Essay: Don't know about art? They know what you like

Thames and Hudson is 50 this year, and has good cause for celebration.
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They call them "spinners", those rotating Plexiglas fitments that display Thames and Hudson's paperback World of Art series in every halfway decent bookshop in the country. They run from Aboriginal Art (pounds 6.95) to Wren (pounds 7.95) - 150 titles in all. Decent text by known writers with illustrations facing it. They've got basic primers like Concepts of Modern Art from Fauvism to Postmodernism and titles as esoteric as the three volumes of Athenian Figure Vases. It feels as if they've always been there, those classics - Summerson's Architecture of the Eighteenth Century and Lavers' Concise History of Costume and Fashion. But Caribbean Art and Twentieth Century Latin American Art are distinctly newer additions, like the fashion titles. They're easy to choose, cheap to buy and they don't let you down like the wretched bargain art hardbacks in the discount bookstores, with unreadable translated text and Uzbekistani colour printing.

I'd say every serious Visual in the country has a shelf of T&H black spines. You'll have bought at least one. And according to Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art, "there are paint-stained copies in every art school in the land".

The World of Art series has actually been going 50 years, like Thames and Hudson itself. But when T&H started, Britain lived in the World of the Word; the common culture of our leaders was resolutely Non-Visual: the English 18th century was the best period for practically anything - which is why it was so constantly remade in buildings and furniture. Modern Art was "Continental" nonsense, Picasso deeply suspect. The way to think about modern movements in art was the way Osbert Lancaster and Nicholas Bentley - caricaturists-in-ordinary to the upper middle-classes - thought about them. Namely: they were very funny and profoundly non- PLU, just like Dr Freud.

Art books then were either hideously expensive or hopeless. Illustrations facing text, instead of clumped together biography-style - let alone in colour - were a rarity. So the business of launching an authoritative, accessible series of art books had to be more than commercial pioneering - spotting a market in the gap. It had to be proselytising, social engineering - even a belief in the transformative power of art. It had to involve rather more sense of mission than, say, publishing Terence Rattigan's texts or Sir Compton Mackenzie's comic novels. (I'm dragging in these profoundly lower middle-brow lending library staples simply because World of Art was intended to reach the same numbers.)

Actually getting World of Art - and its original sister strands World of Civilisation and World of Religion - airborne needed more than just pioneering spirits and an act of faith in the common reader. It needed a new approach to the economics of publishing. What I didn't know when I was developing my World of Art habit in the Seventies was where that most British-sounding of publishing houses actually came from. It's obvious with hindsight; Thames and Hudson had to have emerged from the intellectual diaspora, the golden tide of German and Austrian Jewish refugees of the 1930s and the war years. We all know about the artists and academics, but there were also the publishers - think Weidenfeld, Deutsche, Horowitz - who revived post-war publishing in Britain.

So Thames and Hudson didn't start in an 18th-century London coffee house; rather it was the most romantic post-war internationalist invention ever, uniting the great rivers in two great cities - "the rivers of knowledge" - as Christopher Frayling likes to put it.

Walter Neurath, its founder, was interned on the Isle of Wight when he arrived here, because victims and aliens were hard to tell apart. He didn't stay long because his adopted country needed him. The Britain in Pictures series which he helped produce for Collins at the beginning of the war was seen as valuable propaganda to support the Island Race's morale, just as, in their different ways, were In Which We Serve or Mrs Miniver.

Working for Adprint, a kind of subcontractor to established publishers like Collins - in effect a packager - Neurath developed new formats and started to build the networks that underwrote Thames and Hudson. In 1949 Neurath and an Adprint colleague Eva Feuchtwang - another Viennese refugee, half-Jewish - set up their own publishing house. (In 1953, with Eva divorced and Walter widowed, they married.)

World markets, long print runs for expensive colour photographs and distribution deals with overseas art book publishers allowed T&H to offer an extraordinary range of illustrated books at affordable prices. The Thames and Hudson machine that Neurath built, with its tough disciplines of negotiation, contract law, production control and distribution, underwrote the mission to inform.

Three generations of Neuraths have worked in the company - Thomas Neurath, the current managing director, took over at 27 when his father died in 1967. Piers Russell-Cobb, who spent eight years at Thames and Hudson as international marketing manager, says: "Thames and Hudson books never arrive dented at the edges. They take care of detail. It's all well done. Thomas Neurath is a brilliant publisher; he really belongs on the Left Bank."

Thames and Hudson anticipated a growing Modern Taste - the interest in new arts, newer artists and increasingly arcane "lifestyle" subjects. "They've changed more than one generation's view of art," says Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery. "When I started buying the World of Art paperbacks, they were less than pounds 1."

In the 1950s, T&H anticipated the new public appetite for ancient civilisation and archaeology. In the 1960s they went on to recast history of all kinds as a visual subject with series like Great Civilisations, The Library of European Civilisations, and The Library of World Civilisations. In the 1970s the volumes in the Art and Imagination series had a distinctly New Age feel to them. In the 1980s they were in at the beginning of the style book, recognising how a combination of travel, affluence and media stimulation had built a market for a new kind of consumption based on ethnicity and exoticism. Thus Living with Kelims, Living with Folk Art, and The Arts and Crafts of Mexico sold equally well in gentrified London, Cologne, and the Upper West Side.

Now, ironically, there are T&H illustrated books that are undeniably luxury products in themselves, starting at pounds 25 and going up to more than pounds 100 for the really specialist things. There's fashion, and there's graphics, corporate identity and shop design for the marketing-speak Visuals, and acres of photography.

T&H has served its changing readers and new markets by maintaining precisely the same kind of structure - independent - and the same kind of culture - massively family-orientated - as you might have seen in a Viennese publisher of the 1930s. It's a transplant, a fascinating hybrid. It's utterly British in the sense of us at our best - with a good track record for pushing new British talent - yet without the parochialism, amateurism, snobbery and sheer fragility that usually marks British businesses dealing in this area.

High-minded, thoroughly commercial and extremely durable, T&H is a business case study in itself. You can see it all in a new T&H title - their on- message Vision: 50 years of British Creativity with its revamped Union Flag cover. The choices of art, architecture and design, decade by decade, are acute, the production values high - with key images like Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy spread across two big pages and minimal text from the right people (Chris Smith might as well dish it out through the British Council).

But Vision, of course, really celebrates T&H and its 50 years. It was meant to generate coverage: to add to the high-wattage party at the National Gallery last Thursday (with every heavyweight artist you can name and a speech from Hockney ), to the Rembrandt self-portrait sponsorship; to the reminders that, if this is the way we live now, with our art-worship habit, our massive museum- and gallery-going and our taste for a Dip Show bargain, then Thames and Hudson helped point the way.