Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The Wizard of Helensville: John Perry (1943-2021)

Any Given Day: John Perry (2016)

It was a real shock to hear, earlier this week, that art historian, curator and antique dealer John Perry had died. It seems like forever that I've been driving up to Helensville periodically to check out his immense horde of vintage treasure: books, ceramics, furniture, pictures, prints, and everything in between.

Judging from the faded posters for Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and James Cameron's Titanic in the lobby of the old cinema which John Perry had made his own, it must have closed down sometime around 1997. Certainly he'd been there for a good two decades or so.

In the early days, it was still possible to enter the body of the auditorium, and to get some sense of the sheer size of his collection. For many years now that part of the building has been closed off to the public, however, with only the front rooms accessible even to the most agile visitors.

Was it a hoard? Its intractable size and - it seems - uncontrollable tendency to grow made it seem so, but there were always strong themes and schemes underlying his accumulations. For a start, his longterm interest in primitive and outsider art made it essential to look not just at the pictures on the walls, but also those stacked in the narrow aisles.

As a book-collector, I can state with some confidence that John had an unerring eye for quality. I've bought so many treasures there it's hard to list them. But it took some time to learn how to do it. No prices were attached, so one had to be very keen before starting on the negotiation. I never haggled with him, but I found that the longer he talked about any given prize, the lower the price would tend to be.

I've listed, below, a few sample purchases: some of them dazzling coups, others merely interesting, but all bearing witness to his catholic tastes and interests in literature, as well as art!

    Henry Cary, trans.: The Vision of Dante (1910)

  1. Alighieri, Dante. The Vision, or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Trans. Henry Francis Cary. 1814. With 109 Illustrations by John Flaxman. Oxford Edition. London: Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press, 1910.
  2. A nice copy of the first major translation of Dante into English.

    J. C. Beaglehole, ed.: The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771 (1963)

  3. Beaglehole, J. C., ed. The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771. 2 vols. 1962. The Sir Joseph Banks Memorial. Sydney: The Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, in association with Angus and Robertson, 1963.
  4. John was certainly very interested in everything to do with Captain Cook, and had a most impressive collection of old maps and early editions of the Voyages.

  5. Barrow, Sir John. The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of HMS BOUNTY its Causes and Consequences. 1831. Ed. Captain Stephen W. Roskill. London: The Folio Society, 1976.
  6. Another classic piece of maritime lore, in a reprint by the Folio Society.

    Ernest Sutherland Bates, ed.: The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature

  7. The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. Ed. Ernest Sutherland Bates. Introduction by Laurence Binyon. London: William Heinemann Limited, n.d. [c. 1930].
  8. A reprint of the King James version arranged for easier reading, with some omissions here and there: a very popular book in its day.

  9. Butler, Rev. Alban. The Lives of the The Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints. 1756-1759. 5 vols. Ed. Rev. F. C. Husenbeth. Supplementary Volume by Rev. Bernard Kelly. Preface by Rev. J. H. McShane. London, Dublin & Belfast: Virtue & Co. Ltd., 1928.
  10. I think that John told me that he'd acquired the library of an old clergyman, hence the large number of theological books visible latterly on his shelves.

    Arthur Machen, trans.: The Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt (1922)

  11. The Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt, Translated into English by Arthur Machen. Privately Printed for Subscribers Only. 1894. Limited Edition of 1,000 numbered sets. + The Twelfth Volume of the Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova; Containing Chapters VII. and VIII. Never Before Printed; Discovered and Translated by Mr. Arthur Symons; and Complete with an Index and Maps by Mr. Thomas Wright. 12 vols. London: The Casanova Society, 1922-1923.
  12. This was an unexpected windfall one day when I was passing through Helensville with David Howard.

    Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters (1974)

  13. Chuang Tsu. Inner Chapters. Trans. Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English. London: Wildwood House Ltd., 1974.
  14. John's predilection for Eastern art and philosophy was strongly to the fore in a good deal of what he collected.

    Richard M. Dorson, ed.: American Negro Folktales (1967)

  15. Dorson, Richard M. ed. American Negro Folktales. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Premier, 1967.
  16. This classic piece of folklore I bought on an early visit to Helensville with my father, many years ago. Even then it was hard to get at many of the books. One could see but not touch.

    Robert Graves & Joshua Podro: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953)

  17. Graves, Robert, & Joshua Podro. The Nazarene Gospel Restored. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1953.
  18. I could hardly believe it when I first saw this. As a confirmed fan of Robert Graves, even in his nuttier moments, this fabulously rare tome was the only one of his major works which had so far escaped me.

