John Brett-Smith Was Antique Books Expert
John R.B. Brett-Smith, a longtime summer resident of Aquinnah and a passionate antiquarian book collector, died on July 27 at home in Princeton, N.J., surrounded by the family to whom he was devoted.
Born in Oxford, England, in 1917, he was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford and at Rugby. After a year in Freiburg studying German in preparation for the war that he saw looming, he went up to Christchurch, Oxford. There, he studied history from 1937 to 1939 and gained an Oxford Blue in field hockey. He won a Henry fellowship at Harvard; war was declared within 24 hours of his arrival in Boston and he returned immediately to England to enlist in the army. He saw service in Abyssinia, Kenya, the Sudan, Uganda and Madagascar. He returned to England to work in British intelligence at Bletchley Park and was later assigned to the office of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C.
After demobilization in 1946, he joined the staff of Oxford University Press in London, taking a year's leave of absence to pursue the Henry fellowship that war had interrupted. He married Catharine Hill, an associate at the press, in 1952. Together, they came to the United States in 1955 so that he could continue his work in the U.S. branch of Oxford University Press, of which he later became president. During his time at the press, the New English Bible and the two-volume edition of the complete Oxford English Dictionary were produced. He left the press in 1972 and joined Seven Gables Bookshop, where he was able to exercise his passion for rare books. In 1980 he set up his own antiquarian book dealership, Princeton Rare Books.
He and his family first came to the Vineyard in 1960, and in 1963 he found a summer home in Aquinnah to which he was deeply attached. He was able to feel at ease on the Vineyard in a way that remained special throughout his life.
John Brett-Smith had an abiding love for rare books, and a masterful bibliographical knowledge of 17th-century English drama and poetry. Over his lifetime he gathered a rare collection of Restoration plays, which now resides in a congenial home in the Cambridge University Library in England where it is often consulted by historians as well as students of English literature.
He was a member of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Grolier Club, the Johnsonian Society, the Bibliographical Society, the American Bibliographical Society, the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia and the Friends of the Cambridge University Library. He was unfailingly generous in sharing his extraordinary visual memory and his wide-ranging knowledge of 17th-century literature and bibliography with his friends and colleagues.
He is survived by his wife, Catharine, and their children, Sarah, Helena and John. A service will be held at All Saints Church in Princeton, N.J., at 11 a.m. on Sept. 6.