UVic library sorting an eclectic treasure

UVic librarians are working to catalogue the bequeathed collection of Roger Bishop, one of the university’s founding English professors and believer in the library’s special collections.

It’s a tricky task, as Bishop’s collection has no central theme: He accumulated books, objects and art according only to the spontaneous landings of his own mind.

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“Roger was just an amazing collector of anything that sparked him,” said estate executor Brian Young, who grew up knowing Bishop as a family friend.

“There was really no rhyme or reason to it.”

Bishop purchased items of First Nations crafts and art work. He brought home paintings by Western Canadian artists. He would pick up books that appealed to his fancy, from pulpy paperbacks to rare first editions.

Lara Wilson, UVic Libraries director of special collections and archives, called the cataloguing of Bishop’s eclectic collection “a work in progress.”

Bishop’s gift will be announced next week at UVic. In addition to the books, paintings, curios and artifacts, his donation includes $1.6 million in cash.

The money will create three endowments for the Fine Arts department: The Ailsa and Roger Bishop Entrance Scholarship in Theatre, the Roger J. Bishop Writing Prize and the Roger Bishop Travel Award in Music. It will also support an existing bursary in English and allow special collections at the library to buy new materials.

Roger Bishop died on March 30, 2016, just 41 days shy of his 100th birthday. His wife, Ailsa, died in 1994. The couple had no children.

Bishop’s influence is still seen on campus, from the Roger Bishop Theatre to the liberal-arts programs that he championed during the university’s early years.

So important was Bishop to liberal arts at UVic that shortly after his death the library honoured him with an acquisition on what would have been his 100th birthday.

“It’s an early edition of Robert Burns poetry,” Wilson said. “When he was alive, he had always hoped to buy it for the library, but didn’t, so we acquired it to honour him.”

Born in Vancouver, Bishop graduated in 1938 with first-class honours in English from the University of British Columbia, where he also earned an education certificate. He went on to study library science, earning a bachelor’s degree and an MA from the University of Toronto.

In 1941, Bishop began teaching English at UVic’s forerunner, Victoria College, located in Craigdarroch Castle. By 1945, he was head of the English department, a position he held until 1967.

By the time Bishop retired in 1971 he had seen the English department move from Craigdarroch to Lansdowne Campus (now Camosun College), then to its existing location in Gordon Head.

Throughout his career he never stopped believing a university’s role was as a repository and purveyor of knowledge. He championed theatre at UVic because he saw it as essential to a proper understanding of English. And special collections at the library were an ongoing love.

Whenever he and his wife travelled, he would purchase books just because he thought they would make interesting additions to the library.

“These random boxes of books would arrive from places like England or Spain,” Young said. “He would pay for the books and they would just arrive at the library.”

Bishop, a child of the Depression, was himself a prudent saver and investor. When his estate was settled, it totalled about $8 million.

Young said the money was bequeathed to those subjects he thought were important, liberal arts and the community. Victoria-area theatres, music establishments and local philanthropic organizations all benefited.

But it was UVic, with its study of English, theatre, poetry, art and language, that was an enduring love. Bishop valued those subjects that could be preserved, appreciated and explored endlessly.

“The gift from his estate is the ultimate expression of his belief in our academic mission and in the work of the library and the special collections and archives,” Wilson said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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