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A museum without walls: 60 years on Thames & Hudson have changed the way we look at art

Walter Neurath and Eva Feuchtwang met in London during the Second World War. They had both fled Nazi Europe and they shared a passion for art and design. When they met they were both married to other people but Walter and Eva became friends, colleagues, then lovers before they married one another in 1950, a year after they had co-founded the publishing house Thames & Hudson. With offices in London and New York, their company was named after the main river in each city. Their aim was to produce well-illustrated, well-written books on art, painting, architecture and sculpture. Walter wanted their venture to be a "museum without walls", a way of bringing art to the masses at a price they could afford.

Much of their business was social. They formed close relationships with art institutions, artists and intellectuals. Their circle included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Oskar Kokoschka. Out of these relationships, over dinners and long lunches, came many of their books. Photos from the family archive show them dining with Moore, Herbert Read and Paloma Picasso.

They started as a small company but today, 60 years later, Thames & Hudson employs 120 people in a smart building in Holborn and they have offices all over the world. It may be a global business but the company is still family owned. Walter died in 1967, his son Thomas is now chairman, his daughter, Constance Kaine, is deputy chairman and Thomas's daughter, Johanna, is design director.

Over the years, their relationships with artists have reflected the times: from Francis Bacon to Lucian Freud and David Hockney. The latter worked with Thames & Hudson when he wrote Secret Knowledge about the tricks and visual devices used by artists from the past. When Charles Saatchi put on his infamous show Sensation at the Royal Academy, Norman Rosenthal went to Thomas and they designed a book to run alongside the exhibition. The Sensation book has been reissued this year in a new 60th-anniversary edition with a dust jacket designed by the artist Mark Wallinger, also a friend. A complete selection of 20 books is being reissued for the anniversary and the editions reflect the eclecticism of their interests over the years.

There is a book of shoe drawings by Manolo Blahnik and a book on the artist and film-maker Derek Jarman's garden. There's a reproduction of the Book of Kells, the ancient Irish manuscript of the Gospels that was described in the 13th century as "the work, not of men, but of angels", first produced by Thames & Hudson in 1974 and continuously popular ever since.

At the other end of the scale is Subway Art, a collection of photographs of graffiti on the New York City subway. The book came about when Walter's daughter, Constance, met a group of photographers at a book fair who were passionate about graffiti on the subway. The book, published in 1984, was the first to document street art.

In 1980, contemporary and modern art did not have today's mass appeal and was sneered at by many. When Thames & Hudson published a book by the art critic Robert Hughes, titled The Shock of the New, it was truly groundbreaking stuff. "That book changed ways of thinking. It was the first book to show new art to all these people who were suspicious of what modern art was," says Jamie Camplin, managing director. One of the more touching editions is a book of sketches of sheep by Henry Moore. The drawings were made with a ballpoint pen as he watched sheep in the field outside his studio. "If I tapped on the window the sheep would stop and look, with that sheepish stare of curiosity. They would stand like that for up to five minutes..." wrote Moore.

He gave the original sketchbook to Mary, his daughter, and the book was reproduced in 1980. It may be a mass-produced book but the content is intimate and endearingly British.

In Walter's spirit of art for the masses, Thames & Hudson books have always been reasonably priced although argues Camplin this is not the priority. He says, "I don't buy the argument that to open people's eyes is to make prices low. If you stress the idea of value with art books, of buy one get one free, then you get it into consumers' heads that books want to be cheap and you damage their cultural value."

What lies ahead for the company cannot be certain as the digital age finds it feet. Camplin believes that we will always want good books although this may run alongside new technology. "All the evidence is that books are as secure as in the days of Gutenberg but if someone wants to download content for their iPhone then we should make it possible for them to do so."

Win a set of 20 Thames & Hudson special editions

Thames & Hudson is offering a complete set of their 20 special and collectable 60th anniversary titles worth £330 to one Independent reader who answers the following question:

What was the name of Robert Hughes’s seminal book of art criticism published by the company?

Entrants should go to www.independentpromotions.co.uk and input the reference code THAMES

Terms and conditions 1. Closing date for competition is noon on 12 June 2009 2. The Winner will be drawn at random 3. The Prize cannot be exchanged for cash alternative. 4. The editor's decision is final 6. Only one entry per household 5. A full set of terms and conditions can be found online www.independent.co.uk/legal