The collectors’ collector

The collectors’ collector

For Jewish News May 2022

In a quiet suburban road in London, a cheerful academic is rejoicing in talking about the things he loves best — an extraordinary collection of Judaica, charting the history of Anglo-Jewry.

Privileged visitors are faced with a cornucopia of objects, each one with its own fascinating story, both of its place in history and of Professor David Latchman’s adventures in acquiring it. In every corner there are shelves and display cases: here a run of antiquarian books, there a collection of china representing Jewish pedlars. There are scientific instruments made by Jewish craftsmen, and gorgeous silver ornaments — including a crown that I recognise, from a Torah scroll from my own now defunct shul in Manchester..

There’s a sword once carried by a Jewish officer in the First World War; there’s a giant menorah which used to belong to the B’nai B’rith lodges. There is a silver coin on which the bare-knuckle boxer Daniel Mendoza is depicted; and a deed dating from the 13th century in which it is stipulated that a piece of land in Yorkshire should not be sold to Jews.

There’s a door-sized display board of the honorary officers of the New Synagogue in Great St Helens, Bishopsgate, dating from 1871, with members of the unlikely-sounding Jewish Peartree family recorded as wardens and financial officers. There are countless paintings of solemn but anonymous rabbis, and just as many of identifiable chief rabbis and of that 19th century colossus of Anglo-Jewry, Sir Moses Montefiore. There’s a gorgeous portrait of the war poet, Isaac Rosenberg.

There are numbers of Orders of Service, particularly for state occasions such as the present Queen’s Coronation; and there is furniture, too, such as rabbinical pews from long-closed synagogues, and a recent acquisition, a beautiful organ from Manchester’s Higher Broughton Synagogue, “kept under the stairs and rolled out on Sundays for weddings”.

The sheer breadth of Professor Latchman’s collection is stunning, easily rivalling any museum I’ve ever visited. But, as he tells it, he began collecting almost by accident, buying a book on Sir Moses Montefiore — “it cost £1” — when he was just 18.

His collecting passion predated Judaica, he says. “As a teenager I used to buy books, Ian Fleming, for example, going to all the WH Smith outlets to see what they had. But eventually I realised that you could order them, so there was no great excitement in that. Then I started buying second-hand books — but I still ended up with a lot of random things that took my fancy”.

The early scientist in Professor Latchman — he is a geneticist who is vice-chancellor of Birkbeck University — led him to decide to restrict what he was collecting. “The problem with science books is that even when you’re experienced, it’s very hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong. So I thought, keep it separate from science, I’ll collect Judaica.”

For a long time, he says, he was “just” a book collector, amassing what looks like hundreds of titles. But, by degrees, he branched out, always curious to link the history of a synagogue with an illustrated manuscript, or a painting, or a piece of anniversary silver.

“I am very, very, very strict. I don’t buy anything that doesn’t have some connection with Britain; and if I want to buy something, it’s got to have some justification as to why it fits in the collection”. Sometimes the link is not immediately obvious, but as Professor Latchman acknowledges, almost every purchase leads to something else.

He describes himself as a “completist”, who spends considerable time ensuring he has, for example, every book by a particular author, or every portrait of a specific rabbi. But, inevitably, he can’t buy everything and there are occasions when he is beaten by another bidder at auction, or when he “lusts” after a rare item that he just hasn’t managed to lay his hands on — yet.

It’s hard not to get caught up in Professor Latchman’s understandable enthusiasm and recognise that the thrill of the chase is sometimes as enjoyable as the acquisition of the item. Over the years he has built up an enviable expertise and judgment as to what constitutes a rare collectible, often something we might not even consider.

He clearly adores everything he’s bought, but he has his favourites. The Jewish Museum, he explains, has a title deed recording the purchase of a piece of land in the late 1670s. The buyer was Benjamin Levy, essentially the founder of the Ashkenazi community in London. This deed does not show what Levy bought it for, merely records the sale from a non-Jew.

But Professor Latchman has a deed written the next day, showing Levy giving the land to the members of the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, for what was to become Alderney Road cemetery, the first Ashkenazi cemetery in England. “I think of this as the foundation document of the Anglo-Jewish community”.

There are even more arcane items in the collection which might pass most of us by. Does he have anything in Yiddish? The professor springs up and moments later produces an extraordinary 1899 guidebook, the size of a small siddur, which was aimed at Yiddish-speaking tourists to London. Laboriously, I make out details for visiting the Tower of London, along with some wonderful adverts for tooth cleaners.

Or he’s rather fond of an unpromising looking little pamphlet, about the size of a packet of cigarettes and consisting of just a few pages. This turns out to be a coach timetable — in Yiddish — for Jewish pedlars, going from inn to inn the length of 19th century Britain. It’s an extremely rare item, because often, after consultation, such timetables were thrown away. But Professor Latchman has acquired one.

Elsewhere there are bigger objects, including a fabulously impressive gleaming brass telescope. This was made by one of a cadre of Jewish instrument makers, Abraham Abraham, who was, says the professor, “not just Jewish but embedded in the community.” Another such famed maker was Gabriel Davis, who set up business in Leeds in 1779, making optical, surveying and mathematical instruments. His nephew, John Davis, made miners’ lamps and theodolites; and his son, Arthur, wrote the first Hebrew and English machzor published by Routledge.

Professor Latchman hasn’t yet made up his mind as to the future of his remarkable collection — on which he’s not prepared to put a value. Meanwhile, he’s working on a new book, arising from his passion — the stories of 10 chief rabbis, going back to Aaron Hart, in 1705. It consists of material he couldn’t get in his first book, to mark the United Synagogue’s 150th anniversary. All being well, it should be ready for 2023’s Jewish Book Week.

And mention of Aaron Hart leads us, inexorably, to talk of Lemon Hart, who gave his name to the eponymous rum — and who was born Lehman Hart in Penzance in 1768, the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Germany. For every item, there is a story — the wilder the better. And it all began with one book, bought for a pound.

  • 25 May, 2022