Blake collector from Orinda finds ‘friends’ on printed page
By Lou Fancher
Antiquarian bookseller John Windle, in over 50 years in business, has become a leading authority on the books, prints, paintings and manuscripts of 19th-century artist William Blake.
In 2016 Windle opened William Blake Gallery, an exhibition space in San Francisco to showcase approximately 500 works in the collection — the largest display of Blake’s work outside of major museums and art institutions. In informal terms, Windle is a Blake and bookstore junkie.
Which is why it makes sense that in an interview in his Orinda home he begins with Blake.
“For everything that lives is holy,” he says, quoting the last line of Blake’s iconic poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” “It means that everything comes from something and is therefore re-formed as energy that never goes away.”
The words, he suggests, explain his and other people’s ongoing fascination with Blake’s work.
Windle has had a lifelong enthusiam for literature — as a young boy, a collection of little red books by Sir Walter Scott was a cherished possession. Orphaned when his English mother and an American military father he never knew were unable to care for him, Windle was adopted as a toddler by an English couple.
Soon after, his parents left for South Africa, leaving Windle behind. At age 6, he went away to boarding school.
“My sister and I would ask each other why they adopted us. I suppose it was the social thing to do.”
In part to compensate, Windle says, “I developed a weird thing for saints. I felt drawn to the desire to do good even under difficult conditions, under great suffering.”
During a break from boarding school in 1957, he discovered his mother had given away almost all of the 1,000 books he had collected and arranged by size and color.
“My books were a place to go to so I was safe. They saved me from having to interact with rough boys at school.”
As a young adult, Windle thought he might become a photographer. Through a series of events he found himself working at Quaritch, a respected London bookshop.
“I was unpacking crates that were facsimiles of William Blake books. They were extraordinary books, produced by the Blake Trust. There was one edition, 524 copies of “The Song of Innocence” … it took almost 1.5 million separate applications of color done by hand to completely produce,” he says.
Windle used his Minolta camera to take pictures of the copies. “The London Times came by and wanted to publish my photos. I thought that was it, my moment of fame,” he recalls.
Instead, it was a moment of fate, as Windle moved in 1971 to the United States, found work at Howell-Books in San Francisco, then departed to open his rare book business in 1974.
Along the way, an interest in Buddhism had Windle picking up the Dalai Lama in a VW during the Tibetan leader’s 1984 visit to California. Invited to come to the Dalai Lama’s monastery, Windle stayed and became a Tibetan monk.
Booted out of Tibet after the Bhopal gas tragedy, he returned to the Bay Area, wrote, marched in peace protests, became an early adopter of the internet, sold rare books and met and married antiquarian children’s bookseller Chris Loker.
Books, Windle insists, will never go away.
“As futuristic horrors come true and we live in a world where if Mark Zuckerberg were an evil man he could instruct that all references to Jews or to culture could be eliminated at the stroke of a key and it would happen — if we don’t have the real thing, if we don’t have rare book dealers, we will lose guardians of the truth.”
Collectors, he says, are unified by the desire to have on a shelf a book or books that are like friends you come home to.
“That’s true across gender, age and national borders. The other day I had a Chinese collector buy $35,000 worth of books. He was so excited about when the books would arrive at his home.”
In 2009, the Blake Trust asked Windle to dispense its final volume. The book sold in mere weeks.
Last week, he shipped off a Blake tempera painting, one of the last two in the world available for purchase. “The Virgin Hushing John the Baptist” shows the virgin holding the Baby Jesus, a book in her other hand. John the Baptist is rushing in, with a butterfly hovering above.
“It’s the best Blake I’ve ever handled. The colors, the lines, the innocence of the child.” It sold in the seven figures. “When you start handling material in the millions, you’re in a rarefied realm,” he says.
Even so, aware of potential profit and Blake’s profound impact on contemporary artists like Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg — who more than once called Windle and ordered books because he “needed a Blake fix”— Windle’s connection to Blake is more spiritual than commercial.
It thrills him to no end when young people come to the store, say they love Blake and he is able to sell them a $5 pocket edition, or a $30 tarot card deck entirely illustrated by Blake.
“He gets in your soul,” Windle says. “It’s not intellectual. When you get it, you’re stuck with it for life.”