Writer and student of bookplate history and design


Born one of twin boys of yeoman stock in a Leicestershire village, after local schooling Brian North Lee served in the RAF at Watton, before beginning to train for the Anglican priesthood at Kelham near Newark, mother house of the Society of the Sacred Mission. The religious life, he realised, was not for him; instead he trained to teach at the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea. His first post was at St Mark’s Church School in Fulham, and after a formative period of teaching in Ghana he returned to London in 1962 to teach English in Kingston.


   Brian was a born collector with a sharp eye for bargains, particularly in the treasure chests of Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road, but bookplates soon held a special fascination for him and he joined the Bookplate Exchange Club in 1969. Tom and Isobel Owen of Hampstead Garden Suburb shared their immense knowledge of the subject with Brian leaving him well placed in 1972 to play a leading part with David Chambers and Peter Summers in setting up the Bookplate Society within the Private Libraries Association. The Bookplate Designs of Rex Whistler, (P.L.A. for the Bookplate Society, 1973) had some characteristics of a first book, but its introduction demonstrates the author’s easy and elegant writing style. Early Printed Book Labels (P.L.A. and Bookplate Society, 1976) was a confident piece of scholarship of which he was rightly proud to the end of his life, and election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries followed two years later. The copiously illustrated British Bookplates came next (David and Charles, 1979) and his first study of the work of a major British engraver, The Ex-Libris of Simon Brett in 1982. That year at the Oxford Congress of the Federation of International Societies and Associations for Ex-Libris, Brian’s contributions were an exhibition and a lecture on British Pictorial Bookplates. Exhibitions were also held at the National Book League and links were made with the Society of Wood Engravers.


    During the eleven years of the Bookplate Society’s joint existence with the P.L.A., Brian was secretary and newsletter editor, but when in 1983 the Society became independent he for many years edited the Bookplate Journal and eventually became President. British Royal Bookplates (Scolar Press, 1992) brought the subject up to the beginning of the present Queen’s reign. Almost two dozen titles include studies of the work of Claud Lovat Fraser, Leo Wyatt, Philip Hagreen, Edmund Hort New, and, most recently, Richard Shirley Smith. Lee had just finished writing Scottish Bookplates (with Sir Ilay Campbell Bt) when his last illness struck and that will appear soon.


     This indefatigable writer in his field was also a knowledgeable collector of pilgrim badges and other medieval antiquities. In 2002 he raised the funds to build a new church in Ghana, and worked with the Terence Higgins Trust as a volunteer. Brian’s circle of friends was international and he always claimed that he had more black friends than white; they included artists, writers and educationalists, though in recent years it was up to them to come to him, for he was happiest in his Chiswick home of forty years.                                                                                                                                                 John Blatchly


Brian North Lee, writer, collector and historian of bookplates: born Syston, Leics. 27 December 1936; died London 24 February 2007.