"There's enough beauty in the world to keep me here” - David Spode (1936-2013)
By Richard Neylon
A couple of weeks before he died I asked David why he was so determined to hang on as long as he could. After all, we shared trenchant, dour, views of the universe, of human existence. He replied, "There's enough beauty in the world to keep me here." That didn't make me pause for thought; what did was the realisation that he was so good at sharing beauty. If I begin to count up all the things that I treasure that I learnt from David either directly or indirectly - by following leads given by him down paths of my own making - then I find myself with a tangle of debt that can't and doesn't need to be unpicked.
David lived in what an old friend called, decades ago, an Aladdin's Cave and it was a hoard; but it wasn't the heedless loot of obsessive gathering without thought. It was a gallery of decades of passion (a euphemism, David agreed, used by collectors for compulsive greed), taste and learning. Visiting him was having your own private museum with a dedicated curator to show you around. Every inch of those cave walls were covered with pictures, the way a gallery should be, and round every corner there were more. The upper floor of his house was apparently one open space but somehow there was always another corner round which could be found a batch of burnished Islamic manuscripts or lurid Egyptian and Turkish tobacco tins. Use the toilet and there was a Bilibin drawing. There was something else in there too, but it vanished back into the drawers a few years ago and all my memory tells me about it now was that it filled me with delight and envy. Teaching might come with a rueful explanation of why you shouldn't envy his Goya Caprichos and Disasters of War, his Surimono prints, those Indian miniatures, a pre-Raphaelite photograph … his were nice trifles all, but trifles they were, whereas the really good ones …
An evening at Spode's, back in the day, would begin with the thock of a wine cork from the kitchen while I scanned for what had arrived since last time. A week was plenty of time for certainty that there was something new here. If I couldn't spot it straight away then look for what was missing, back in the drawers and cupboards to make room for the new. The carved figure on top of that Tansu, the lacquered Japanese paint manufacturer's signboard, the folio of polychromatic French brickwork designs casually laid on a side table … it was a treasure hunt we both played. Then talk: the new acquisition, scabrous gossip, more scabrous gossip known as ‘shop’; and no matter where it went it was hard to surprise Spode.
Turn to fado and he would rummage through the bottom of a cabinet and haul out his old Amalia Rodrigues records - also her films if you cared. From there it was a short trip to the Egyptian diva Om Kalthoum (spell it however you like) and onto the turntable would go a concert recording I've never managed to find on cd. Stay with music and we could romp through Montiverdi's Orfeo and Berg's Wozzeck; and one startling night in, I guess, the eighties on went a 45 of the high speed chant "Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so." Turn off into film and from another cupboard could come Mizoguchi, Kurosawa or Ozu; the Fantomas silents of Feuillade; Murnau, Lang, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Gertie the Dinosaur.
Things did come and go: the serious collection of Islamic tiles had gone some years ago but still there was a scattering of centuries old examples to handle and compare; likewise his 19th century photographs of India and the middle east; his Indian bronzes and best Indian miniatures had been stolen from his London flat … like all collectors David perpetuated the small black area of sorrow in the soul, the shrine where the memory of treasures gone resides ... central and south Asian textiles - again the main collection was gone but enough came out to be a good starting point. As a child of the sixties I have what I think is a natural aversion to paisley but shown a truly good 19th century Kashmiri shawl it was easy to see another road to possessive madness stretch out ahead.
His last great romance was a return to an earlier flirtation: Japanese tea bowls. I think he could barely walk when he went to a recent exhibition of Peter Rushforth's pottery and came home with a couple of his bowls. A few months ago he emailed me a picture of a national treasure, a 17th century bowl, admitting he was still wrestling with the aesthetics: why was this bowl so much greater than all the others? I wrote back, "It is sort of very beautiful I can see. How sort of I'm not sure. If you get me looking at tea bowls I'll never forgive you." A couple of days later I wrote, "You bastard. I looked again at your national treasure picture and curiosity sent me off looking for comparisons. I saw a few cheap ones that were nice, some that weren't … then I found a gallery with some very beautiful ones. So now I want a red raku and and a black raku and a large E-shino bowl ... all 18th and 19th century." Where, where did I see them he wanted to know; I could get my revenge by making him dissatisfied with the rubbish he had bought. His next email reads: "I think your revenge is mean-spirited overkill. I have now hidden my recent purchases at the back of the kitchen crockery cupboard."
The typography of 19th century advertising and signwriting, the pen work of early writing masters, Ralph Steadman, the best of Martin Sharp's posters, and a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics: all on some shelf or in some drawer. Moroccan fretwork - now I think about it they formed partitions and made some of those inexplicable corners - and that damn mosque lantern that I always knocked my head against; Susie Cooper ceramics and bakelite boxes … and still somehow no mere clutter. An inventory of Spode's stuff? Rather a beginner's guide to Spode's mind I think.
