Jeremy Duncan

Pictures and Books

‘You realise, of course, that all these books are coming to you?’ said Cecil on a number of occasions, but with his dry sense of humour and the way in which it sounded a threat, I never quite believed him. Not, that is, until a few years ago, when he took great pleasure in showing me the extent and quality of his collection, making a few suggestions as to what could be done with it, when the time came…

George Robert Cecil Dall Gibson was born in Edinburgh in 1923 and celebrated his eightieth birthday just before he died in June 2003. In typical Cecil fashion he held a wake in one of Norfolk’s finest restaurants for all his close friends – and he had many – on April Fool’s Day 2001. He enjoyed entertaining and didn’t see why he should miss out on one of the great events of his life.

Cecil was brought up in Edinburgh by his mother, his father having died from the delayed effect of a First World War gas attack when he was very young. He attended Melville College and progressed to Edinburgh University to study medicine. There he met Mary Wheatcroft, a member of the rose-growing family and at that time a trainee physiotherapist, who later became his devoted wife. After a spell in the RAF, where he served as a medical officer on Malta, he settled down to life in general practice in Anstey, just outside Leicester. Appropriately for a bookman, when he retired and moved to Norfolk, his home was sold to Ulverscroft, the large-print publishers, who, as my library colleagues have testified, now use ‘the doctor’s house’ as a meeting place for visiting buyers.

Despite his infrequent visits north, Cecil always retained a deep love of Scotland and things Scottish. He collected Scottish silver and indeed his collection of Scottish paintings – which included works by MacCulloch, Redpath, Peploe, Cadell, Hunter and Fergusson – was sold by Bonhams in August 2003, the proceeds going to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh to allow them to make a significant purchase in memory of Mary and himself.

And of course he collected Scottish books. Although the whole house was crammed with books, the pride of his collection was shelved in the upstairs study and on either side of his woodburning stove in the living room. The latter was home to his Robert Louis Stevenson collection and his first edition John Buchans, as well as his reference books on Scottish artists and silver. He had several sets of Stevenson as well as interesting single items, including the first edition (1885) of A Child’s Garden of Verses with Beaverbrook’s bookplate, and the first American edition of the same year.

Both Cecil and Mary loved France and many summers were spent in Antibes. His collection included a large number of books about France, particularly the Riviera, including a fine volume on Provencal architecture by David MacGibbon, who, in partnership with Thomas Ross, is better known for his works on Scottish churches and castles. Tucked away on these shelves was a copy of one of Cecil’s own books, A Fortnight’s Villa Holiday on the French Riviera (London, 1963). Africa was also a favourite if less regular destination and this too is reflected in the collection. Recent weighty volumes about the flora and fauna of Kenya were shelved next to such gems as first editions of Burton’s Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast and Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent with Florence Nightingale’s signature inside the front covers.

He took great pride in his Ian Fleming collection. This ranged from an ex-library edition of Casino Royale and the rest of the James Bonds right through to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and framed letters to Cecil from Fleming himself. Like his fictional hero, Cecil for a period drove an Aston Martin and was a well-known member of the Aston Martin Owners’ Club and a little-known collector of club ties, of which there were a large number in his wardrobe.

Other areas of interest were Compton Mackenzie (including a rare copy of his Greek Memories, which was suppressed on the day of publication), Kipling, T.E. Lawrence, Malta, jazz (he was a very proficient clarinettist, particularly after a few glasses of wine), model cars (on which he also authored a number of books), the RAF and the Battle of Britain.

Cecil was a cultured man, deeply knowledgeable about art, silver, books, photography, music, wine and food; and while his collections were undoubtedly noteworthy, it fell to his close friend Adrian Taylor to point out, in a fine funeral oration, that Cecil was even more of a connoisseur than a collector. Those present on that warm June afternoon were touched to see that, at his own request, his RAF cap had been placed on the coffin. He was apparently more proud of his Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society than of his medical postnominals, as he had asked for his headstone to read, on the front, ‘Cecil Gibson, ARPS, PTO’ and on the back, ‘And humorist’. Sadly, the church authorities did not see the joke.

Copyright Jeremy Duncan 2005