Collecting Modernism: The Annette Campbell-White Collection at the Ransom Center


Annette Campbell-White felt waves of regret the moment she saw her collection of rare first editions of modern literature on display in Sotheby’s in London in June 2007. She had spent the last 30 years or so accumulating the collection, composed mostly of items from Cyril Connolly’s seminal book “The Modern Movement: One Hundred Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950.”

Now, however, Campbell-White had put the collection up for auction, and she was about to part with, among other treasures, an autographed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a 1925 first edition  of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” with its original dust jacket featuring an illustration by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.

A venture capitalist, Campbell-White found herself in 2007 all-consumed by her career and she was certain her collection could be better cared for by someone else. And so she signed a contract with Sotheby’s.

“If books had a soul, these books and manuscripts were my family, and I was now set to divorce them,” recalled in her memoir, “Beyond Market Value: A Memoir of Book Collecting and the World of Venture Capital,” published this year by UT Press.

Campbell-White’s memoir coincides with the Ransom Center exhibition “Modernist Networks,” which features letters, books, artwork and manuscripts Campell-White accumulated after that fateful Sotheby’s sale. It’s a bit of kismet that Campbell’s collection is on view at the University of Texas rare book library. After all, it was her encounter with the catalogue of a 1971 Ransom Center exhibition based on Connolly’s “The Modern Movement that inspired her to collect in the first place.

Connolly’s dogmatic list is product of his time, and rife with biases: All of the authors on the list are white; only five are female.

Though Campbell-White found Connolly’s pedagogic roster ultimately limiting to her collecting, she nevertheless still choses to collect from authors firmly a part of a very traditional definition of the canon.

“I collect Modernist literature because it is a crucial period in the development of literary thought,” Campbell-White told me when the exhibition opened earlier this fall.

Authors represented in the Ransom Center exhibition include  T. S. Eliot, Stéphane Mallarmé, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Joseph Conrad.

Campbell-White became an avid reader as a child. Books were her best friends as her family moved from one remote mining town to another throughout the British Commonwealth, following her metallurgical engineer father to New Zealand, Australia, Zambia and Northern Canada. Among the items in the exhibition is Campbell-White’s 1932 copy of Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics,” a book she had as a child.

She studied chemical engineering at university in England, and it was there she bought her first collectible book: T. S. Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon,” in the Ariel Poems edition. Campbell-White fondly remembered Eliot’s poem from her time at boarding school in Cape Town, South Africa.

By the mid-1970s she had joined an investment bank, a job that took her to San Francisco and she has lived in the Bay Area ever since. In the 1980s, she entered the world of venture capital, becoming the founder and managing partner of MedVenture Associates, a health care venture capital firm.

Though she is happy to exhibit her materials at the Ransom Center, Campbell -White has no intention at the moment of letting her collection go. It’s very much an active entity to her; she lives with it in her Bay Area home.

“A collection is an organism; a living thing,” she said.

“Modernist Networks” continues through Jan. 5 at the Ransom Center,

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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