Tag Archives: Maggs

Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.

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In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.

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Secret London: dealing with the counterculture at Maggs

This article originally appeared in Dazed And Confused magazine in February 2012.

Maggs Bros Ltd rare bookshop is an unlikely place to encounter the counterculture. For a start, it’s located on one of London’s poshest squares in Mayfair, the heart of the establishment, and even boasts a Royal warrant just inside the front door. Inside No 50 Berkeley Square – an imposing Georgian terrace once described as ‘the most haunted house in London’ – earnest young men in expensive suits sit at desks covered in large old brown books, which they flog to largely millionaire collectors that occasionally step through the front door.

But round the back, a different world awaits. Carl Williams works in an office converted from the stable block, in a room that is full of wonders. Come here at the right time and you will find boxes full of punk fanzines sitting on chairs draped with Republican flags from Spanish Civil War. Ask Williams nicely and he may show you brooches made by junkie poet Alexander Trocchi from used heroin needles, a complete set of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ board games or a pamphlet drawn by Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter, the shadowy figure behind the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. This recent catalogue will give you an idea of the material. 

Aleister Crowley

Williams, a fast-talking Yorkshireman , is one of the few booksellers who deals in items related to the counterculture, a nebulous term which covers politics, the occult, avant-garde art, film and literature, drug culture, rock and roll and alternative lifestyles. The interesting stuff, in other words. ‘There’s no guide to the counterculture,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not doctrinal. It’s whether something has the right feel, the way it looks, where it came from. It’s folk art, it’s the Watts Towers, it’s Austin Osman Spare, it’s Aleister Crowley. It’s not like Marxism where everybody knows the key texts. There are things in the counterculture that are still being discovered. There are things lost in libraries that will take it in a completely new direction.’ And it isn’t just books: Williams deals in paintings, posters, games, clothes and records. The only requirements are that Williams can locate it somewhere within his own concept of the counterculture, and that he can sell it. He also puts on occasional shows in the gallery beneath his office, such as the recent Lost Rivers exhibition.

Williams was born in 1967 – ‘the autumn of love’ – in Scarborough. Despite failing his O-Levels, he went to the LSE to read sociology, where he discovered the library and ‘read indiscriminately’. In 1997, after a decade of odd jobs and working in book shops, Williams returned to the LSE to do a Masters just as the library was selling off its old stock during a refurbishment. Almost by accident, Williams became a ‘runner’, a pejorative term that describes something which, in essence, all book dealers do. ‘Running is a pre-internet term, now it’s much more transparent, but it means taking a book quickly from one dealer or auction house, to another dealer or collector and selling it for more money than you paid,’ says Williams. ‘The idea is that you get it from A to B without B finding out how much you paid A.’

RED FESTIVAL 77 POSTER

With the LSE library at his disposal, Williams was blessed with early success. ‘I was able to sell all these political economy and philosophy books,’ he says. ‘But although I knew the books I didn’t really know what they were worth. I realised this when I took one dealer the first Western European edition of the Koran, and walked out with £500 when it must have been worth thousands.’

As the stock from the LSE ran out, Williams began frequenting other dealers and auction houses to find sellable books. In February 1999, he wandered into Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where he picked up a book from 1864 called The Pure Logic Of Quality by William Stanley Jevons. ‘Jevons thought this book would revolutionise how we understood logic, but he only sold six copies,’ says Williams. ‘I’d never seen one outside a library. I took it to a dealer, Pickering and Chatto, and a man called Jolyon Hudson asked if he could keep it for a day or two.’

Hudson recognised the book had been stolen from the London Library. The police were notified and Williams’s discovery unravelled what the Guardian described as ‘the most systematic plundering of Britain’s great libraries ever carried out by an individual’. William Simon Jacques, a dealer, had stolen books worth more than £1 million. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. (Jay Rayner covered the story here.)

‘I was devastated,’ says Williams, ‘because I thought I’d tried to sell a stolen book, but it turned out to be a blessing because Hudson told the Guardian that I had behaved impeccably and that gave me an entry into the higher levels of the trade.’

Williams began working at Maggs Bros, selling books on the internet and looking after the catalogue. ‘I got to know the customers. There was one guy who had been coming in for 20 years. He’d usually walk out with a travel book, but one day they asked this guy what he actually wanted and he said he wanted books on drugs.’

