Rupert Hart-Davis retired to Swaledale from the London publishing world two years before I joined it in 1965, so it was on the shelves of second-hand bookshops that his name first really registered with me. I often found myself spotting books which he had published before I could read his name on them, because in both design and production they had a distinct air of quality. And then, when I pulled them off the shelf, I often ended up buying them because they were to do with the Victorian era, a period that has always mesmerized me.
My first encounter with the man himself came about in 1974 when I had been working at John Murray for two years. I was looking after a correspondence between Max Beerbohm and the painter William Rothenstein, called Max and Will and edited by Mary Lago, an American professor of English. Mary had to approach Rupert about some points, for he, as the recent cataloguer of Max’s caricatures, was the acknowledged expert on all Beerbohm matters. Since she was in Missouri and I was only a cheap phone call away from Swaledale, it was I who had to sort them out with Rupert.
When he came on the phone I was taken aback by the boom in his voice, before I diffidently read out the wording which I thought might solve the points raised. ‘Absolutely fine, old boy, you obviously know what you are doing. These American academics, they always grasp the wrong end of the stick and take things too literally.’ When I put the phone down I felt a little smug, a little defensive of Mary and more than a little surprised at the voice and the manner. How to square the bluff heartiness with the man I knew to be steeped in the hothouse world of the 1890s, as well as an enthusiast for much of the literature of the rest of that century? Later I learnt that Rupert had spent the war as the very effective adjutant of the Guards depot at Pirbright.
That, for the time being, was that. But in 1977 Jock Murray returned from a jaunt to the north with
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