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John Lawson - Obituary by Nicolas Barker

It is with great sadness that we have to announce the death of John Lawson, who served as ILAB Vice President from 1979 - 1981 and as ILAB President from 1982 - 1984.
Published on 08 Oct. 2019
John Lawson - ILAB President of Honour -
Image: John Lawson (left) with Jonathan and Gillian Potter at the Past Presidents' Lunch in 2003

The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association has informed ILAB about the passing of John Lawson, ILAB President of Honour. 

Keith Fletcher wrote to ILAB: "John Lawson was the first of what was to become a triumvirate of ILAB presidents intent on bringing the League to the attention of a much wider public. His initiative, built upon by Hans Bagger and Anthony Rota,  paved the way for Anton Gerits and his successors to bring new associations into the fold."



John Lawson joined E.M. Lawson & Co, the firm that his father had started at Sutton Coldfield in 1921, when he was demobbed from national service in the RAF in 1952. For more than sixty years, without ostentation but with an amazing range of knowledge, he put together and sent out several hundred catalogues on subjects as diverse as English literature (especially seventeenth-century), science and medicine, geography and travel to all the remoter parts of the world. He had a sense akin to second sight for what made books important or saleable. Starting without much capital, he built up his stock by clever buying from other booksellers whom he regularly visited. “What did he see in that?”, they would ask as he left with a car full of books.

They soon found out when his next catalogue came out; they also learned that he was always reliable, prompt to pay for what he bought and his descriptions clear and accurate.
But more than that, John was the best of good company, welcome wherever he went. He had originally thought of acting as a career and passed all the exams needed for a LAMDA diploma, but his father’s example and expertise were irresistible, and he never regretted his choice. He was fortunate too in the customers he acquired. Chief among them, then and later, was Sir Geoffrey Keynes, surgeon and book-collector, whose tastes and enthusiasm did much to shape and encourage John’s; their friendship was sealed with a copy of the Baskerville Virgil in a sumptuous Roger Payne binding. Bent Juel- Jensen was another medical book-collector who shared the same tastes.

John was equally at home and as universally popular among his fellow- members of the trade. Ted Dring at Quaritch and Frank Maggs were early friends and mentors, and with Frank’s son John our John made a close and lasting friendship. In the early 60s they made the first of many buying trips together to the USA and Canada, and then further afield. John soon made as many more friends abroad, Mike Papantonio at Seven Gables, John Fleming, George Goodspeed, and his particular favourites, Dick Wormser and Frances and Margery Hamill & Barker in Chicago. In 1967 the two Johns, Lawson and Maggs, went on a world tour, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Our John bought an excellent collection, replete with Donne and Blake, in Los Angeles, then travelled on across the Pacific via Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, where the legendary Ken Hince befriended both. John Maggs went home via India, John Lawson via Mauritius, where he bought another library and sold it on to the National Library of Australia at Canberra.
A later trip took him to South Africa, where Tony Clarke, founder of Clarke’s Bookshop at Cape Town became another close friend.
It must be remembered that these were pioneering journeys. Air travel was rarer and not as ubiquitous as it is today. Not just the booksellers but librarians, at the National Library at Sydney, or John’s particular favourite, Tom Adams at the John Carter Brown Library, became friends for life. Besides these wide-ranging travels, John did his bit at home. He was an active member of the ABA Committee, rising to become President in 1976-8.
In 1979 Stanley Crowe persuaded him to stand for the vice-presidency of the ILAB, of which he later became President and then President of Honour. His old talent for acting came to the fore, and his official speeches delighted all who heard them.
By 1968 his father’s original premises in Sutton Coldfield had become less convenient, and he moved house and home to a nice old Tudor house in East Hagbourne on the border of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. There he and his wife Monica brought up three children, Monica becoming, to his pride and delight, a pillar of the local community as well as E.M.Lawson & Co, for which she was awarded the M.B.E. Her sudden death in 2008 took away some of John’s natural delight in life. It was John’s old friend Martin Hamlyn (Peter Murray Hill) who said ‘Independent bookselling offers a rare chance to carve out one’s own destiny’. John did just that, and made a triumphant success of it.

Chatting to Keynes one evening, he wondered if he ought rather to have gone to university. ‘Do you really?, said Keynes. ‘If you had gone to university you might never have become an antiquarian bookseller, and you wouldn’t have enjoyed yourself nearly as much!’ True, thought John, but we who knew him also knew that if he had a natural gift for enjoying himself he had the greater gift making others round him enjoy life as much as he did.


In the 1982 Newsletter John Lawson writes to ILAB affiliates:

Dear Colleague,

Although. I have spoken to most of your National Presidents, this is the first opportunity I have had to write to you personally. The League exists to unite the different national Associations and to serve all the members of those Associations. If there is any way I can help you or be of service to you please do not contact me. I cannot hope to get to know every member of every Association around the world, but if you are visiting England and feel like a talk - you know my address.

It was a moving moment at the Presidents' Meeting in Amsterdam last October, when our dear friend Bob de Graaf announced his retirement as President of the League. He has served the League loyally and most conscientiously for nine years in various offices, and has brought to them all a dignity and high standard. He will be much missed in our meetings, and hard to follow.

It is now history, but nevertheless a great disappointment, that the Congress in France failed to materialize. However, the Dutch Association stepped in and provided us with an excellent meeting and delightful social occasions. We are most grateful to them and are much in their
The Presidents will be meeting again in September when we shall be the guests of the Swedish Association. I said at the beginning of this letter that we are here to serve you, but as Bob de Graaf observed, the Committee can only function satisfactorily if It receives response from its individual international members - which means you!
There are signs that the economies of various countries are not as gloomy as they were, but there may still be cases of colleagues in difficulties. Keep a lookout for them and try to help where you can - our motto states "The love of books unites us".

Condolences can be sent to his daughter Jenny Lawson at his home address Woodlands, 2 Higgs Close, East Hagbourne, Didcot, Oxon OX11 9NB. 


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