Wednesday 17 September 2019
Faber and Faber: Ninety Years of Excellence in Cover Design
Mr Toby Faber
Summary by Derek Latham:
Toby Faber’s presentation to the Arts Society meeting on September 18th was entitled “Ninety Years of Excellence in Cover Design” but his wide-ranging and absorbing talk went far beyond an art lesson in book cover design. Toby is the grandson of Geoffrey Faber, the founder of the publisher Faber and Faber. He was managing director of the company for four years and is still on the board. Toby gave an engaging account of the early years of the company, and his talk was peppered with insider information and anecdotes about the firm, and especially about the stellar company of authors whose works it has published.
Geoffrey Faber was a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford with a first class degree in classics. After university he joined the staff of the Oxford University Press and later became a fellow of All Souls College, the only college in Oxford with no undergraduates, open only to distinguished academics and other public figures. Geoffrey’s membership of this body was important to the success of Faber and Faber in later years, as from it he recruited to the company several of its outstanding staff and advisers – T S Eliot being a prime example. Geoffrey’s first venture into the publishing world was in company with Sir Maurice Gwyer under the name of Faber and Gwyer, founded in 1925. Sir Maurice brought the journal the Nursing Mirror to the table, and this was the inspiration for the introduction of several “trade papers” to the company. However the Nursing Mirror was sold in 1929 and this led to Geoffrey and Sir Maurice going their separate ways. When Geoffrey was searching for a name for his sole venture T S Eliot suggested that since the Faber name had such a nice ring to it why not use it twice, and “Faber & Faber” was born, although at that time there was no-one else from the family involved in the company.
Faber & Faber quickly acquired a reputation as a publisher specialising in poetry: before the second world war as well as T S Eliot they had on their books Ezra Pound, W H Auden and Stephen Spender, and in later years came Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Healey and Philip Larkin. This specialisation did not deter Faber & Faber from other literary ventures: early successes were the two novels written by the World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon – “Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man” and “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”. In the inter-war years the list of poets, novelists and other writers in Faber & Faber’s catalogue was so lengthy that one wonders that there was room for any other publishers (except perhaps for Penguin) on the London scene. Passing reference was made by Toby to P G Wodehouse, Rex Whistler, Samuel Beckett, Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, John Osborne, P D James and Laurence Durrell, among others. The firm is justly proud of the list of Nobel Laureate winners it has published, now running into double figures, as well as two Booker Prize winners in a row.
Toby ruefully pointed out a couple of bad misses. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was declined because of its risqué content, and during the war George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was turned down. Also C P Snow was lost to a competitor. On the plus side a new recruit to the editorial team, Charles Monteith (yet another All Souls man) rescued from the “slush pile” a manuscript by one William Golding, and “Lord of the Flies” became another Faber & Faber success.
Faber & Faber has over the years gained a reputation for the artistry of its book covers and clear and innovative typography. This is largely due to the work of the art director, Bertholde Wolpe. Wolpe was a refugee from Nazi Germany who came to London in 1935 and who was responsible for Faber & Faber art work for many years. Toby showed numerous examples of Wolpe’s eye-catching cover designs. Wolpe was also a designer of typography and was responsible for the “Albertus” font which became a hallmark of the firm’s publications.
Toby Faber published earlier this year his new book “Faber and Faber. The Untold Story Of A Great Publishing House.” Judging from the presentation he gave to us, I am sure that it will make a great read.