The man was Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire, and Williams sold him a painting made by a Mexican artist after he had been injected in the neck with LSD. Santo Domingo was in the process of putting together one of the great private collections of drug books and paraphernalia, a stunning selection of material that ranges from ancient books about Chinese opium smoking to a bicycle that belonged to Syd Barrett. ‘I worked for Julio [who died in 2009] for three years,’ says Williams. ‘His collection is one of the great untold stories of the 21st century. It’s not just drugs, it’s sex, rock and roll, the occult, erotica and art. And it’s not just books. It’s everything.’

Santo Domingo had a remarkably open concept of what to collect, not just concentrating on the old and valuable but hovering up anything with drug connections. ‘Somewhere in it is a McDonalds coffee stirrer from the 1970s,’ says Williams. ‘It looked like a coke spoon, just in plastic rather than silver. There were press rumours that it was the hillbilly coke spoon and so McDonalds discontinued the range, but I found an original. What do you do with that? Sotheby’s don’t want it, Christie’s don’t want it. But it’s gold. So that’s what I do.’

McDonald's coffee stirrer

Williams operates in a rarefied world, selling unusual and arcane items to billionaires and academic institutions. Some are interested in the subject, others are professional collectors, and still more are collectors who collect other people’s collections, as investments and for the pleasure of ownership. ‘It’s a very small world of dealers and a very large world of buyers, who work on the basis that they should buy now when it is relatively cheap and is all still out there,’ says Williams. ‘And some of it is cheap. The 1960s stuff isn’t because it is more mainstream and the top Beat stuff is far too expensive, although I’ll still buy manuscripts.’

New items are acquired from auctions and the internet, book fares, private sellers and other dealers. A recent haul brought in the first issue of Heat Wave, a British Situationist International magazine written in 1966, which nobody has seen outside the British Library for decades. There’s a file full of items William Burroughs collected during his short-lived immersion in the Church of Scientology. There are four skeletal marionettes that used to live in an amusement arcade in Hastings. There are posters of Black Panther Bobby Seale, complete collections of short-lived No Wave fanzines, cloth bags designed by Yoko Ono and the programme from Michael Clark and The Fall’s collaboration on the ballet ‘I Am Curious Orange’, which took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1988. And there are books, loads of them, by Richard Neville and BS Johnson and Gregory Corso and Timothy Leary. Some of this stuff is hard to sell, partly because it’s difficult to know how much it is worth – ‘there simply isn’t a precedent for some of these things, so you’ve nothing to compare it with.’

 

Williams found his niche with a little help from Edward Maggs, the man who inherited the family firm. ‘There might have been something brewing in Ed’s mind that we needed to cover this demographic,’ says Williams. ‘It really began when I started cataloguing all this proto-counterculture American Beat stuff from the 50s and it did really well, I sold about 80% of it. I designed a catalogue based on Ginsberg’s Howl, the same size and typeface. It did well, people liked it and I realised I had the right skills for the subject.’

And what are those skills? Williams pauses. ‘It’s judo,’ he says. ‘I have one real ability. I can pick up a book, look at the front, open it, look at the back and I can usually understand what that book is about, condense it, understand where it came from and put a price on it before I’ve put it down. That’s not a talent many people have. It’s like judo, you’re fighting an opponent who is much bigger than you but you don’t need take on the whole thing at one time if you are going to defeat it. It’s an intellectual work-out every day. I have to explain each item, do the research, understand its value, and then I try and sell it.’

Unstable at Maggs Bros Gallery is on until June 8, 2012.

Drugs and dead babies at the Queen’s bookshop

Maggs Bros is a posh antiquarian bookseller on Berkeley Square that has a Royal Warrant and is supposed to occupy the site of the most haunted house in Britain, but it is also home to a small contemporary art gallery, located out the back and accessed via 50 Hays Mews.

The latest show is being curated by New Artists and features photographs by Richie Culver taken of London crackhouses. These are loosely based on Gustave Dore’s engravings of Victorian opium dens.

Opium Smoking

The exhibition also features Polaroids by Shorvon & Hunter that explore the demise of the Polaroid and newspapers as forms of media. It’s definitely worth a look if you are in the area before it closes on Monday, December 5.

If you do, you should also pop upstairs to see a selection of some items that Maggs’s counterculture expert Carl Williams is currently selling. These include photographs of William Burroughs taken by Brion Gysin in Paris and an extraordinary mural taken from an American street gang club house. You could also pick up a copy of Carl’s latest catalogue to see if he has anything you fancy, whether it be items to do with Crowley, punk or the Weathermen. Last time I visited, he showed me some pictures he’d just acquired of dead Victorian babies, but don’t let that put you off.