Lesley Weissenborn

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lesley Macdonald, publisher: born Wallasey, Cheshire 14 December 1911; married 1946 Hellmuth Weissenborn (died 1982; one stepson); died London 22 May 2001.

Lesley Weissenborn was the driving force behind the Acorn Press, run with her husband Hellmuth, one of the most interesting private imprints to flourish after the Second World War. She was a tiny, outgoing woman and indefatigable socialiser whose organising ability enabled her to operate successfully in the tough, male-dominated publishing industry.

If you were among the chosen few, on the first Sunday in December every year for 34 years until 1995 you would be invited to Lesley's Christmas Acorn Press party in Harley Gardens, west London. There, in her elegant house, would be displayed for inspection and purchase many fine specimens of Acorn Press publications plus pictures by Hellmuth made on their frequent, widespread travels. When they revived Acorn Press, the Weissenborns aspired to continue the tradition of handpress printing started by William Morris and to match the quality of production press production achieved by Oliver Simon of the Curwen Press (a friend of theirs), Francis Meynell at Nonesuch Press, Robert Harling and others.

Lesley was one of the two spirited Macdonald girls, the elder of two daughters of Francis Macdonald, manager of Martin's Bank in Wallasey, Cheshire, and his wife Jessie. Lesley's sister is the artist Frances Macdonald, who also made her mark in a masculine world. She was an official war artist during the Second World War and, like her husband. Leonard Appelbee, contributed to the landmark Arts Council Festival of Britain show "Sixty Paintings for '51".

Francis, her father, died of tuberculosis when Lesley was 21. She had by then left Wallasey High School and soon moved to London, where Frances was studying at the Royal College of Art. After the Wallasey house was war-damaged, their mother joined them. In the capital, Lesley worked for Baynard Prim as a secretary-cum-personal-assistant, developing an interest in publishing and meeting authors. Baynard Press was notable for its School Prints, for which it used many famous artists, and for its excellent standard of printing.

In 1938, Hellmuth had fled to England from Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and son, Florian. When war broke out, his wife with Florian joined her mother in America, Hellmuth being interned for six months at Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Lesley met Hellmuth in 1943, when he had his first solo show of pastels and graphic art at the Archer Gallery and Baynard asked him for a marine alphabet engraved on wood.

Hellmuth and Lesley married in 1946 and began publishing children's books as the Acorn Press, taking over a defunct imprint. Their joint expertise made them ideally suited for this venture. Hellmuth later recalled that they were both interested in printing and that, although he had no business experience, Lesley

had a good knowledge of the industry, of paper manufacturers and book-binders. We were both devoted to producing books as perfectly as possible so that we took the plunge.

What he could bring to the partnership were his natural skills as a painter, engraver and illustrator and his wide learning in art history, philosophy and anthropology. Having studied under Walter Tiemann at the Academy for Graphic Art and Book Design, Leipzig, and obtaining his doctorate in 1925, he had joined the staff there in 1928, becoming a professor. After internment in 1941 he was appointed a visiting teacher at Ravensbourne College of Art, in Bromley, where he stayed until 1970, also working at his studio in Kensington.

The first Acorn Press books, illustrated by Hellmuth, were A Picture ABC (1945), Counting (1946) and Raven the Rascal (1946) and were a promising success. They were soon followed by Three Brothers and a Lady, by Margaret Black, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, one of the most outstanding practitioners in his field, which was chosen as one of the fifty best-produced books in Britain in 1947. Gradually, the Acorn Press established a name for the quality of its finely printed, hand-set and hand-printed illustrated books as well as for its more commercial publications.

In 1949, Hellmuth illustrated Richard Friedenthal's Goethe Chronicle with 15 of his wood engravings. He was to work as an illustrator for 30 London publishers as well as for Acorn Press. One of his and Lesley's most ambitious undertakings was their joint translation of Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplicissimus, the first English version of the German baroque novel published in 1669. Translating took seven years and Lesley became fluent in German. John Calder published the book, illustrated with 45 wood engravings, in 1964.

A further development at Acorn Press was the association with John Randle, from the early 1970s. Randle, then production manager at Heinemann Educational, was beginning to make himself independent through the Whittington Press. He was keen to print using some of Weissenborn's original boxwood blocks. After that, a string of books was published partly under the sign of the Acorn Press, partly with the Whittington Press, notable examples of the collaboration being Ruins (1977), Roads Rails Bridges (1979) and Proverbs (1979).

By the time of Hellmuth's death, in 1982, his work was being shown quite often again in Germany, with a big exhibition at Guteberg Museum, Mainz, in 1980. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, Lesley attended a retrospective show, the minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher greeting her off the plane and addressing the assembled private-view audience.

Hellmuth's had been a rather dominating personality. "After he died in 1982, Lesley was determined not to let life get her down," says her niece, Jane Appelbee Stokes:

Being with her sometimes felt like visiting a tornado. She was one of the most terrifying drivers I have ever been with.

She was an excellent and generous hostess, with luncheon appointments and evening entertainments, such as musical soirées, merging into one another. I couldn't cope with one of her gins. She would make you a dry Martini -- and, boy, was it dry! I never saw her tipsy, and am amazed that she got to 90 without burning herself out. An abiding memory is of the two Macdonald girls on a distillery visit 18 months ago. I could not believe how fast those two knocked back their tot of whisky.

I remember rather apprehensively inviting them to supper. Would they accomplish the cross-London trip by public transport? The elderly ladies arrived unfazed: two small, twittering birds. Frances chattering in a wonderfully ancient straw hat, Lesley simultaneously complaining about the vicissitudes of the Victoria Line.

The Macdonald girls were keen Liberals and Lesley stood, unsuccessfully, in local council elections as a Liberal Democrat. It was a fund-raising, 28-guest dinner for the Lib Dems, which she catered for single-handed, that caused her first stroke in November 1991.

Lesley was the first woman chairman of the Authors Club. Among her friends she numbered many with literary and political associations, such as the Simons, Bonham Carters and Laurens van der Post.

David Buckman