Gifts from Sir John Betjeman in Surrey sale

When the noted cinematographer John McGlashan, died aged 86 in 2021, he left behind him a body of work spanning 60 years and encompassing major dramas, TV shows and documentaries. 

As resident cameraman on the long-running arts programme Monitor, he worked with directors such as Ken Russell, John Schlesinger and Ken Loach, and shot classics as varied as the landmark documentary The Ascent of Man (1973) and TV shows such as Porridge and Doctor Who. 

Now his family have consigned personal gifts from one of his favourite TV personalities, the late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, for auction. They will appear in the January 23 book sale at John Nicholson’s of Fernhurst in Surrey.

What makes them special is their fascinating inscriptions and the light they cast on their friendship. 

The pair became friends when they worked together on some of the poet’s classic documentaries, famed for their gentle whimsy and personal approach: Metro-Land (1973); A Passion for Churches (1974); and the poet’s childhood autobiography in verse Summoned by Bells (1976). 

The strength of that friendship can be seen in the inscriptions written by Sir John in the copies of his works that he presented to the BAFTA-nominated McGlashan, never seen before and offered here for sale. 

Betjeman’s self-deprecating charm is evident in a signed and annotated cover for the audio reading of his verse collection Banana Blush. Inscribed “Oh that I had more hair!”, it follows a series of arrows to a photograph of the poet on which he has added a spiky hairdo to his bald pate. 

A copy of Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, edited by Sir John, carries an inscription dated to 1972 “on a hot July day” at Waddesdon, Bucks. 

Page 103 of the book carries a typically farcical Betjeman addition: a circular stain annotated: “Gin spilt by John Betjeman… Waddesdon 6/7/72.” The poet’s spidery handwriting was notoriously difficult to read and part of the remaining inscription is indecipherable. 

The men’s shared humour is further evident in an inscription on a copy of a first edition of Betjeman’s book London’s Historic Railway Stations, in which he writes: “John McGlashan Horn Captain, for good service to the Horn, John Betjeman 1972 Front Row Shoot.” Betjeman has added his City of London address for Cloth Fair and phone number. The facing inside cover carries the poet’s elaborate bookplate for Four Essays on West Country Churches. 

Another lot includes a signed and inscribed copy of Rabbit is Rich, a novel from the famous series by John Updike, who died on December 30. Updike writes: “For John McGlashan my very own cameraman with esteem and warm regards, John Updike”. 

The Betjeman lot includes various other signed and inscribed copies of the poet’s works all presented as personal gifts to McGlashan, while other items consigned from the same source include signed and inscribed works by Dame Freya Stark, Molly Keane, Sir Laurens van der Post, Jacob Bronowski, with whom he made The Ascent of Man, and Sir John Betjeman’s wife, Penelope Chetwode. 

“This cache of books with very personal tributes to John McGlashan is a treasure trove of friendships made during the making of some of the most remarkable programmes of the past 50 years and more,” said Ian Marr, Books specialist at John Nicholson’s. 

“The sums involved are not massive compared to other works of art – the Betjeman lot has a top estimate of just £500 – but in terms of the chance to acquire a significant slice of history, they are really priceless.”