Ian Sutton: Valued editor with Thames & Hudson for four decades

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The Independent Online

On 2 July 1986 the novelist Anthony Powell recorded in his journal meeting Ian Sutton – "tall, fiftyish, rather inscrutable" – who was to edit for Thames & Hudson a picture book based on A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell was intrigued that Sutton came with a recommendation from the firm's editorial director that he was "the best writer of captions I know", reflecting that although "that designation may not sound a very dazzling qualification... one saw immediately that in this particular case caption-writing would be a valuable, if not essential, ability".

That was astute. Ian Sutton edited complex, highly illustrated books, and his work went beyond improving authors' text, to helping select illustrations, overseeing the layout and writing captions and other additional material. At times, Sutton was in effect a co-author, and the many writers with whom he worked were warmly appreciative of his help, some perhaps unaware that they were part of a tradition that stretched over half a century. He joined Thames & Hudson in 1960, and continued working there until his retirement, aged 80, last year.

Powell's impression that Sutton was "inscrutable" was shared by many people who did not know him well. In appearance he was a publisher's editor from central casting. Tall, stooped and spectacled, with a mane of thick hair (of which he was rather proud), he habitually dressed in a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers. Less expectedly, he had no interest in alcohol and strongly disliked tea. Yet in most other ways, notably his air of courteous reserve, he exemplified a certain sort of Englishness that in some ways was rather out of character with Thames & Hudson.

The firm, founded in 1949 by two refugees from Nazi Europe, the imperious Walter and Eva Neurath, was – and remains – cosmopolitan and dynamic, artistically and commercially. Sutton appreciated the Neuraths' seriousness of purpose, but he learned to keep a low profile on the frequent occasions when the creative pressure at the firm's cramped Georgian offices in Bloomsbury Street boiled over into tantrums. Fond as they were of him, and appreciative of the respect in which he was held by their distinguished authors, including Kenneth Clark, Rudolf Wittkower, Alan Bullock and Joan Evans, it is doubtful whether the Neuraths entirely appreciated, or even understood, the donnish wit and gift for facetious parody that delighted Sutton's junior colleagues.

Born in London and raised in Petts Wood, Kent, the son of a civil servant, Sutton studied English at King's College, London, where he took a first in English literature. He then worked for some time in the post room at the university's Senate House, a salon des refusés for bright students who could not get a job. He was rescued by a college contemporary, Judy Nairn, who was working for Nikolaus Pevsner as an assistant on the Buildings of England series for Penguin Books. She introduced Pevsner to Sutton, who asked whether he might attend his course on architectural history at Birkbeck College. "You can come as an occasional student", said Pevsner, "so long as you don't just come occasionally."

Pevsner changed Sutton's life, firstly by stimulating a deep interest in architecture, and then by recommending him to Walter Neurath for a job at Thames & Hudson. Pevsner's chairmanship of the Victorian Society led Sutton to become involved in the society's battles to defend Victorian and Edwardian architecture. He was for many years a member of the society's publications committee, and edited its annual journal. With a later chairman, Peter Howell, he edited and contributed to The Faber guide to Victorian churches (1989).

Under pseudonyms, Sutton published two books in the 1960s, one on the abbeys of Europe and another on the architecture of theatres. Among the many books he edited for Thames & Hudson was a volume on the history of western architecture in the firm's celebrated World of Art series, written in 1969 by the then-fashionable historian Robert Furneaux Jordan. When it was realised that Jordan had neglected to write anything on baroque architecture, on the grounds that it wasn't interesting, Sutton had to provide an additional chapter. It is notably better than Jordan's text, and when a revision of the book was proposed in 1999, Walter Neurath's son, Thomas, who had inherited the firm, agreed to let Sutton write the entire volume under his own name.

In 1964 Thames & Hudson was joined by a young American picture researcher (subsequently an editor), Emily Lane, who had grown up in France and India. She and Sutton formed a lifelong partnership, based to a considerable degree on a shared pleasure in architecture. Lane, with Sutton's encouragement, also studied under Pevsner. They made innumerable tours together all over the world looking at buildings, recorded by Lane in excellent slides shown to their friends in Sutton's book-stuffed Islington home on long, convivial winter evenings – events that they dubbed "bore-ins". Emily Lane survives him.

Michael Hall

Ian Richard Sutton, editor and writer: born London 6 February 1929; died London 10 January 2010.