Union. We were then able to achieve equally diverse positive media coverage, both national and international (French, Dutch and Indian ILAB members may have seen me on the news, talking about gaslighting in Westminster). Westminster council has now agreed to preserve the majority of the lamps, and we are working with Historic England to give legal protection to most of the rest.

Antiquarian books and gaslights, you and your colleagues and friends clearly live to protect objects from a bygone area. Why is this important to you?

Replicas are often not the answer. I spend my life explaining to people why an ebook or a lasercopy (useful as those might be in some situations) won't give them the same levels of information as handling or owning an original. There's an aesthetic dimension to patina, but it's also important that we can continue to experience the real thing. The texture is different. A working Victorian gas lamp has as much in common with a 'heritage-style lantern with gas effect LED' as an original seventeenth-century map has in common with a modern facsimile printed on crinkly parchment-paper.

Over the years you have commissioned every Christmas some exceptional artwork by leading illustrators. How did this idea come about?

I've been commissioning a different artist every year for the last nine years. I don't give them much of a brief: so far they all know Cecil Court anyway, so I just ask them for something in their own style which reflects what the street means to them. As you can see, it ranges from magical and literary to decidedly gothic: every card is very different. The calibre of the artist and illustrators has been terrific, and includes some well known names - and they always put so much work into it! It began when I asked a cartoonist to draw something for a friend's birthday, and it suddenly dawned on me that artists don't necessarily mind being asked to draw.
This year's card (see above) was painted by the hugely talented Emma Wesley, who is married to my neighbour in Cecil Court, Mark Sullivan. She likes painting men with beards and once painted me (a fascinating experience, although it was rather odd being displayed with the great and the good in the annual exhibition of portraits in the Mall Galleries.) When asked, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to fit a Christmas card in around her other commissions, but I gather she was up at 2am sketching out suitably literary ideas: John Masefield meets Cecil Court.

A Christmas wish if there was such a thing: what is needed to keep places like Cecil Court alive and futureproof?


Interview and text by Angelika Elstner.

Cecil Court At Christmas: Some of the charming festive illustrations over the years...

On that note, ILAB wishes all its booksellers, customers and colleagues a peaceful Christmas and a prosperous and happy New Year.