Cacti. Cats. Caterpillars. Canals. Whenever I scour an antiques fair – propping or shopping – I’m always drawn to these quirky little numbered books. It all started with The Observer’s Book of British Butterflies. Next, it was Weather. Then Trees and Shrubs. I was hooked.
Yes, I’m a shallow stylist; it must devalue them (and I’m sure any serious collectors reading this will weep), but I remove the printed paper jackets to expose the plain coloured cover and pleasingly utilitarian typeface beneath.
From Pond Life to Postage Stamps – there’s a title for every possible hobby or topic. There’s even The Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books, weirdly. The series started in 1937 with the publication of Birds and, later, Wild Flowers by Frederick Warne. They were in print for over 50 years and enthusiasts now seek out all the various jacket designs, which can be as many as 400 for each published edition. First editions or those with rare jackets can fetch up to £168 each at auction, but you can pick up more common ones for £2.50 at an antiques fair.
They’re not only collectible and fascinating to read – the styling possibilities are endless. You can line them up on a narrow windowsill, arrange them artfully in trios on a coffee table or stack them in a bell jar, ordered according to colour or number. My latest find is a 1960s edition of The Observer’s Book of Sea and Seashore, filled with colourful diagrams of coral and flat worms that are strangely beautiful.