The Modern Movement Lands at UT’s Harry Ransom Center

Annette Campbell-White should have been overjoyed to collect her auction fee. But as she stood at the Sotheby’s cocktail party, staring at the last 30 years of her collection of rare first editions of modern literature in unfamiliar cases, she felt pangs of regret. But it was too late, she had already signed contracts for the auction house to sell her collection, which was composed mostly of items from Cyril Connolly’s Modern Movement list: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in the original dark-green dust cover; an autographed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, edition of 100; and an annotated proof copy of Graham Greene’s “Journey Without Maps” were among the items listed for auction.

“They’re going to buy my books … no,” she remembers thinking. But Campbell-White’s life was in overdrive in 2007, as the venture capitalist navigated the incoming recession. She didn’t feel equipped to preserve the collection for the future, as many of the items were so rare that they no longer had duplicates.

How the London native wound up in California collecting rare editions of some of the greatest novels the Western world had ever produced is one story. But how the pioneering-venture-capitalist-slash-collector later assembled another one just as stunning is another tale. That story is told through the Harry Ransom Center’s new exhibition, Modernist Networks: The Annette Campbell-White Collection, which opened on Aug. 24 and runs through Jan. 5 of next year.

“The thing with collecting is, you can’t collect without a focus,” Campbell-White says, as we sit on a bench at the Harry Ransom Center in the middle of her exhibition. She had started her collection when she was still living in England with World War I-era poetry, but the well ran dry. She came to America in the 1970s and tried collecting fine print, but soon realized she wasn’t into it. “I had this hodgepodge,” she says. “I either had to get serious or stop.”

Sometime in the late-’70s or early-’80s, Campbell-White was in the Serendipity Books bookstore in Berkeley, California when a catalogue caught her eye. She asked the person in the shop, famed rare book dealer Tom Goldwasser, what it was. He told her it was the Harry Ransom Center 1971 exhibit book, prepared by Ransom Center’s Mary Hirth and based on Cyril Connolly’s The Modern Movement One Hundred Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950. Connolly was a famous literary critic and author who devised a list of the 100 books that defined modernism in those three countries. Campbell-White already had a handful of the books on the list, but the collection didn’t gel, she says, until the 1980s.

“I bought a copy of Ulysses,” she says. “I thought, I’ve got this book, this big investment. I was earning enough money so that I could collect Connolly. I can do this.”

She had the money because, despite studying chemical engineering, and working in medical engineering in England, she joined an investment bank when she moved to America. Eventually, she decided she wanted to work in venture capital, but in the 1980s, VC firms generally didn’t take women on as partners. Instead of joining a fund as an associate—a step back in her career—she raised her own. For the last 30 years of her career, beginning at the end of 1985, she was the founder and managing partner of MedVenture Associates, a health care venture capital firm.

As that succeeded, I earned more money and could buy more books,” she says. “That’s where they started going hand-in-hand.”

By the time of the Sotheby’s sale in 2007, she had collected all 100 titles, plus many not on the list. After the sale, Campbell-White didn’t bide her time waiting to start a new collection. The same week as her sale, she purchased two volumes by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

I had this idea that I’d collect high spots of world literature,” she says. “I bought probably the best copy of Shelley’s Queen Mab that ever existed.”

But gradually, Campbell-White drifted back toward Modern literature. While the Connally list provided a nice structure for her first major collection, now, without the constraints of those 100 books, she was free to expand. She started collecting letters, manuscripts, even artwork related to the Modern masters, all which form the basis of Modernist Networks.

Visitors to the exhibit will find rarities like Joyce’s carbon typescript schema for Ulysses, one of only seven copies of a document that outlines the parallels between the author’s famously difficult novel and its Homeric counterpart. They’ll see correspondence from Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf. There’s even an advance copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, the ultimate galley brag. The result is an intimate look into the lives of the men and women who wrote some of the greatest poetry and prose in history.

The exhibition also coincides UT Press’ publication of her memoir, Beyond Market Value: A Memoir of Book Collecting and the World of Venture Capital. The book combines the two strands of her life: venture capital and rare book collecting. It also provided some nice symmetry to a career in collecting that really kicked into gear once Campbell-White came across the Ransom Center exhibit book by chance more than 30 years ago, which is why her collection in on exhibit at UT instead of anywhere else.

“This is probably the greatest repository of modernist writing in the world,” Campbell-White, a 2017 addition to the Ransom Center’s Advisory Council, says. “It just seemed natural.”

Photographs by Chad Wadsworth for the Harry Ransom Center


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