Major Abbey – Book collector extraordinaire

JR Abbey

Born in Brighton, long term resident of Storrington, Major John Roland Abbey developed a passion for books. His interest was in the physical object, the print, the colour pictures, how they were bound, their history and who owned them; everything, it would seem, bar the content.

For Major Abbey, one of the world’s greatest book collectors, was dyslexic and could hardly write a sentence, though a Director of Kemp Town Brewery in Brighton. That didn’t stop him indulging in his passion and building up, at Greyfriars in Storrington, book collections that were internationally known. Now marking the 50th anniversary of his death on Christmas Eve 1969, Horsham Museum and Art Gallery are staging a display that explores this fascinating collector.

Major Abbey, born in 1894, attended Windlesham School for a short while, before being sent by his parents to Mr Mowen’s school in Rottingdean; the world’s first school to specialise in dyslexia, after it had been recognised by Dr Pringle Morgan, of Seaford, in 1896. After serving in the First World War, where he was gassed, he joined his father’s company and, with it, had access to substantial wealth. His parents would eventually move, in 1931, to Sedgwick Park House. Ten years earlier Major Abbey set up home in Storrington with his new bride, Lady Ursula Cairns. His wife loathed book collecting as his hobby took over room after room in the house, though she showed great interest in the sales of his collection following his death, especially the profit they made.

Major Abbey, as well as becoming renowned for his collection of colour plate books, which he sold to Paul Mellon who would pass it to Yale and become part of the Yale Centre for British Art, loved book bindings. He commissioned the leading binders of the day and such was his fame that immediately after World War Two the Arts Council opened an exhibition, in France, of his bindings. This exhibition features a wall of pictures of his bindings that now belong to the late Sir Paul Getty’s KBE Wormsley Library. On display is a superbly bound copy of a history of Sussex bought by Abbey in 1941. On loan from Storrington based book dealer Colin Page, it glows with quality.

Horsham Museum and Art Gallery recently acquired from Denmark two volumes of French book sellers catalogues probably bound by Abbey who took up the craft as a hobby. These are on display alongside books owned by Abbey that have his armorial book plate.

The display at Horsham District Council’s Horsham Museum celebrates the life of a one-time resident of the District, who, through his library and the associated works of scholarship, has guided the development of libraries around the world. It is a fascinating story that is colourfully told in the exhibition J R Abbey – Horsham’s Greatest Book Collector on now until 28th March 2020.

Horsham Museum is open 10-5pm Monday-Saturday, excluding public holidays. Free admission.


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