Interview With Justin Croft

Photo supplied by Justin Croft himself, you may recognise him from BBC Antiques Roadshow, where he’s been one of the shows Book and Manuscript Specialists since 2005.

Justin Croft’s Website

You can find Justin on Twitter here:

Take a look at Justin Croft (@JustinCroft): https://twitter.com/JustinCroft?s=09

And follow his Instagram too ☺️ https://instagram.com/justincroftantiquarian?igshid=1w45c8d8ni7pb

Hey friends, *waves*

For those who know me, it’s not exactly a secret that I’m low-key obsessed with the wonderfully British TV series Antiques Roadshow and honestly if I speak as well about books that Matthew Haley, Clive Farahar and Justin Croft do (as well as the other Specialists and their respective areas of interests), then I’ll be completely happy and satisfied! ☺️

The idea of getting to discuss with Clive, Matthew and now Justin were something I’d always longed to do and I’m really fortunate that they each took the time out to answer some questions and talk about their lives within bookish nirvana ☺️

Check out my Q&A with Clive Farahar: https://wp.me/p82sSb-9b

and my Q&A with Matthew Haley: https://wp.me/p82sSb-w7

And now I present my Q&A with Justin Croft:

Hi Justin,

Thank you so, so much for taking some time out of your schedule to answer some questions ☺️ I’m really looking forward to learning about your work more, as well as what provoked and inspired you to (and I’ll use a wonderful phrase Matthew Haley encouraged me with, “seek bookish nirvana!”).

1. Let’s talk early bookish memories! I feel like I can 99.99% assume you’re a reader? *Crosses fingers to avoid awkward blunder*. Were there specific books you can recall that first introduced you to a love of the written word? In turn, did you always want to work with books in your adult life?

Justin Croft: “Yes, how did you guess? I’ve always been a reader, and pretty omnivorous. As a child I enjoyed poetry (I recently refound my copy of the Puffin Book of Magic Verse, edited by Charles Causley, which I had almost read to pieces). I read pretty much anything I could find: The Oxford Book of Food Plants was a strange favourite for a while. As a young teenager I remember setting myself the challenge of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina over one winter holiday. But the books which filled me with wonder were not ones I could read, but the fabulous illuminated manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (near where I grew up) which I marvelled over (behind glass of course) on rainy Sunday afternoons. I was (and still am) left-handed with appalling handwriting so the exquisite script of these books filled me with awe. Did you know that there is a higher proportion of left-handers among antiquarian booksellers than one might expect? A friend once did a survey. Not scientific, but striking. I wonder why?”

“I can’t say I had always wanted to work with books, but looking back, it was probably inevitable.”



2. You hold a PHD in Mediaeval Bibliography, which sounds like such a wonderfully fascinating subject to have explored! What were some exciting/profound/thought provoking discoveries you learned during your studies? How did what you learnt apply to your career development?

Justin Croft: “Yes, this was a very fortunate episode. I had taken an MA in Medieval and Tudor Studies in Canterbury (UK) and was lucky enough to gain a British Academy award to study the medieval books of the towns known as the ‘Cinque Ports’ in England. Some of these ancient books were still in the town halls rather than in libraries, including Faversham, where we now live. The Cinque Ports were towns with special responsibilities for providing ships for defence of the kingdom and had a special relationship with the Crown. They were also in the forefront of trade and business with Europe so were pretty advanced in terms of literacy and technology and they knew how to use books (which were pretty new-fangled for most people). I wanted to know all about these books – how they were made, who made them, and how they got their knowledge and materials. These people were both writers and readers: probably the sort of people who’d have enjoyed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and I wanted to know what made them tick.”

“I use the skills and habits I learned then every day in my work. It’s mainly to do with looking, really looking, at the physical evidence of books: materials, makeup, structures, binding methods etc. And, of course, knowing where to go and who to ask, for more information. The rare book world is very generous in sharing its knowledge. Just take a look at Instagram or Twitter.”



3. During your time as one of the Book and Manuscript Specialists on BBC Antiques Roadshow, one of your memorable finds was a book-bound copy of an Opera by Richard Wagner! Could you detail some other joyous and memorable moments/finds during your time thus far on The Roadshow (as well as in your individual career?).

Justin Croft: “I’ve seen so many lovely things and (just as importantly) met some wonderful people on the Roadshow. My most memorable find also turned out to be the most controversial and therefore rather bittersweet. It was the composer Edward Elgar’s own copy of his Enigma Variations with his first sketches of the main themes, including the famous ‘Nimorod’ in his own hand. It turned out to have gone missing from the Elgar Foundations collections several decades previously and was considered lost. And there it was. It was very moving to see it (if you don’t know the piece, search ‘Elgar’ and ‘Nimrod’ and reach for a box of tissues!). To see the genesis of one of the most revered pieces of British music before one’s eyes was unforgettable. Anyway, I’m pleased to say that the manuscript has now found its way back to the Elgar collections, now housed in the British Library, with most of his other manuscripts.”

