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Lord Parmoor

There was an air of the doldrums about Quaritch in the late 1960s. The lease on the premises at Grafton Street was about to expire, and to the far-flung descendants of the Quaritch family the business no longer had meaning. Within a matter of a few years this was all to change: new premises in Golden Square (1970), a new owner, and Milo Cripps accompanied by his friend and
counsellor George Warburg at the front door. Milo brought with him the discipline and business criteria which were the hallmark of S .G. Warburg & Co., where he had found inspiration and salvation after a Bacchanalian youth. In Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth he is memorialized as Milo Tindle after the name of the unit trust group with which he made his Warburg mark.

Viewed at first with suspicion by some, Milo was the perfect gadfly to revitalize Quaritch. Paternal on the one hand, he was demanding and capable of telephone rages (didactic?) on the other. He had high aspirations, an appreciation of scholarship, and – above all – gusto. Few could infect a conversation, however serious, with laughter quicker than he. He was a superb raconteur and mimic. He redecorated the shop: green baize for the walls, pillar box red and brown for the pillars (even then he surely recognized that it would make a fine party venue); he early introduced us to the computer (Bibliopoly was his brainchild); and he looked to open an Islamic department. He invested in new talent, and if a young colleague had unpractised Spanish, he sent her to Salamanca University to perfect it. His own language skills – he won a classical scholarship to Corpus Christi College Oxford, aged sixteen – were an instant asset. Suddenly Quaritch turned polyglottal. Most European languages he had acquired from youth. With his German, on National Service, he served as an interpreter in post-war Berlin. Catalan was a later attainment. An elderly visitor to a Barcelona book fair brought his grandchildren to the stand to witness the phenomenon of a Catalan-speaking English peer. On another occasion, on a visit to the Pushkin House at St. Petersburg to mark the handover of the original manuscript of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, his guarded rediscovery of his Russian linguistic skills provoked a suspicious query about his background and former activities. Politically Milo was an ardent Europhile, quick to recognize a new economic force in the market.

Milo never professed to be a book connoisseur. That he left to others; what fascinated him was the trading aspect. And he had a remarkable head for figures. He once read an advertisement for Lavazza coffee, claiming that so many million cups were consumed daily in Italy.He did some mental arithmetic, challenged the figure, and wrote a letter pointing out that it must be an error. And so it proved, and he was the only one to spot it, said Lavazza, sending him a complimentary canister of their best beans. His sermon was straightforward, On to the telephone and On to the plane. (It was said of a former colleague at S. G. Warburg that he could never pass an airport without going into it.) His Christmas present to every member of staff one year was a smart leather pilot bag. He also commissioned a Quaritch umbrella, gold lettering on a purple ground. 

He presided over a series of triumphs: the purchase of the Bradfer Lawrence collection of medieval manuscripts, the Gospels of Henry the Lion (acquired for the German government, setting a world record price for any work of art); the sale of the Pforzheimer library, including the Gutenberg Bible, and his most notable coup, the purchase and sale of the de Belder botanical library. Of course there were losses and disappointments, but there were other opportunities to engage his interest; the valuation of the Churchill papers was one. A cause for pride – it appealed to the Irish blood in him – was an invitation to provide an indemnity valuation of The Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin. One volume of the four (as presently bound) was to be exhibited in
Australia. Milo relished the intellectual exercise. Would the loss of a single volume mean the rise or fall in the value of the remaining three?

To the first-time visitor to Golden Square, Milo could be a surprise, particularly on the day he arrived from the country in combat gear, trailing shirt-tail and trainers. One eminent book person took him for the janitor. Another, after overcoming the tropical heat and cigar fumes of his office, was puzzled to find his desk-top bare but for a copy of Time Out and an array of plastic dinosaurs. The shop was a platform for his many friendships, old and new, and he combined his shop life with interests far and wide. He was a keen film-goer (his mother had sponsored a mobile film unit during the war). He had once collected Roman glass; he now collected the pâte de verre of Amalric Walter (exhibited at the Broadfield House Glass Museum, with a published catalogue). He could speak authoritatively on Romanesque architecture, and plotted annual expeditions to most of the principal surviving monuments with a complete set of the Editions Zodiaque, some 150 volumes, as guidebook. He kept great crested newts (even had a memorable birthday cake modelled on one) and lamented in The Times over the vanishing farmland pond, their natural habitat. Lest these be seen as self-indulgences, he was also a lifetime supporter of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Diagnosed with cancer a year ago, he slowly failed in body but not before entertaining almost 200 friends and colleagues for a living memorial birthday lunch at Yauatcha, the cooking tried and tested beforehand. He had earlier undergone an operation at the hands of an eminent Indian surgeon, and enjoyed – and broadcast – the joke of a friend who called it ‘an Indian takeaway’. He died on 12 August, 2008, in his eightieth year. Four years earlier, after careful thought over what he saw as his legacy, he sold the business to John Koh.

Frederick Alfred Milo Cripps, Fourth Baron Parmoor, 1929-2008
Nicholas Poole-Wilson

First published in ABA Newsletter 348.