by L.N. and M. Williams
There cannot be a philatelist of any standing, anywhere in the English-speaking world, who is not familiar with the name of Robson Lowe, be it for his wide philatelic knowledge, for his activities in the stamp auctioneering field or for his many publications.
Few other people have made such an impact on the stamp world during the past 35 years or have infused into it so many new ideas which are now widely accepted as basic essentials of the subject. He has been, and still is, in many respects a revolutionary who has laid bare the fallacies of preconceived notions in the stamp world, and in so doing has confused and, perhaps, antagonized some of the die-hards who did not see eye to eye with him. But whatever else he may have done he has drawn around him an ever-widening coterie of friends who respect and admire him, and pay keen regard to his pronouncements of matters philatelic.
He was born in a year when Teddy Roosevelt was at the helm in Washington and King Teddy was on the throne of England; although to look at him and to judge by his comparatively youthful and carefree appearance one finds it difficult to believe it. It is even more unbelievable in view of his having been stricken by an “insurable” illness before his twentieth birthday; but his unconquerable will and iron determination overcame even that adversity. The photograph now reproduced is no picture of him as he was 20 years or more ago – it is an excellent likeness of him today, in 1965.
Robson Lowe’s interest in the stamp trade goes back to his days at school in fact in a personal note he records that his business “was founded on May 6, 19 . His collecting days had gone back to 1914, and by the end of World War I he was buying lots at auction, and, as he says, “at a tenth of the price charged by those dealers who then sold to schoolboys.” He did well in trading at school and during his last year there, despite his moderate prices, he recorded a profit of about $400, no mean sum in those days.
After the war ended, and changes in the map of Europe were widespread, he considered restricting his interests, and in 1922 the first Irish issues gave him his opportunity; the following year he decided to specialize in Irish stamps and had a substantial turnover in the provisional overprints. It was in 1923, too, that he paid his first visit to the Continent of Europe, and had his eyes opened at the large trade going on in counterfeit and repaired stamps. Because of this he determined to extend his own knowledge, particularly of the early classic issue, and he took on the interesting position of Honorary Curator of the London Stamp Club’s forgery collection.
In spite of his specialization in Irish stamps he continued to deal in British Colonial classics, and in 1925 we find him advertising for sale some choice examples of New South Wales “Sydney Views” and “Diadems” as well as early Newfoundland. At that time he was living in Fulham, London, but his business expanded to such an extent that he decided the next year to move to London’s West End. He formed a limited stock company, and as Robson Lowe, Ltd., opened as office at 93 Regent Street.
That year, 1926, was notable not only for this big stride forward but also for the fact that he made the first of his many visits (now more than 50) to North America.
In 1928 he took over control of Associated Exchange Clubs, which has long been a flourishing sales circuit, and in 1930 he formed The Regent Stamp Company, Ltd. Then, in 1932, came his first important publication. It was The Regent Catalogue of Empire Postage Stamps, a work devoted entirely to issues of the British Empire and Commonwealth. It met with considerable success, and in1935 its scope was enlarged when it appeared as The Regent Encyclopaedia of Empire Postage Stamps, a violet-covered volume containing much information about essays, proofs, local stamps and postal markings besides postage stamps of more conventional nature, as well as a priced catalogue.
Probably the year 1933 was Robson Lowe’s most noteworthy of all up to that time, for in September (on Michaelmas Day to be exact) there appeared the first number of his journal, The Raconteur. It was a glossy, twenty-page production, and right from the start its readers could see that here was something new in philatelic periodicals. It set off in light-hearted manner with an editorial article which began: “When I have sat with my host by the fire, the pale clouds of the fragrant weed floating in fantastic shapes between us, our talk has often turned to stamps and stamp matters. I can never recall discussing perforations, retouches, re-entries and plate flaws, but rather the historical side of philately and the humours of the trade. It is at such moments that one captures one of the choicest treasures of the stamp collector – – the warm-hearted camaraderie, the tales of finds long since passed into other hands, the scandals of the Strand.”
This happy approach continued in subsequent numbers, and the journal, a quarterly, soon won a warm place in the affections of its small coterie of readers. With Robson Lowe himself in the editorial chair it could not have done otherwise, and on the completion of the first volume (now a Philatelic bibliophile’s tit-bit) the title was changed to the more embracing one of The Raconteur and Philatelist and the magazine became a monthly. The new title survived a mere twelve months, when the words were reversed and the journal became The Philatelist and Raconteur. The final change came a year later, in October 1937, when with the beginning of the fourth volume the periodical became The Philatelist, and so it has remained ever since.
