Brian North Lee

Brian North Lee, writer, collector and historian of bookplates: born Syston, Leicestershire 27 December 1936; FSA 1978; died London 24 February 2007.


Brian North Lee was an indefatigable scholar and historian of bookplates, producing a stream of books on the subject. "There is something beguiling," he wrote, "in the prospect of an exploration which could fill lifetimes of leisure", and he argued cogently not only for the value of his work in exploring the history of collecting and the taste (and genealogy) of collectors, but also for the importance of bookplates and book labels as, often, artistic examples of printed ephemera. In 1972 he was a co-founder of the Bookplate Society, which promotes the study, exchange and sale of bookplates, arranging meetings and publishing books (often by him) and a journal (which he edited for many years).

Lee was born of Leicestershire yeoman stock, one of twin boys, in 1936. After local schooling, he served in the RAF at Watton, before beginning to train for the Anglican priesthood at Kelham near Newark, mother house of the Society of the Sacred Mission. The religious life, he realised, was not for him; instead he trained to teach at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, in London. His first post was at St Mark's Church School in Fulham, and after a formative experience in Ghana he returned to London in 1962 to teach English in Kingston.

He was a born collector with a sharp eye for bargains, particularly in the treasure-chests of Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road, but bookplates soon held a special fascination for him and he joined the Bookplate Exchange Club in 1969. Tom and Isobel Owen of Hampstead Garden Suburb shared their immense knowledge of the subject, leaving Lee well placed in 1972 to play a leading part with David Chambers and Peter Summers in setting up the Bookplate Society within the Private Libraries Association.

The Bookplate Designs of Rex Whistler (1973) had some characteristics of a first book, but its introduction demonstrated the author's easy and elegant writing style. Early Printed Book Labels (1976) was a confident piece of scholarship of which he was rightly proud to the end of his life, and election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries followed within two years.

The copiously illustrated British Bookplates (1979) came next and his first study of the work of a major British engraver, The Ex-Libris of Simon Brett, in 1982. That year at the Oxford Congress of the Federation of International Societies and Associations for Ex-Libris, Lee's contributions were an exhibition and a lecture on "British Pictorial Bookplates". Exhibitions were also held at the National Book League and links were made with the Society of Wood Engravers.

During the 11 years of the Bookplate Society's joint existence with the PLA, Lee was secretary and newsletter editor, but when in 1983 the society became independent he became editor of the Bookplate Journal and, eventually, the society's president.

British Royal Bookplates (1992) brought that subject up to the beginning of the present Queen's reign. Almost two dozen other titles include studies of the work of Claud Lovat Fraser, Leo Wyatt, Philip Hagreen, Edmund Hort New, and, most recently, Richard Shirley Smith. Lee had just finished writing Scottish Bookplates (with Sir Ilay Campbell Bt) when his last illness struck.

Brian North Lee was a knowledgeable collector, too, of pilgrim badges and of fossils and armorial porcelain. He worked for the Terrence Higgins Trust as a volunteer and in 2002 raised the funds required to build a new church in Ghana.

His wide circle was international and he claimed that he had more black friends than white; they included artists, writers and educationalists, though in recent times it was up to them to come to him, for he was happiest in his Chiswick home of 40 years. His kindness, his wit and his readiness to help scholars made every journey worthwhile.

Lee's vast collection of some 70 volumes of bookplates, particularly rich in royal, West Indian and Indian examples, will be sold at Bonhams later this year.

John Blatchly

Bookplate Society


Brian North Lee's Library