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Film critic Philip French’s vast book collection donated to BFI

Removal team takes two days to transport 3,000 books collected by Observer's movie man to archives

22 November, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Sir Christopher Frayling with Philip French on the night of his fellowship award at the BFI in 2013

A UNIQUE collection of books owned by one of the country’s most respected film critics has been gifted to cinema lovers.

Philip French, who wrote reviews for The Observer over four decades, died in 2015, leaving behind more than 3,000 books at his home in Dartmouth Park. His widow, Kersti, has now decided to hand them to the British Film Institute in what counts as the biggest single donation its archives have ever received.

It took removal men two days to box the books up and take them to BFI’s Reuben Library on the South Bank.

Mrs French said: “Ever since he was a boy at school he collected books. His parents did not have many at home  and when he discovered reading, he got so excited he would trawl through book stores in Bristol, where he grew up. It was then he got his first, early film books. There were not actually that many written about cinema then.”

She added: “When he became interested in film, he started collecting books on the subject in earnest and never stopped. “And as his career progressed, he was sent a lot of books – and he would never sell them or give them away. He was really quite a hoarder and he loved being surrounded by them.”

The collection was stored on specially built shelves around the couple’s home.

“I’d ask him something and he would instantly find a book about it, a book referring to what we were discussing,” she said. “He loved introducing people to new worlds, new art and sharing books that had excited him. I had to keep putting up more and more shelves.”

The reviewer’s trips to screening rooms in the West End were also an excuse for Mr French to head along Charing Cross Road and to return with another book tucked under his arm.

“He’d go into town to watch a film and would always bring a book back with him,” Mrs French said. “Even when we went to Camden Town to do some food shopping, he’d disappear for a bit and head to a bookshop.”

His books are full of handwritten notes, providing a commentary on a huge range of topics. They include his own works – the posthumous collection, Notes From The Dream House, Westerns (1973), The Movie Moguls (1969) and I Found It At The Movies (2011).

BFI creative director Heather Stewart said: “These books literally have Philip’s DNA on them. They provide us with a richer context­ualisation of film themes and subjects which informed Philip’s thinking in his own writing. “If you read all the books in the collection you would have a first-rate film education.”

At a special event at the BFI to mark the donation on Thursday, writer and academic Sir Christopher Frayling told guests: “It is the perfect memorial to a great writer who made the connection between, and understood the importance of, the word with the image to communicate the immediate experience of film in his writing, making him one of the most significant and influential critics of the 20th century.”

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