Since the original appearance of The Raconteur Robson Lowe had acquired the publication and title rights of the very first magazine to bear the name The Philatelist. This, one of the real pioneers of philatelic periodicals, has been first published in December 1866 by Stafford Smith & Co. of Brighton, Sussex, and after completing 10 volumes under its original name had passed through several changes ranging over some 60 years before emerging once more under the aegis of Robson Lowe. So it will be seen that December 1966 will witness the centenary of this notable journal, and suitable celebrations are planned to make the anniversary notable in every way.
Nobody realizes more than “Robbie” the value of an index, and it redounds greatly to his credit that twice since his journal began publication has he issued a cumulative index to its contents. The first index, covering Vols. 1-10, was compiled by Charles J. Bool, one of Robson’s old schoolmasters who later came to work for his one-time pupil. This index runs to 16 pages and 4 pages of wrappers and appeared in 1945. The second index, compiled by R. F. Kirkpatrick, lists the contents of the first 20 volumes and was published in1955. It extends to 52 pages in a cloth cover.
This very brief outline history of The Philatelist would be incomplete if it did not include mention of the 21st anniversary celebration, which took place at the East India and Sports Club, St. James’s Square, London, on Michaelmas Day 1954 when the Editorial Staff entertained some of the contributors and readers, whose connections with the journal went back to its beginnings. The eight-leaf anniversary menu records on its back page the names of some of those present, with the dates of their first contacts. Top of the list, of course, is Robson Lowe who, with his collaborator, the late B. M. G. Butterworth, has the year 1934 beside his name. The present writers were honoured to be among the guests on that memorable occasion, and beside their names the menu records the year 1935. A notable visitor from the United States was Wallace W. Knox, of Oakland, California.
In the few years before World War II Robson Lowe continued his progressive way. In 1933 the business was moved to larger premises at 96 Regent Street, a building seriously damaged during the bombing, and another move to the present location at 50 Pall Mall was made in September 1940. In 1936 the first Postal History Auction was held, and by 1963 some 300 of these unique auctions had taken place. Indeed it was Robson Lowe’s interest in postal history that prompted him to publish his catalogue, The Handstruck Postage Stamps of the British Empire, in 1937, and he followed this up with The Birth of the Adhesive Postage Stamp two years later, in anticipation of the stamp centenary.
These and other publications were to form the nucleus of his magnum opus, The Encyclopaedia of British Empire Postage Stamps, the first volume of which, dealing with the European issues, appeared in 1947. The immediate success of this part coupled with many outside offers of help with amendments and improvements persuaded him to produce a second edition in 1952. Meanwhile the second volume, covering Africa had appeared in 1949, to be followed by Asia in 1953 and Australasia in 1962; only America remains to be completed, and when that has been published the entire work will have been rounded off, but no philatelic effort can be finished, and further editions to bring the earlier volumes up to date are envisaged.
Auctions continued to form the dominating part of Robson Lowe’s business after World War II, and the expansion included the entire acquisition of Bournemouth Stamp Auctions, which moved to its present location at Granville Chambers in England’s popular south-coast resort in 1948. Sales in London, too, grew ever more important and the catalogues more luxurious. Although there had been occasional specialized sales it was not really until the present decade that these became a regular feature, and there is now hardly a sale which cannot be described as “specialized.”
The Company had arranged the disposal of many well-known collections both before and after World War II, but its largest transaction of all time began late in 1962 with the dispersal of a portion of the world-famous collection of Maurice Burrus. The results of this sale, which was held in London, so pleased the executors that they placed further parts in the hands of Robson Lowe for disposal, and these led eventually to the Swiss, German and Italian portions, the auctions of which were held in Europe under the control of Robson Lowe in collaboration with several other European auctioneers, and in connection with them he coined the term “The Uncommon Market.”
Anyone who has inspected the catalogues published for these remarkable sales cannot have failed to be enormously impressed by them; indeed, they are almost without question the most elaborate and luxurious stamp auction catalogues ever produced anywhere. Not only are they of unique reference value, in that every item is minutely described, but there are innumerable illustrations, many of them in full color and exquisitely printed on glossy paper. In years to come there can be little doubt that the Burrus catalogues will outstrip those of the fabulous Ferrary collection as works of lasting reference.