    George & Weedon Grossmith: The Diary of a Nobody (1969)

  19. Grossmith, George, & Weedon Grossmith. The Diary of a Nobody. 1892. Drawings by John Lawrence. 1969. London: The Folio Society, 1970.
  20. A nice Folio edition of this minor classic.

    H. W. Longfellow: Poetical Works (1908)

  21. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Poetical Works of Longfellow. Oxford Complete Copyright Edition. London, New York & Toronto: Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press, 1908.
  22. This I bought on my last trip up to the shop. I wrote about it here.

    Harry Price: The End of Borley Rectory (1946)

  23. Harry Price. The End of Borley Rectory: 'The Most Haunted House in England'. 1946. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1952.
  24. And this I found the time before. I wrote about it here.

    George Ryley Scott: The History of Torture throughout the Ages (1940)

  25. Scott, George Ryley. The History of Torture throughout the Ages. 1940. London: Torchstream Books (Charles Skilton Ltd.), 1964.
  26. This was one of a pair of books by this English eccentric: the other being devoted to a history of flagellation. Not really my thing, to be honest,but they're certainly both quite collectable.

TVNZ: John Perry (2019)

That last (and oddest) volume on the list above seemed increasingly prophetic the last few times we saw John. He had such a strong desire to get away - to do the overseas trips he'd always planned, to live in some exotic otherwhere for a year or two.

He told us he'd worked out that he'd only spent 18 months or so of his life outside New Zealand, and felt that this was far too little for a man of his tastes. And yet, somehow, it just didn't happen.

Health worries, business worries (the sheer complexity of dealing with - let alone handing on - his building and its contents), and of course the epidemic, combined to make this an unattainable dream.

The second-to-last time we saw him, he invited me upstairs into his apartment, and I got some sense of how he lived there, surrounded by pictures and curios, with his rooftop garden out the front, there on the outskirts of the ancient Kauri kingdom of Helensville.

Mind you, it didn't seem too bad a place to live out your days - his apartment had a slightly Latin American air, as if he were one of those retired Colonels in a García Márquez novel, watching the rains come and go across the sinuous flatlands of the Kaipara.

Perhaps Kendrick Smithyman, who grew up in Te Kopuru, just up the coast, put it best, in one of his earlier, uncollected poems:

English visitors find strangely unlovely
a river all silt prospecting coarse paddocks
as though reluctant of its way with tides.
Sluggishly it bends south, half-circling
raw hills which even in summer eat at clouds.
Mornings break out cold on a terse view.
Westward, they bear the Tasman’s unstopped rumour.

They want cars to take them north to an alien bush,
or would get back to the brashest city – its harbour
is famed more tantalising. A city may offer
even the least men a consolation of like crowds.
Whereas, that northern country proffers nothing,
but lies suffering all wounds made in its soils
and knows to be spoiled and rent and made over
is to have estranged spirit, but can be patient.
Sensual men are dulled. Earth is tutored bearing.

Yet if you make your peace with that soil
which burns barren this season the land will give
peace in return. Eyes will learn to open
the clay scars, bush burns, water courses;
learn way of manuka and lank toitoi, harshly winded.
Then, not heard before but some morning unpredicted,
a certain music is sensed to have spoken.
At midday there are birds springing beyond sight,
evening is tempered. Dogs barking summer away.

I can never drive through Helensville without thinking of that phrase: "Dogs barking summer away." Now it makes me remember how much John hated the screech of brakes as cars and trucks hooned round the bend into town. He'd shrug, stop for a moment in mid-discourse, then resume once they'd made their way by.

Rest in peace, John. You'll be greatly missed by all your many friends, here and elsewhere.


Richard von Sturmer said...

Very sad to learn of John's passing. A real mensch. We have also bought treasures from him over the years including a walrus carved out of serpentine from Alaska, a standing Buddha figure and the postcard that became the cover of 'Postcard Stories'.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, it was completely unpredictable what one would find in the Borgesian reaches of his collection - even though only small parts of it were ever on display. I feel now that I have to have a special category of 'items acquired from John Perry' ... hence the booklist above.

Krish Prasad said...

Yes, I and my wife Debjani regularly visited John's shop during weekends. Debjani is quite knowledgeable in arts and history and is well versed with Asian and Indian antiques. She and John would talk about several of his Asian and Indian collections. The last items we bought from him were some brassware and every time I look at the items we bought, we always think of him. A gentle soul with excellent knowledge. I wanted to find out what happens to his collection and was told that his son has inherited it. Wonder if there is a way to contact him and may be buy some more before everything gets thrown away!

Dr Jack Ross said...

I think I heard that his collection was going to be auctioned off, but I don't know any further details - when and where, for instance. I, too, would love one last look through his book-stacks. I don't think it's likely to happen, though. He was indeed a fascinating person.