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Objects of beauty

Exhibition, panel discussion of Peattie children's book collection


By Kristine Power

Dr. Roger Peattie shows off the view from his third-story window.

In the distance, veiled in fog, are the iconic buildings of Memorial University’s St. John’s campus. For this Memorial alumnus, it is a return to his academic beginnings.

Rare gift

He is also within walking distance of the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) Library, where the Roger and Marlene Peattie Collection is housed—a collection that boasts more than 4,000 rare first editions and major authors, illustrators and designers of the Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian period. It is one the best collections of its kind in Canada, and a gift to Memorial University Libraries by the Peatties in 2000. But before Dr. Peattie was a book collector, he was a book lover.

Dr. Peattie grew up in Grand Falls, where a love of reading grew in part to a well-stocked public library. He bought the Hardy Boys books and arranged them by date in a bookcase his father made by hand.

Dr. Roger Peattie, standing first at left, as a young man at the United Church College Residence on Long's Hill, St. John’s.
Dr. Roger Peattie, standing first at left, as a young man at the United Church College Residence on Long’s Hill, St. John’s.
Photo: Submitted

“The Daily Mail Library on Carmelite Road was somewhere I went frequently,” said Dr. Peattie. “They had lots of Dickens and maybe this was the reason, very early on, I started reading the Victorian novels because they had lots of them there.”

Collecting compulsion

As a young man, Dr. Peattie attended Memorial’s Parade Street campus and describes the experience as both formal and intimate. He spent most of his time at the Gosling Memorial Library on Duckworth Street, reading as many books as he could. Then he started buying some, too. He never stopped. He has been retired for almost 20 years, but his compulsion to collect remains strong. His latest purchase was a Toy Book—illustrated children’s books popular in Victorian England—version of the Ballad of John Gilpin, which was often used in literature anthologies in Newfoundland schools before 1949.

1/ Language of Flowers

Language of Flowers. Illustrations by Kate Greenaway, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.

Photo: Roger and Marlene Peattie Collection (2508), Archives and Special Collections Division, Memorial University Libraries

2/ Flora's Feast

Flora's Feast: A Masque of Flowers. Illustrations by Walter Crane, London: New York: Cassell & Company, 1899

Photo: Roger and Marlene Peattie Collection (2420), Archives and Special Collections Division, Memorial University Libraries

3/ The House that Jack Built

The House that Jack Built. Illustrations by Randolph Caldecott, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1878-1885.

Photo: Roger and Marlene Peattie Collection (2399), Archives and Special Collections Division, Memorial University Libraries

Building a library

His condo showcases many bookcases that are stacked full. Ms. Peattie jokes that before the age of the Internet, often Dr. Peattie would get up as their sons were going to bed so that he could call overseas and buy books.

“I think my initial interest in books probably arose from the range of materials that the Gosling had that was readily accessible on the shelves. And of course, Water Street had a very fine bookstore at Dicks, so you could buy and build up a reasonable library for a very small sum,” he said.

“The first antiquarian book that I bought was in 1958 when I was a student. It was a first edition of Dickens’ Dombey and Sons. –Dr. Roger Peattie

After completing an English degree from Memorial, he went off to the University of London to do a postgraduate certificate in education.

“It opened up a whole new world of old and antiquarian books in the vast second-hand shops of London,” he said.  “The first antiquarian book that I bought was in 1958 when I was a student. It was a first edition of Dickens’ Dombey and Sons. Handling it and noting the illustrations and the binding, I suppose that sort of started me on acquiring large numbers of Victorian books.”

Dr. Peattie speaks to Gazette contributor Kristine Power about his lifelong dedication to book collecting in the audio clip below.

The book collecting grew alongside a burgeoning academic career. Memorial left its mark and inspired him to follow a life rich in scholarship that would eventually earn him international accolades and see him publish numerous academic publications.

“You were always encouraged to think more widely than just the subject you were studying,” he said of his education at Memorial. “The professors in the English department at the time were quite outstanding and clearly Dr. E.R. Seary and Dr. David Pitt were two people who impressed you with the breadth of their knowledge and their devotion to what they were teaching.”

Rothermere Fellow

In 1961 Dr. Peattie received the prestigious Rothermere Fellowship, a trust established by Memorial University’s first chancellor, and one that continues to the present day. It is designed to support students who decide to study in the United Kingdom. Dr. Peattie attended University College London and studied Victorian literature and culture. While in London, he continued to collect; he also married fellow Memorial University graduate Marlene Thoms, originally from Freshwater, Carbonear, in 1962.

When Dr. Peattie returned to Canada in 1966, he accepted a position at the University of Calgary, where he was a professor of English for more than three decades. He jokes that it was Ms. Peattie who helped him remember the names and faces of his students during his teaching career. Ms. Peattie was a reading specialist with the Calgary Board of Education for most of her career.

“My collecting of ‘modern’ children’s picture books, which began when I taught a children’s literature course at the University of Calgary in the early 1980s, was therefore a natural extension of my interest in the Victorian illustrated book,” writes Dr. Peattie in the introduction of his children’s book exhibition, P is for Picture Book: Imagination Through Illustration, currently on display on the second and third floors of the QEII Library on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

“She [Marlene] promoted the teaching of reading using picture books, so this is the reason she has a special place in the collection of picture books,” the introduction continues.

The couple’s sons sons Thomas and Matthew also factor in his collecting. Long after they were “supposed” to be interested in picture books, they continued to find picture books by the likes of Beatrix Potter or Paul Galdone fascinating. In an interesting way, each member of the Peattie family is part of the collection is some way or other. In fact, both of Dr. Peattie’s sons have been collectors in their own right.

“I think one of the things anyone going through the collection shelf-by-shelf would notice is how attractive and beautiful a lot of these books are,” Dr. Peattie said. “It is certainly a collection which would encourage people to think of the book not just as simply a holder of information, but as an object of beauty in its own right.”

Public invited

Everyone is welcome to attend a panel discussion on the impact of picture books on children’s lives in the Queen Elizabeth II Library on Wednesday, June 22, from 1-2 p.m. The discussion will be an extension of the ideas and images presented in the exhibition.

Panellists include moderator Beth Maddigan, Faculty of Education librarian, Memorial; Dr. Roger Peattie, professor emeritus, University of Calgary; Dr. Helene Staveley, Department of English, Memorial; Dr. Anne Burke, Faculty of Education, Memorial; Susan Prior, Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries; and Dr. Margaret Mackey, University of Alberta.

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