Jeremy Lewis

The Emigrés

George Weidenfeld and Peter Owen died last year, leaving the ever-sprightly Ernest Hecht, founder of Souvenir Press, as the sole survivor of that generation of German, Austrian and central European immigrants who revitalised London publishing in the postwar years. They included André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn, Max Reinhardt, proprietor of the Bodley Head, Kurt Maschler (the father of Tom Maschler, who re-established Jonathan Cape as one of Britain’s leading publishers), Paul Elek and – the rogue elephant – Robert Maxwell. They were accompanied by a great army of designers and typographers, among them Hans Schmoller, who achieved fame at Penguin Books, and Berthold Wolpe, whose Albertus lettering jackets for Faber are among the most beautiful book covers ever created, matched only by the work done by Jan Tschichold for Allen Lane in the late 1940s. I first became interested in these immigrant publishers when working as a junior editor for the Hungarian-born Deutsch in the late 1960s, and my admiration for them has steadily expanded over the years.

Almost all these publishers and typographers were Jewish. In her marvellous study Emigrés: The Transformation of Art Publishing in Britain, published by Phaidon in 2014, Anna Nyburg suggests why this was so. Although middle-class Jews were often assimilated in 19th-century Germany and Austria, in a number of places they were forbidden from taking up jobs in the diplomatic service, the law and the universities until the 1870s. This, combined with the traditional Jewish respect for learning, education and the classics, led many middle-class Jews to turn to publishing and bookselling. The best of them combined commercial acumen with literary judgement: the largest firm of all, Ullstein, published newspapers and magazines as well as books. Jewish publishers also loomed large at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Life in England was very different. Whereas British booksellers tended to be men in cardigans selling toys and doilies alongside books, their German-speaking equivalents belonged to a highly organised profession with exams and qualifications. Allen Lane of Penguin and Jonathan Cape – the two best London publishers of their time – had left school in their early teens and worked their way up from the bottom; the interwar years also saw the rise of the gentleman publisher, the best-educated of whom might have seemed tongue-tied and ill-informed when compared with the likes of such émigrés as Walter Neurath and Béla Horovitz, both of whom could speak several languages, had a wide knowledge of European art and culture, and had grown up in the Viennese world of Freud and Mahler. Victor Gollancz and Fredric Warburg, two other prominent figures in London publishing before the war, were descended from immigrant families, but both had been born in Britain and educated at leading public schools.

Horovitz founded Phaidon in Vienna in 1923. He specialised in art books, drawing on the expertise of his colleague Ludwig Goldscheider, who had studied art history (a subject not widely taught in Britain until after the war, though the Warburg Institute moved from Hamburg to London in 1933). In 1938, shortly before the Anschluss, Stanley Unwin – one of the more cosmopolitan London publishers – bought all Phaidon’s rights and stock, thereby ‘Aryanising’ the firm and protecting it from a Nazi takeover. In 1938 Horovitz moved to London, where he eventually regained control of his firm; in 1950 he published The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – another immigrant – which went on to sell over six million copies.

Neurath, a friend of Horovitz, also moved to London in the late 1930s. With Wolfgang Foges, another immigrant from Vienna, he set up Adprint, a prototype book packager, which produced King Penguins for Allen Lane and the wartime series Britain in Pictures, published by Collins, with integrated text and pictures. (John Betjeman, one of the well-known figures who contributed to the series, regretted that it had been produced ‘by those filthy Austrian Crooks Adprints Ltd’.) In 1949 Neurath left Adprint to set up Thames & Hudson. It and Phaidon soon became the leading art book publishers in the UK.

Allen Lane rightly admired Neurath for following his own example of commissioning, in the hugely successful World of Art series, experts to write books that combined excellence with accessibility. They were also, like the Penguin editions, inexpensive: Neurath, with his cosmopolitan connections, was a pioneer of co-edition publishing, whereby the costs of printing were reduced by simultaneously printing for foreign publishers, keeping the same colour plates for each edition but changing the black plates when moving from one language to another – a technique followed by Weidenfeld and, at a more popular level, Hamlyn.

Neurath died in 1967, but his work was continued by his widow, Eva, whose Recollections has recently been posthumously published by the family firm. It’s a very slim book – 84 pages in total – and the work of an amateur, writing for her family and friends rather than the world at large. She grew up in Berlin, the youngest of five daughters. Intensely competitive, she left school at fourteen and went on to work for Berlin auctioneers and art dealers, gaining what later proved to be invaluable experience. She converted to Judaism after marrying the second of her three husbands – his father had been the chief rabbi of Vienna – and moved to Britain via Holland in 1938. Walter employed her at Adprint, where she specialised in design and layout. In due course she followed him to Thames & Hudson, where she worked until her death in 1999. Like her last husband, she contributed to what seems, in retrospect, an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. The immigrants had converted London publishing from an insular, snobbish profession into a far broader-minded business, with dealings that extended well beyond the English-speaking world; and although most of them are no longer with us, their influence is as potent as ever.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter