30 SEPTEMBER 1989, Page 35

The Nonesuch Press

Peter Quennell

he stroke of good fortune that first put the Nonesuch Press's first production on to my bookshelves now seems equally odd and unexpected. Evelyn Waugh was my close contemporary at Oxford, an impulsive, sometimes wayward young man, whose moods were often changeable; and towards the end of his residence at Hertford — a college he did not much esteem since a senior member of the faculty, during some collegiate rumpus, had had the impertinence to knock him down — he suddenly decided he would exchange his pleasant rooms for the squalidest accomodation he could find and generally reorganise his way of life.

Thus far, as a protégé of Harold Acton, he had not escaped some traces of the current Oxford dandyism; but he now became a somewhat rampant bohemian, discarded the Lovat Fraser prints that had once embellished his walls and, at the same time, broke up his small but carefully chosen library. This he did by holding an auction after a Bacchanalian feast and selling it off piecemeal to various sym- pathetic friends. Thus I acquired the None- such edition of John Donne's love poems, a book I always admired and carried around with me as far as Japan, until it at last disappeared in one of those catas- trophic house-removals that swallow up so many prized possessions. I was therefore delighted to learn not long ago that the volume I eagerly bought at Oxford had been the very first that the Nonesuch Press published, and, better still, that the Press itself, under new guidance — directed by the versatile Max Reinhardt — was once again in a flourishing condition; with the result that

two volumes which had originally appeared in the Nonesuch classics series, the Com- plete Prose and Poetry of William Blake, and The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll and two new items, The Wrong Box, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne and Graham Greene's Why the Epigraph? emerged this week.

The Nonesuch Press, named after None such Palace, Queen Elizabeth I's favourite country house, an elaborately decorative structure, built in a Gothic-Renaissance style by Henry VIII with the help of French and Italian craftsmen, is now almost 70 years old, having been founded by Francis Meynell in 1923 on a capital of some £300, a year after the death of his mother, the poet Alice Meynell. Among those who inspired and advised him were the adven- turous David Garnett, 'Bunny' to his friends, and the cheerful, impish Francis Birrell, both experienced bookmen, who, like Meynell, came of distinguished literary stock. Though not quite so close to Virgi- nia Woolf as Clive Bell or Lytton Strachey, each combined Bloomsburian humour with a corresponding sense of style.

They knew the book world well; and, between them, they helped Meynell to put his brave plans on to a solid economic base. Meynell, too, had excellent qualifica- tions. From his father he had inherited a practical knowledge of typography; and the Press, he tells us in his entertaining self-portrait My Lives, enabled him to satisfy his `two fervours — poetry and print. . . . So I myself set out to be a new kind of publisher- designer, an architect of books. . . seeking the realisation of my design by marshalling the services. . . of the best printing houses, papermakers, binders.'

He and his associates were lucky in their hour, he adds; they profited from a grow- ing taste for 'fine books' — fine at once in form and content; and the fruit of their joint labours was the Press we see today. It covers a wide field — one almost as diverse in subject-matter as English literature it- self. Though plans for a complete None- such Chaucer have been rejected on prac- tical grounds, in these volumes we move steadily from masterpiece to masterpiece; and often a critical evaluation is prefaced by a revealing separate essay. Here and there it is surprisingly acute — for exam- ple, some pages by the American humour- ist Alexander Woollcott on the bizarre genius of Lewis Carroll.

A particularly interesting aspect of Fran- cis Meynell's skill is the use he made of 20th century artists, whom he employed on every kind of decorative work from full- page titles to ingenious printer's devices. One such artist was the transatlantic E. McKnight Kauffer. For many years he lived in Chelsea, where his bristling locks and handsomely haggard profile made him a conspicuous figure. Meanwhile he and his gifted wife, usually working side by side, designed a multitude of household objects, and he alone produced the com- mercial posters for Shell Oil that once brightened the thoroughfares of pre-war London. An excellent draughtsman, he had a poetic vision of the English land- scape that raised the passing traveller's spirits.