Obituary: J. L. Gili

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Louis Gili was presented for the honorary MA in the Oxford Congregation on 23 May 1987, soon after he had celebrated his 80th birthday, the Public Orator observed that he had enjoyed a distinguished career in Britain, saluting him as metoikos, a settler in a strange land.

Born and reared in Barcelona as Joan Llus Gili i Serra, he appears in photographs taken in his late twenties as a figure of urbane handsomeness and quiet authority; but later in life his rugged and lithe physique and almost Oriental physiognomy suggested rather an upbringing in the Catalonian countryside for which he had so much affection. This impression was strengthened when one saw him hard at work in his quarter of an acre outside Oxford, cultivating Mediterranean vegetables under glass among the medlars, quinces and numerous apple-trees, in a garden surrounded by strawberry-trees and punctuated by large abstract sculptures created by his daughter Katherine, who has exhibited at many London galleries and outdoor exhibitions. His extraordinary physical strength was confirmed when, after a serious operation in his 89th year, he returned to playing tennis with his usual Oxford partner.

Known to all his friends as Joan (pronounced djoo-n), he was the grandson, son and nephew of an important family of Barcelona booksellers and publishers. Having received private tuition in Latin from Canon Josep Llovera, whom he later assisted in preparing the Catalan translation of St Augustine's Confessions (1931), and, having acquired a good grasp of French and English and the respective literatures, Joan Gili was trained in his father's shop for a career in publishing, and soon learnt that selling books was the hardest job imaginable. When he became the sole owner of a specialised small press and bookshop in London in 1935, he came to believe that all prospective publishers should start by working in a bookshop.

After briefly reconnoitring the London book scene in 1933, Gili returned to settle permanently in October 1934, becoming naturalised in 1948. He made the acquaintance of many members of London artistic, musical and literary circles, including C. Henry Warren, a writer on the countryside and assistant editor of the Radio Times. In April 1935 they jointly founded the Dolphin Bookshop (the name being chosen for its associations with the 16th-century Aldine Editions, the Delphin Classics made for the Grand Dauphin, and the Mediterranean cetacean which represented social love in medieval art), intending to specialise in "those English books which you will not only want to read but to keep", and Spanish books of every description.

Suitable premises were found in the then louche-curieux setting of Cecil Court off the Charing Cross Road, which they shared with Welsh, occult and second-hand bookshops, some of a dubious nature. When it became apparent that the English books were losing money, that portion of the stock was sold off to a neighbour, Harold Edwards, and the partnership dissolved. Joan Gili's elder son, Jonathan, the television director, was later to call his private press imprint, Warren Editions, after his father's partner.

Gili was now able to show his enormous enterprise and pioneering spirit: his stock was greatly expanded to cover school and university texts, dictionaries and maps, and he lectured at Liverpool and elsewhere on "Recent Spanish Books". In 1936 he began to publish, first a book about Luis de Len as translator of the classics, printed and published in Barcelona by Sopena, but with changed title-page, then a volume of privately printed poems of Henry Warren designed by Gili, in which he began to display his mastery of typography and book design.

During Miguel de Unamuno's visit to England in 1936, Gili met him at the Embassy of the Spanish Republic, where the Ambassador was the novelist Perez de Ayala, and the philosopher gave him permission to publish any of his works in England. The first public edition of Dolphin Bookshop Editions was a collection of Unamuno's writings selected by Gili with an introduction by J.B. Trend in 1938, surpassed in the following year by one of Dolphin's most successful products: Federico Garca Lorca's Poems jointly translated by Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili, with an introduction by Rafael Martnez Nadal, which was simultaneously published in New York and Toronto by Oxford University Press; a second impression appeared from Dolphin in 1942, and a new revised selection from the Hogarth Press in 1943.

Gili later prepared plain prose translations of Lorca's verse for the "Penguin Poets" edition in 1960, which was much reprinted.

In 1938 Joan Gili married Elizabeth, the eldest of "the three MacPherson girls", who had been brought up in China where their Scottish-Canadian father was a missionary. Their house and bookshop became a meeting-place for Republican exiles and their British sympathisers, such as Gregorio Prieto the artist, three volumes of whose drawings and paintings Gili was to publish, Rafael Martnez Nadal, whose editions of Lorca's late unpublished work were also to appear under the Dolphin imprint, Carles Riba the Catalan poet, C. Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, V.S. Pritchett, Kingsley Martin, and Alan Rawsthorne the composer, who later composed a piece inspired by Gili's translation of Riba's Tannkes (1964).

No 5 Cecil Court became such a centre for supporters of the Spanish Republic that in 1938 Joan Gili received threats from an official from the rival nationalist insurgent Spanish Embassy in London that his family in Barcelona would suffer if he did not rein in these activities.

In January 1939 Gili struck an important bibliographical coup in bidding for and obtaining the complete library of the French Hispanist Raymond Foulche-Delbosc, which he brought back from Paris in a railway wagon. This established the Dolphin Bookshop as a leading centre for antiquarian Spanish books, and gave Gili an increased expertise, which he later offered to many public and private libraries and auction houses in Spain and England.

When war began, Cecil Court seemed to be a dangerous place to keep valuable books. Elizabeth was just embarking on her doctorate in sociology under Karl Mannheim at the London School of Economics, which was evacuated to Peterhouse in Cambridge. The rarer Dolphin stock followed, to a small medieval house in Little St Mary's Lane, but, before the end of the phoney war, the Gilis returned to London to new premises in the Boltons. With the beginning of the blitz proper, the Dolphin stock was moved again, to Oxford, first to an artist's studio in Park Town, and by the end of hostilities to more permanent quarters in Fyfield Road, whence a well- organised postal service was established for Hispanists in Britain, Ireland and the United States, which continues to the present day from their younger son Martin's farm in Tredwr, Ceredigion.

In Oxford the Gilis again found themselves to be principal hosts for Republican exiles: Manuel Cossio, Alberto Jimenez, Josep Trueta, the first Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Salvador de Madariaga. Forbidden to undertake war service because of his alien status, Joan Gili began at this inauspicious moment to promote Catalan studies by publishing the first edition of his Catalan Grammar in 1943.

Of the 73 titles published under the Dolphin imprint between 1936 and 1996, no fewer than 25 were Catalan works, 40 were Spanish or Spanish- American, five were on art, and three were English works. The Catalan works included three editions of medieval texts prepared by Gili with enormous scholarly care and attention to detail. All the covers of the seven homage volumes to distinguished British Hispanists were designed with individual touches appropriate to the recipient.

Joan Gili's death in his 92nd year should be a cause for the celebration of a life devoted to Hispanic culture, especially to the promotion in Britain of the language and literature of his never-forgotten homeland. The only cause for regret is that his peaceful end came only seven weeks before the diamond wedding celebrations that were being planned by his much-loved wife and fruitful partner in all his activities. The beginning of their 60-year-long love affair was witnessed by Carles Riba on a visit to London in 1938, and commemorated in the third of his Elegies de Bierville which is dedicated to them:

. . . the warmth of the two young


who at the heart of the immense

smoky city opened to us

their paradise full of light,

voluptuousness and risk.

Ian Michael

Joan Llus Gili i Serra (John Louis Gili), bookseller, publisher, Spanish scholar and translator: born Barcelona 10 February 1907; married 1938 Elizabeth MacPherson (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 6 May 1998.