Another great period in Robson Lowe’s life of Philatelic activity is that connected with his handling of the de Sperati affair. Since 1945 he had been Chairman if the Expert Committee of the British Philatelic Association, examining and passing judgement on thousands of stamps every year. In this capacity he handled numerous forgeries and fakes, many of which came from the atélier of the notorious Jean de Sperati. He realized that de Sperati’s productions over the course of years had deceived quite an number of philatelists and that many collections were harbouring spurious items which their owners fondly believed to be genuine.
Determined to help every observant philatelist to recognize de Sperati’s productions easily, Robson Lowe set to work on a detailed description, with enlarged illustrations, of the forged stamps concerned, and he was instrumental in securing, on behalf of the British Philatelic Association, de Sperati’s remaining stock and implements shortly before his death. The stock, together with Robson Lowe’s descriptions and photographs, formed the exhaustive reference work published by the B. P. A. in 1956.
The most notable event of 1957 was the merging with Robson Lowe, Ltd., of the old-establishment firm of P. L. Pemberton & Son Ltd., and with it the addition to the Board of Directors of A. L. Pemberton, son of the renowned Percy Loines Pemberton and grandson of the pioneer Edward Loines Pemberton. With this strengthening of the Company another magazine was added to the publications of Robson Lowe, Ltd., in the form of The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain, the oldest existing philatelic journal in continuous publication in the British Isles. This magazine, originally a monthly but now quarterly, was founded by Williams Brown, of Salisbury, in 1891, and came into possession of the Pembertons in1900.
In 1961 Robson Lowe launched a third magazine, The Great Britain Philatelist, under the editorship of Marcus F. J. Samuel, who has continued at the helm throughout. This, too, is a quarterly publication, whose contents are devoted solely to the stamps and postal history of Britain. It is envisaged, in the not too distant future, that the two quarterlies will be amalgamated under the title of the older publication, and in the care of Mr. Samuel.
The outstanding event of 1965 as far as Robson Lowe is concerned has been the acquisition of the well-known printing firm of D. Wood & Son, of Perth, Scotland. This firm, which has been connected with philatelic printing and publishing since the early years of the present century, was formed into a limited stock company under the title Woods of Perth (Printers) Ltd., with Robson Lowe, Ltd., as the majority shareholders. This has led to much closer cooperation between the Companies, because Wood’s had printed The Philatelist continuously since 1935 and had also produced most of Robson Lowe’s luxury auction catalogues, especially those with color plates.
This new link-up must lead to an expansion of Robson Lowe’s publishing activities, and several new works are on the stocks. Heading them will be the fifth volume of the Encyclopaedia, already mentioned, and others will include Tibet, by A. C. Waterfall, U.S. Locals, Vol. I, New York City and Brooklyn, by Donald S. Patton, and a revised edition of The Cancellations of Mexico by Joseph Schatzkes.
The outlook for Robson Lowe, Ltd. is bright in the years ahead. The steady growth of the auction business along international lines, the expansion of the publication side and the increasing participation in philatelic social events makes it certain that ever bigger things are in the offing. Robson Lowe himself played a leading part in the organization of London’s International Exhibition in 1960, and was the inspiration behind the newly inaugurated British Philatelic Exhibition in 1965. He is supported in his activities by a local staff, which includes his two daughters, Annabelle and Tolly, and their respective husbands, John Forrest and David Fortnum.
What of Robson Lowe as a person? Everyone who has met him cannot fail to have been impressed by his cheerful personality. He has a keen sense of humor and enjoys a good joke whether he cracks it himself, someone tells it to him or even when the joke is on him. Years ago an overseas correspondent, apparently annoyed by something Robbie had done, addressed a letter to him as Robson Lowse. In recording this, he added the pungent comment, “He must think that I am one of the big bugs of philately.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his cheerfulness Robson Lowe is a tireless worker, who often finds his 24-hour day too short for his needs. He thinks nothing of tackling a hard day’s work at 50 Pall Mall, catching a ‘plane to Scotland in the evening and crossing to Europe the following afternoon. The pressure to which he subjects himself is reflected in the high standards he expects from his associates and colleagues, and efficiency is the key-word in all his undertakings.
In his more relaxed moments he is an excellent companion, a solid friend, generous in the extreme. His philatelic knowledge is of the highest order and amounts (as indeed it must with every real philatelist) to intuition. No true seeker after information ever appeals to him in vain, and his influence on philately will be felt even when time has dimmed the memory of many of his contemporaries.