If all this makes Spode sound like an effete dilettante then I've done it wrong. For every object of desire upstairs there was a shelf, sometimes a wall of reference books downstairs. The eager grasp for possession was matched by an eager grasp for ideas and knowledge and it was all shaped by the disciplined rigor of a workman's approach to his craft. The wall of theatre design, costume history and textile samples went when he decided he would no longer be designing for theatre and television; and the longer wall of architectural pattern books, sample books and trade catalogues went when he resigned from the world of design and restoration - we'll get to these careers soon. Like all craftsmen (sorry, craftspersons) he both valued and delighted in his tools, the right tool for every job and the best quality. That they are beautiful objects in themselves is inseparable.
It was Ruskinian first principles: as a designer needing true Palladian lines, the right vibrancy of Victorian colour, machine age sleek, or the subdued opulence of Viennese modern then out came Palladio, Owen Jones, Pugin, Dresser and Burges, Bel Geddes, Peter Behrens, Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann, paint samples, tile catalogues and a dozen other books, patterns and samples from the right time and place. Both the sense and the detail must be right.
What took the place of those first career tools were bibliographies, catalogues, bookseller's reference. I had a few years start but I'm sure his reference library is better than mine and, unlike mine, his books on obscure and rarely seen things were read and digested. His wall of reference on old master prints remained, added to, though he claimed that he could no longer afford to play in the increasingly deep end of that pool and new shelves formed on Sino-Japanese war prints and Surimono and more things than I can remember. For me, with a far more superficial compulsive greed, I thought him a glutton for punishment - this dedication to scholarship for its own sake. Tireless expeditions to museums and galleries, the continual flow of new monographs and fat exhibition catalogues. Why continue to load yourself with knowing the unobtainable? He might point out that this study meant that he knew what he was looking at where I saw indiscernible bric-a-brac but I’m sure he wouldn’t be so ill-mannered.
In June last year we crossed paths in London, he on his annual progress of friends, books, exhibitions, theatre and Glyndebourne, Edinburgh and maybe Paris or a few Italian churches. The meeting was delight and work. Our first call was an exhibition of sixties British design at the V&A. As we left he said, "Memory lane is a scary place." Then into the tube, a stop somewhere in Bloomsbury, I forget what, then via Cavendish Square to show me the Georgian row where he would live when he came across a spare hundred million pounds, another by-pass to show me a smart modernist building, somewhere that seemed a long walk to me on our way to lunch at a cafe with decent house wine. After our run down Charing Cross Road to inspect the dispiriting remnants of London bookshops he had pencilled in a stop for bookbinding supplies and an exhibition at the Tate; or was it the National, or the Courtauld? I don't know because I limped into the nearest tube back to my hotel.
After he became a bookseller he became more serious about bookbinding. So of course he went off to tech to learn bookbinding and soon enough there were rows of books, technical and historical, and a growing row of examples of bindings of all periods, all styles, all materials. A couple of years ago I mentioned a new discovery: signed American jacquard coverlets of the 1830s. Surprisingly he confessed ignorance so I sent him a few pictures. Back came a disappointed and waspish reply: "I thought you meant bookbindings. Is my focus shrinking too alarmingly? Nice bedspreads if you're into that sort of thing."
The focus was never so narrow. When I asked him to repair the binding of an Asher Benjamin pattern book – Benjamin was the American proponent of Greek Revival architecture – it came back, properly repaired, with a sheaf of observations on the intriguing parallels and divergences of English neo-Classicism, which he knew well, and American Greek Revival, which had been unregarded until now.
David did architecture at Sydney University in the late fifties and after doing his obligatory spell in the Works Department made sure he never practiced. I think most of his university time and best efforts went into designing and directing Dramatic Society productions. Soon he joined the migration of his generation to London, in his case overland from the bottom of India in a Morris Minor with two friends. Were they still called chums by the early sixties? Probably not. Then followed a couple of decades as production designer for the BBC - Doctor Who wasn't so high on his own list of achievements but it awed many younger friends - until he was lured back to Sydney in the early eighties by the frothy thrill of what seemed at the time the birth of a new age of culture, opportunity and fun in a now cosmopolitan city. That and the chance to design interiors and exhibits for the upcoming Powerhouse Museum. That done he chalked up what seemed to me an enviable resumé, designing some chic Sydney restaurants, worked on Kirribilli House and the Lodge in Canberra, an opera, I seem to remember, but nonetheless he felt increasingly insecure with the life of a freelance and so accepted the offer to join a firm that promised the chance to design international exhibitions. Instead he found himself designing optometrist stores and began planning his return to London.
