For sale: the last words of a bibliophile English teacher

An outstanding collection of first editions goes to auction next week

Many English teachers have succumbed to an irrepressible - and expensive - book-buying habit over the years. But Bruce Ritchie took it to an entirely new level.

Mr Ritchie (pictured above), formerly an English teacher at the private Merchant Taylors' School for boys in North London, England, who died last year, spent decades amassing a private library of literary first editions. The collection, which will go to auction next week, is expected to fetch up to #163;250,000.

It includes first editions of works by 18th-century writers Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope, as well as a first edition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, complete with the author's signature. It also contains a large number of more modern classics, such as Brideshead Revisited, Ulysses and Fahrenheit 451.

"The first thing that's unusual about the collection is the sheer quantity of high-quality modern first editions," said Cathy Marsden, books specialist at auction house Lyon and Turnbull, which will be selling the books on Wednesday. "The other is that this was all collected on a schoolteacher's salary. Some of these books are worth thousands of pounds."

Among the most valuable books are T.S. Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations, which is expected to sell for between #163;3,000 and #163;4,000, and a signed copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which could fetch up to #163;2,000.

"Bruce Ritchie was buying from significant book dealers and from auctions up and down the country," said John Sibbald, consultant books specialist at Lyon and Turnbull. "He was taking on serious competition at Sotheby's and Christie's.

"But he didn't have a wife leaning over his shoulder and saying, 'Our children are going hungry because you're buying these books.' He was able to spend his money in this particular way."

Many of the books are signed by their authors. Other lots include autographs, collected separately by Mr Ritchie. For example, several novels by Muriel Spark are being sold with a letter from the author to Mr Ritchie, stating: "I never sign slips of paper, but you say such wonderful things about my work that I have made an exception in your case."

And a manuscript of Tom Stoppard play The Real Thing contains a personal dedication from the playwright, whose son attended Merchant Taylors': "To Bruce Ritchie, defender of Eng sodding lit."

"Bruce was a stage-door Johnny," said writer A.N. Wilson, a former teacher at the school and a friend of Mr Ritchie's. "After operas and plays, he liked hovering at stage doors and saying hello to stars, sending bouquets to divas. It's a substitute for being close to them.

"All of this is a substitute for something, I'm afraid. For life, really. He was a very buttoned-up person. He was the absolute classic schoolmaster, in that way."

While Mr Ritchie's colleagues knew that he bought rare books, they had no idea of the scale or quality of his collection. "He would be prepared to say that, yes, he'd been at an auction the previous week, or that he was going to one in the weeks to come," said Michael Illing, a mathematics teacher at Merchant Taylors'. "But I didn't know the extent of it."

Mr Ritchie's will specifically calls for his library to be dispersed by auction so that other collectors will be able to experience the thrill that he derived from buying books.

But, Mr Wilson observes, this deprives a university or museum of the opportunity of acquiring the entire collection. "The Bruce Ritchie collection?" he said. "That would have been very nice."


Lots include:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (estimated to fetch #163;1,500-#163;2,000).

Ulysses by James Joyce (#163;2,000-#163;3,000).

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot (#163;3,000-#163;4,000).

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (#163;1,500-#163;2,000).

An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope (#163;2,000-#163;3,000).

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