Brian North Lee


Bookplate historian and collector

Born: 27 December, 1936, in Syston, Leicestershire.

Died: 24 February, 2007, in London, aged 70.

BRIAN North Lee was a born collector, particularly of bookplates, and especially of heraldic bookplates. His vast hoard fills some 70 volumes.

Along with Sir Ilay Campbell of Succoth, he was an indefatigable scholar, writer and historian of bookplates, and both collaborated on a book named Scottish Bookplates, due to be published later this month.

Lee, a handsome man with a determined face and a stylish head of brown hair in his youth, could pick up a subject as abstract as bookplates (or "ex libris" as he preferred to call them), and engage general enthusiasm. He promoted discussion on the history of collecting and on collections in existence, arguing persuasively how exploration of the subject showed its importance in terms of taste and intrinsic artistic value of such printed ephemera.

Never afraid to opine, his views were always from a standpoint of knowledge. The Gray Bequest of books to the library of the office of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh received a decoration of a bookplate designed by John Forbes Nixon, of which Lee memorably remarked that it was a "lamentably uninspired ex libris". Examining the role of the Lyon Office two centuries ago in a period when a handful of Lyons took a less than hands-on approach, he referred to "jobs for the boys".

Lee's profound knowledge of UK bookplates led to a prodigious output of books and articles over a 35-year period. Four years ago, his magisterial work Some Bookplates of Heralds was published, a specialist work written in a catchy style, imparting colourful information that never once put the author in a position of dumbing down. His eminence in a field he made his own eclipsed that even of Victorian bookplate collectors Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (who reputedly collected 70,000 bookplates) and Julian Marshall, as well as the later George Heath Viner.

In 1972, Lee co-founded the Bookplate Society, promoting the study, exchange and sale of bookplates, arranging meetings and publishing books, usually by him, and a journal he edited for many years. In 1973, he produced his first book The Bookplate Designs of Rex Whistler with an introduction that demonstrated the easy flowing writing style that became his trademark. The confident scholarship of his Early Printed Book Labels in 1976 proved a principal plank in his election as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries two years later. Then followed a string of books, publications, an exhibition and lectures. British Royal Bookplates (1992) brought his subject up to 1953, along with some score of other titles.

Lee, originally destined for the Anglican priesthood until he turned to teaching, taught in England and Ghana, travelling widely, and gently boasting that he had more black friends than white. This was reflected in his ex libris collections, rich in West Indian and Indian examples as well as those of royalty.

His collector's eye pulled in pilgrim badges, heraldic porcelain and fossils, but bookplates remained his chief love.

Lee never married.