John Curtis

Editor and designer given his own imprint

John Curtis was an unsung hero among authors whom he handled with professionalism and aplomb for 20 years at the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He had begun there as art director and rapidly moved to become editorial director. But when by the second half of the 1980s George Weidenfeld's firm was going through a difficult patch Curtis and the firm parted company. He recalled that he thought of early retirement or freelancing, before joining another privately owned publishing house, Hodder and Stoughton, then at the height of its success as a general publisher of commercial fiction and non-fiction. Together they created John Curtis Books. Curtis provided the authors, Hodder the finance and publishing. For the first time Curtis's name was up in lights.

John Curtis, publisher's editor and designer: born London 25 December 1928; married 1957 Jill Kite (one son, two daughters); died London 3 February 2005.

John Curtis was an unsung hero among authors whom he handled with professionalism and aplomb for 20 years at the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He had begun there as art director and rapidly moved to become editorial director. But when by the second half of the 1980s George Weidenfeld's firm was going through a difficult patch Curtis and the firm parted company. He recalled that he thought of early retirement or freelancing, before joining another privately owned publishing house, Hodder and Stoughton, then at the height of its success as a general publisher of commercial fiction and non-fiction. Together they created John Curtis Books. Curtis provided the authors, Hodder the finance and publishing. For the first time Curtis's name was up in lights.

While Hodder remained independent it was a happy arrangement. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, as an essentially "hardback-only" publisher, had long provided Hodder with books for its paperback imprints. Many of these had emanated from Curtis's commissioning. Now under the new arrangement Curtis was able to publish "vertically" - as publishing jargon has it - with hardbacks and paperbacks able to stay within the same company.

Some distinguished Weidenfeld authors followed Curtis to his new home, including Elizabeth Longford for her three final books, the artist David Gentleman (books on India and Paris: Gentleman being, in Curtis's view, "as articulate in words as he is with his brush") and Richard Hough for his 1989 "jubilee history", with Denis Richards, of the Battle of Britain, based on interviews with surviving members of "the Few". But Curtis also had a reputation for nurturing new talent. He followed up an article in The Spectator where a writer in his twenties, Alexander Norman, had written about a visit to the Dalai Lama. With Curtis at the helm, Norman now collaborated with the Dalai Lama on his autobiography Freedom in Exile (1990). More than a dozen foreign editions resulted and the British edition proved a huge best-seller.

All Curtis's books were distinguished by their attention to design, which reflected his original career as a publishing designer.

Born in 1928, Curtis was the middle of three sons of a property developer (one of whom also became involved in books, as a literary journalist). He was educated at Midhurst Grammar School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read English. But he was always interested in art, from calligraphy (witnessed by his own elegant handwriting), to modern British painting. He joined Penguin when its founder, Allen Lane, was at the helm and helped change its face literally when the firm moved from almost wholly typographical to elegantly illustrated covers. It was this that drew George Weidenfeld to hire him.

When Curtis joined Weidenfeld & Nicolson as art director in 1962 the firm (unlike Penguin) was small enough for George Weidenfeld to be personally responsible for everything. The list was heavily weighted in favour of history and biography, although in fiction the firm had published Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow and would soon boast Edna O'Brien, Mordecai Richler and two Booker prizewinners in John Berger (G) and J.G. Farrell (The Siege of Krishnapur). Curtis would inherit Farrell from his original editor, Tony Godwin, but non-fiction was his speciality. Although Margaret Drabble was not his discovery, as art director he commissioned a young and then unknown artist, Quentin Blake, to design a jacket, a happy relationship that would continue for a number of Drabble's early novels.

Curtis's authors were drawn to him as an editor - and tended to stay - because he was not only devoted to their interests, but also produced fine books with every detail as it should be. His interest in design, shared in a particular and practical sense by Richard Hussey, the firm's long- standing production director, ensured that not only the jackets, but the interiors of the books were superbly designed, and production standards were of the highest.

In addition to his own list of authors, who included Sheridan Morley (with the Noël Coward diaries and the first authorised life of David Niven, which was Curtis's idea) and Frances Spalding (for her life of Vanessa Bell), he also looked after a number of George Weidenfeld's projects, not least the memoirs of Laurence Olivier and Mollie Butler (widow of "Rab"), but also those of a sequence of Israelis, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Abba Eban. They were not necessarily writers. It was sometimes Curtis's task to find "ghosts" but also to cajole prickly politicians and celebrities to accept his guidance: books, he would patiently explain, "books are different".

His final commission at Weidenfeld was also one of the most remarkable, Christy Nolan's memoir Under the Eye of the Clock (1987). Nolan has cerebral palsy and writes with a word processor manipulated by a "unicorn" stick attached to his head. His memoir took him six years. By the time it was published Curtis had left Weidenfeld & Nicolson, so its success gave Curtis particular pleasure, being a number one best-seller and winning the Whitbread Prize.

At Hodder and Stoughton in his quiet, but persuasive way Curtis transformed the way books looked across the list. For the first time the interiors of books were designed on a regular basis by a typographical specialist, not by the production department. He also edited Terry Waite for two of his books inspired by his period of captivity in Beirut. When the firm ran into stormy financial waters in the early 1990s his unflappability proved an enormous asset.

In his retirement Curtis edited Weidenfeld & Nicolson: Fifty Years of Publishing (1999), which celebrated Weidenfeld and Nicolson's half-century. He was also, at the time of his death, Chairman of the Double Crown Club, a dining club that mixes the worlds of books and printing. Appropriately George Weidenfeld was one of his final speakers.

Ion Trewin



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Foundation Primary Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are looking for Founda...

Psychology Teacher

Main Teacher Pay Scale : Randstad Education Leeds: Teacher of Psychology An en...

International Promotions Manager - Consumer Products

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: A global entertainment busi...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?