This is where I made the worst mistake a bookseller can make. I suggested that instead of being my best customer he become bookseller himself; he had more than enough books for stock and we could share the shop I had in Darlinghurst. This was the eighties remember, when the world still seemed to teem with good books that sold themselves for healthy profits. And I figured that if he left for London I would lose both customer and friend. I can't be sure whether, in the end, he was grateful or cursed me; both I think.
Bookselling should have been a homecoming for David, in many ways it was. His bookbuying had begun early, probably after he learnt to talk but I wouldn't bet on it; he lit a candle sometimes at his shrine of treasures gone for the books he had sold to pay for the journey to London decades earlier. He then trained in Portobello Road where he bought and sold eastern loot and there can't be better and tougher training grounds than Portobello Road and the hunting fields of Bermondsey Market in pre-dawn winter mornings. But somehow he remained circumspect and occasionally ill at ease to an extent that puzzled me. He disliked showing off and his catalogues remained firmly understated as the rest of us flowered into hyperbole but that doesn't explain it.
He had a crusty impatience with sentiment and self-indulgence unless it was on stage, handled by fine actors or fine singers, and I think this was part of a larger impatience with sloppiness and shoddy amateurism in any part of life or work. The first time I met David was during a visit back to Sydney, when a mutual friend brought him down to our shack on Sydney's northern beaches. We lived in a clutter of proudly proclaimed kitsch. David did sit down for drink and gossip after he had inspected every wall and shelf. He pointed to some admittedly ordinary watercolour landscapes, gum trees and suchlike, I'm not sure why we had them. "My grandfather painted those," he said. "Would you like them?" we asked. He glanced at them again. "No thank you," he said.
I suspect that despite the evidence - and few could be more scathing about shoddy work from some of our colleagues - even after twenty years David remained unconvinced that he wasn't an amateur bookseller still. Perhaps this was the relic of some old school conviction that professions were to be learnt by years of formal study, maybe a brutal apprenticeship followed by a hungry period as journeyman. Anything that came as easily as bookselling - which needs nothing more than curiosity and a decent memory - came to him meant that he was missing something intrinsic. Consider, he might suggest, that he wasn't proficient in at least six languages and had a flimsy grasp of reformation politics in Wurttemberg.
Maybe this misconception of amateur and professional was why he would freely give advice when asked about books, pictures and whatever else but could be suddenly reticent, like an off-duty doctor buttonholed at cocktails for a quick diagnosis, when asked for on the spot advice during his design years. Not meanness, but the notion that a professional's opinion was something that demanded study, consideration and an invoice. He was among the first visitors when Louise and I bought our first real estate, an uglified, down at heels Victorian corner shop and residence in Balmain. "Any suggestions?" Louise asked David, the designer. He looked around the dinge and gloom. "A torch," he said.
All booksellers need advice and all booksellers make mistakes. Usually we remember only those books sold too cheaply but David was much more disturbed to discover he had paid too little. Not to other dealers, they are fair game, but to private owners, civilians. We often asked each other about things when we were unsure and twice in the last twenty years David asked me about things, one on Australian currency and a first fleet rarity, privately bought, that by chance I knew enough to tell him they were much more valuable than he thought. Instead of being pleased he was horrified and he hurried back to the previous owners and pushed thousands more dollars at them. He could characteristically sniff, “Australiana, I don’t get it,” but he wasn’t mollified by that. These were, he believed, the mistakes of an amateur.
I have, still wrapped up, two things that I was relying on Spode’s help with. The first I’ve had for years: the drawing books of a semi-lunatic, a true outsider I think. Of the few people I’ve showed them to, Spode was the only one who shared my enchantment with the obsessive visions of this nutcase. I’ve continually put them away because offering them for sale demanded careful research, thought and judgment; demands there would be time for later. The second, newly arrived, I bought with Spode in mind. It is, I believe, an album of 18th, and possibly some 17th, century examples of writing masters, not students. I planned on carrying it to Spode, as a gift or for expert advice if he refused the gift. He died the day after I bought it and now I’m stuck. Most inconvenient he would agree.
Despite the occasional friction natural to two stubborn and greedy book buyers whose tastes overlapped a bit too much we had some fun with our joint catalogues; but the jokes didn’t travel well. We both thought it was very funny to take the title page of some near impossible rarity and scribble over it with a large biro inscription and some child’s crayon and texta. The bookseller’s nightmare. We chose the 1865 Alice in Wonderland and made it a catalogue cover, paying extra for colour – the biro and crayon. All we got were faxes (remember faxes?) from English and American dealers complaining that they couldn’t find the book in the catalogue; was it still available? Likewise the catalogue printed back to back (‘dos-à-dos’ is the technical term) with the Canowindra Moyne Eventide Home Souvenir Biscuit Recipe Book fell flat. We put the worst kitsch we could find on an art and architecture catalogue and an inexplicable photo of a hooded monk on another and no-one noticed. For a catalogue on the 19th century we tried to emulate a pamphlet cover and included a quote from Longinus – in Greek – that translates more or less as ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’. How clever we were; how little anyone cared. Maybe we should have left more time between the catalogue planning done over however many bottles and the necessary sober moment when we sent them off to the printer.
