Interview with Matthew Haley

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Haley himself – he’s currently the Head of Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams London.

Hello lovely readers,

I hope you’re all keeping safe and well (and sane!) during these slightly strange times 🙂 I’m really excited to be bringing you an interview with the wonderfully dapper Matthew Haley, who you might recognise from one of my favourite TV shows Antiques Roadshow, where he features as one of the Programs Books And Manuscripts Specialists. I interviewed one of his fellow Roadshow Book Specialists, Clive Farahar (back in 2017), which you can find here: https://wp.me/p82sSb-9b – this was something I was (and still am quite excited about having the opportunity to do and I’d always longed to do so again). I couldn’t resist approaching the lovely Matthew Haley over on his Instagram and asked if he’d be willing to discuss his wonderfully bookish work, as well as his thoughts on the constant love and demand of the printed word, amongst other discoveries and ventures too. I hope you enjoy and have fun reading the interview, I know it was nothing short of a joy to conduct 🙂

Hi Matthew,

Thank you again so, so much for agreeing to answer some questions, I’m really excited for the opportunity and look forward to reading your responses. 

I want to start, if I may, with a remark that was made to me the other day:

“I’m so surprised that in this day and age people are still seeking out print books.” I personally was slightly surprised by that, purely because I do personally feel that print books will always be sought after. What I’m wanting to know is, what do you think? In this every changing, rapidly moving world of technology – are you surprised print books are still sought after? 

Matthew Haley: “Whilst I read plenty on screen, I personally cannot imagine sitting down to read a longer work like a novel or biography on-screen. The printed book is an ergonomic wonder that has worked for over 500 years, and the codex form has been around even longer than that. I am not technology-averse: I have dabbled with a Kindle and found it excellent for reading newspapers, and magazines like The Economist, but my Kindle lasted just over a year before the screen broke. I have centuries-old books in my office that are still perfectly legible! Quite simply, printed books are the most convenient, resilient, and enjoyable form of transmitting data.”

2. Sticking true to the theme of books, I understand that you were a Library Assistant at The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford? Then a Specialist in the Fine Books and Manuscripts Department at Bonhams, to Head of Books, Manuscripts and Photographs and Board Director. Did you always feel that a career surrounded by books and the written word was your calling? In turn, what was the moment that you learnt/discovered that this was/is your passion and what you’d always want to do? 

Matthew Haley: “From about the age of sixteen – rather late on, I admit – I discovered a love for literature. (It was a high school teacher who showed me that there was a subtext beyond the literal meaning of the words – metaphors, symbolism, and the like.) I read voraciously thereafter, and went on to study English Literature at university. Whilst there, I enjoyed studying and working in many of Oxford’s thirty-or-more libraries, and decided that I would try working on the ‘other side of the counter’ for a bit.

On the same note, during my degree a professor showed us the rare books room in my college, and I became fascinated with antiquarian books. He gave me a reading list on the subject, and I started to hang around an antiquarian bookshop in the city. At the same time, I was studying Virginia Woolf, who, as it turns out, had her own printing press and publishing house (the Hogarth Press). I bought one of the books she and her husband Leonard had printed, and became interested in modern rare books as well.

The library job was interesting, but I felt like I needed a greater pace and flow of books through my hands. I toyed with going into publishing, but really my heart was in rare books. I was aware of auction houses as my family had always had an interest (albeit at a modest level!) in antiques, so when I saw an advert for a trainee book specialist at Bonhams, it was an obvious fit!

3. It’s not exactly hidden information that the world has been hard hit by the Coronavirus Pandemic. I often worry about the arts industry and how they may find their feet again. As the Antique world is one that I imagine would rely on people and their objects to communicate stories across, I wonder how your working life has been affected by the Pandemic? In turn, I can only imagine the wonder that you would’ve seen and examined during your career at Bonhams, could you detail some joyous or memorable objects that you’ve handled? 

Matthew Haley: “What a brilliant question. The good news is that the ‘commercial’ side of arts and heritage is surprisingly dynamic; we auctioneers have been investing significantly in technology, social media, and digital marketing for the past few years. Already, in my field of rare books, the huge majority of buyers were transacting remotely, without inspecting the books in person, so we were well positioned to pivot our operations to a ‘behind closed doors’ format. Inspecting and taking in potential consignments is trickier, although again we are doing more on video calls, etc. (Thanks to the pandemic, I have started doing valuations by WhatsApp video!)