“My life as a bookseller also involves discoveries. In fact, we try to make discoveries every day. Usually they are just small miracles, little pieces to add to the great jigsaw of literature and bibliography. When I buy a book to offer to my customers I’m looking either for something that tells us something we didn’t know or, quite simply, something that brings a moment of joy or wonder. A lovely copy, an unexpected ownership inscription, a crazy notebook, beautiful script, breathtaking dedication to a task…  this is what I’m looking for. Sometimes truly wonderful things appear. There was a ‘family bible’ kept under the owner’s bed, which turned out to be a thirteenth-century Italian illuminated bible with stunning illuminated miniatures and initial letters. Then a couple of years ago a lady brought to my office ‘an old manuscript of her mother’s’ which was actually a complete twelfth-century manuscript sermon book written in one of the most beautiful monkish hands I have ever seen. Of course, this doesn’t happen every week, every month, or even every year, but patience can be rewarded.”



4. Throughout your career you’ve worked with Museums, Libraries and Collectors – All of whom have (along with the rest of the world, really) been hit hard by the Coronavirus Pandemic. What I wonder though, is how has your working life been affected by the Pandemic? Seen as the world of Antiques is one that relies heavily on people and their objects to communicate stories across, you know?

Justin Croft: “Yes, of course, we are all having to readjust. And the readjustments keep being readjusted, so there is a degree of uncertainty. Curators and librarians have been separated from their physical collections for many months (some are just beginning to be reunited) and have done a fabulous job of keeping their readers and researchers connected and engaged online. It has been an unexpected silver lining to lockdown and some of these people now need medals (and a good rest). The pandemic has of course caused all sorts of interruptions to business. I have been accustomed to spending several weeks a year travelling and at book fairs abroad, talking to customers and looking for new books. All that is on hold. Even sending books to libraries has been challenging, as there has been no one there to receive them. But we’ve all made adjustments and I’m optimistic for the future.”



5. Could you talk us through what a day in the life of Justin Croft might entail? What do you turn to for leisurely activities or ‘down time?’

Justin Croft: “Up until Spring this year I could probably say, truthfully, that every day is different. But I don’t think there is any shame in admitting that some of those lockdown days seemed awfully similar! But whether I’m able to get out-and-about or not, the rhythms of my business remain the same, balancing looking for books, researching the books I have bought and then communicating with customers about them. If I can travel, then great, my favourite activity is scouting for books, preferably in some out-of-the-way French book fair with the prospect of a good lunch.”

“Bookselling as a career can become all-consuming and there is the danger of there never being any down time. Because it is usually fun and rewarding it can become a complete lifestyle, and hard to distinguish work from pleasure. But one thing lockdown has taught me is that there are other corners of the mind that might need some air. I’ve rekindled my love of natural history of botany, taking long walks and cycle rides into the beautiful countryside around us in Kent. In spring I became rather obsessed with hunting out rare wild orchids, with some success. Naturally, I have found myself amassing a little shelf of reference books about orchids too. There’s no activity under the sun that doesn’t benefit from an accompanying library!”



6. Do you have a favourite genre or subject to read about? Or multiple? What have been some books that you’ve read and enjoyed lately? What would be some of your personal recommendations and are there any forthcoming titles you’re particularly enthused about?

Justin Croft: “Oh, I’ll read anything really, if it appeals to me. I suppose I gravitate towards older novels rather than new fiction, on the grounds that there’s a lot of catching up to do. I have waves of enthusiasm and read several books in one area, one after another. I’m on an Oscar Wilde binge at the moment. It’s great fun, especially when you realise how often he repeated certain epigrams. Just when you think one of them is from Dorian Gray, it turns up in A Woman of no Importance and then again… Despite his brilliance, I suspect he might have been a bit of bore as a friend. I recently enjoyed the tremendous Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin and highly recommend it. One recent novel I’ve read this year is Sarah Perry’s Melmoth which was beautiful and devastating. An unexpected joy was Raynor Winn’s memoir The Salt Path with so much to say about people, kindness and hope. I like to read in French for practice and have been known to read one Patrick Modiano novel after another. One fuses into another with the same mood of mystery and melancholy. Some of them have been translated, and I’d recommend them. Now I have all those orchid books to read…”


7. To conclude, what pearls of wisdom would you offer to someone who’s seeking “bookish nirvana” or a path in Antique/Rare Books?

Justin Croft: “Just spend as much time with books and book people as you can. And if you’re reading this blog your probably finding your way already. Keep looking, really looking, at what you see. Talk to people and ask lots and lots of questions. Social media has become a great way of finding out about rare books, and a few searches along those lines will soon lead to you to groups of enthusiasts, scholars and collectors, most of whom love to communicate. Oh, and keep reading, whatever comes your way.”

Wasn’t that just divine? I really hope you enjoyed reading Justin’s responses as I did ☺️

Keep safe lovely Readers,

Brooklyn.

2 comments

  1. This is absolutely brilliant Brooklyn, I’m an avid fan of the Antiques Roadshow as well and really enjoyed Justin’s work. Oscar Wilde being a bit of a bore as a friend made me laugh out loud. He seems wildly entertaining but incredibly tiresome and boorish.

    There’s no activity under the sun that doesn’t benefit from an accompanying library and I couldn’t agree more! The internet is a great resource but it’s no replacement for a hefty manual or reference guide you can flick through. Loved this Q & A Brooklyn, thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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