You might wonder how, with all the drinking and shopping, David found time to read. I do. I wonder how he had read as much as he had. In the last decade or so there were mounds of murder mysteries that washed in and out the door like the surf but the heavier lifting still got done and it wasn't bluff. When he explained why the new translations of Homer, Proust, Dostoevsky, Dante and the Tale of the Genji were better, or not, than the old he did it with a clear memory of both. I envied that memory and hated it when I was caught out with some concoction worked up from a vague mismemory. He reproved me once for attributing to Joseph Campbell a thesis that belonged to Frazer's Golden Bough … and here I am twenty years later still smarting.
Still, the debt outweighs the scars. He pushed me to overcome my jejune antipathy to Dickens by restarting with Bleak House and was fair about Dicken's failures. When I called, some 300 pages into Martin Chuzzlewit with another 400 to go, complaining that nothing had happened to anyone and I didn't like any of them anyway, asking whether things got better, he admitted that they didn't. When I was unable to follow Henry James from the relative clarity of his earlier novels into the somnolent haze of the Golden Bowl he was regretful but sympathetic. I'd started reading Balzac's Comedie Humaine young, as a long term project. Trouble was I could never remember what I'd already read. He remembered just about all of them and summarized a brief guide for me; I had an email from him a few months ago, happy to rediscover how “compulsively readable” Balzac could be. When I reported how delighted I was with Miss Fluart, from Robert Bage's 'Hermsprong', he called up all the characters and pronounced her the one he'd like to sit close to, but not too close, at dinner. Bage's other novels weren't as good he warned; and they weren't.
During one of our last conversations I said I was about to start Melville's 'Pierre'. "Oh dear," he said. "I wish you luck." The only time I can remember that he confessed he hadn't finished a book. A few weeks ago I dropped in a Verga novel to him, Verga was one of the few important gaps in his reading I'd ever found. He was grateful, keen, but unsure about when he could get to it. He was reading Peter Robb's essays; an essay was all the effort he could manage before he lost concentration. I'm told he took Shakespeare with him to the hospice; the poems.
I think Spode was, more than anyone else that I can think of - that I care about, a consciously self-created person. Somewhere back there he fell in love with the ideal gentleman, from other times, from imagination: educated, cultured, modest, travelled, perceptive, accomplished, humane, strong in will and generous in spirit … now I wonder whether, organised sod that he was, there was a notebook in which the yearning boy listed the qualities desired, the models admired, as he came across them in books and in life, then set out to master them and perfect the well-rounded gentleman (no. 132: A gentleman will drink heartily but never be drunk). Maybe none of these qualities were unnatural to him but that doesn’t make it an easy task. Unteasing the goal from the obstacles means picking out the inner paradoxes and failings and if they can’t be untangled then they must, implacably, be cleared out of the way.
If he thought so, he still wasn’t fool enough to believe he had succeeded. I said he was impatient with sentiment and self-indulgence but that didn’t make him adamnantly hard-hearted with anyone but himself. Wrapped, double tied with stout twine and wax-sealed in discreet parcels was the best way he could carry his own flaws but he was always too aware of the fragility of that wrapping.
Of course none of us, except maybe the most superficial, who are truly gifted and blessed, can see ourselves with another’s eyes. I think that Spode might be pleased that I’ve recorded here accomplishments and qualities I value – he worked hard at them after all. But naturally he would be puzzled and uncomfortable, profoundly uncomfortable, if I set out the reasons – the same reasons why these qualities weren’t artifice – why I cared.
You could charge, rightly, that this obsessive busying with stuff, studying it, gathering it, clutching it, is a mere contrivance to keep the dark at bay, to divert the gaze from all those flaws and failures. Spode would answer, “And …?” I’ll add, “What better way is there?” It kept some dark at bay and it kept on some light: the reassurance that there is some point in being human. That we’ve made enough beauty in the world to want to stay a bit longer.
In the few sentences I've written about the London decades I left out the important bits. His marriage to Barbara and the birth of their daughter India and all the things that went wrong after that. This is a period of turmoil that I know little about. Late nights after a few bottles sometimes I dared ask about India and other dark moments. He wasn't evasive but neither did he burble and I sensed he was looking into a bottomless pit of sorrow - or he could have been measuring how far it was to the bottom of his glass - and talking brought no relief. So I left it alone. I do know and I guess there is no need for it to be a secret now, having too often rescue him from what he saw as the malevolence of his computer, that his password for every account was India.
(Thank you very much to Richard Neylon and Sally Burdon for giving permission to publish this article on ILAB.org.)