You are right, though, that so much of our business is about telling stories and sharing experiences in person, and it is difficult to digitalise all of this. Some of my most professionally fulfilling moments have been spent talking to collectors about their books; I still remember spending a wonderful hour in South Africa with one collector, bouncing from one item in his library to the next as we each made different connections – ‘this book reminds me of…’, or ‘do you have anything else on the same subject’, or ‘is there an earlier work by this author’, and so on.

Some of my favourite moments involve finding items in unexpected places: early on in my career I found an extraordinarily rare book on the Himalayas, illustrated with pasted-in photographs, tucked away behind an armchair in an outbuilding of a Scottish manor house (https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15313/lot/43/). In Los Angeles, that archetypally 20th century of cities, I found a $48,000 Bible dating from 1474 (https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18411/lot/6046/). More recently, it was pretty amazing to handle the 1326 marriage contract of Edward III, which led to a military operation that deposed his father, Edward II (https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25354/lot/51/ Picture of me holding it attached.)

4. Something which also has sadly taken a toll is filming Antiques Roadshow to larger crowds, which of course is understandable. I hope you and your fellow Book and Manuscript Specialists are able to meet people and help tell stories about their brilliant books, letters and such soon though! What I’d love to know though, can you talk me through some of your favourite finds during Antiques Roadshow? Were there memorable finds that specifically stood out to you? I can only imagine that there has been! 🙂

Matthew Haley: “As the series has been around for over 40 years, I consider myself a relative novice still! One of my first Roadshows involved a letter from Admiral Nelson all about sheep. Recently I met the representative of a naturists’ club, to value a cartoon done by a famous British newspaper cartoonist when news broke that they were appointing a new chaplain. So the show is nothing if not varied! But the most extraordinary find I have had was the minuscule 17th century notebook kept by an early reader of Shakespeare’s works, noting down the lines and passages that appealed to him; we still know relatively little about how Shakespeare was received by people of his time, and so this was an astonishing discovery that contributes hugely to literary history. I literally could not believe what I was seeing, and was trembling with excitement.”

5. Can you tell us much about the book restoring aspect of your work? What does a day in the life of Matthew Haley look like? 

Matthew Haley: Fortunately for the books involved, I do not turn my hand to restoration very much! We have a very non-interventionalist policy at Bonhams, so in general it is just a question of dusting the books and very occasionally ‘feeding’ dry leather with conservation products. However, we do work with some incredibly skilled restorers – both bookbinders and paper conservators. I never cease to be amazed by their work, which obviously improves the visual and financial appeal of antique items, but more importantly protects and stabilises them for decades to come.

My days are spent in a crazy mixture of valuing and researching rare items, discussing them with potential sellers and buyers, auctioneering (including in other categories like jewellery and prints), and dealing with the management side of running my section of our multinational business. It is tremendously varied, but I especially love the moments I can really bury myself in an item and focus on telling its story.”

6. Would I be correct in assuming that you’re a reader? If yes, what do you enjoy reading? What are some of your favourite books? Who are some of your favourite Authors? Do you have go to genres that you enjoy frequenting? What have been some reading highlights for you? 

Matthew Haley: “Yes! Although I don’t find as much time to read as I would like to. My favourite thing is Modernist novels, by the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. But I also read newer fiction by the likes of Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst. And from time to time some travel writing: Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Eric Newby, that sort of thing. I just wish I had more time.”

7. To conclude, I’d love to hear what friendly advice would you give someone that’s seeking a path working with Antique Books? 

Matthew Haley: “Read booksellers’ and auctioneers’ catalogues. Read McKerrow’s book on bibliography to understand the structure of books. And most of all, try to see and ideally get your hands on some rare books – either at exhibitions in public libraries, or even better at antiquarian book fairs and auctions where you will be able to handle the books and talk to the experts.

Wasn’t that absolutely wonderful? I truly hope you enjoyed reading it! It certainly made me happy being able to read Matthew’s answers 🙂

Stay well lovely Readers,

Brooklyn.

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