Richard Garnett: Typographer, editor and writer who grew up amid the Bloomsbury group

 

Richard Garnett came from a distinguished literary lineage and in a long life followed both his father, David's, career as a writer, and his grandfather, Edward's, as a publisher's editor, with equal distinction. His greatest achievements lay in two very different publications. One was the life of his grandmother: Constance Garnett – a Heroic Life. Garnett, who remembered her in her lonely last years, could enter into her life with familiar understanding, and set her translations of great Russian novels, too easily taken for granted, as a truly heroic achievement.

The other was The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer. This vast work made exceptional demands on Garnett's design skill. Coleridge's manuscripts were revised, crossed out and rewritten, his own and others' books covered with notes, printed texts altered in later editions. The editors' apparatus had to account for every change. Several different sizes of type were required, even a second colour for the marginalia, and all laid out so that the different parts aligned with each other. The result was a typographic triumph, all the greater because unobtrusive. The project was finally completed in 34 volumes in 2001 under the imprint of Princeton University Press.

Editors and designers of books get little credit for their work. Garnett neither expected nor demanded it, but hundreds of books and their authors benefited from his work, as did thousands of readers.

Richard was the elder son of David Garnett and Ray Marshall, born in his maternal grandfather's Bloomsbury house while his father sat on the stairs reading Tristram Shandy. Lady into Fox, his masterpiece, had appeared the previous year, winning both the Hawthornden and James Tait Black Memorial prizes in 1923. On the strength of this he bought Hilton Hall, a 17th-century house of and magical beauty, which remained a central feature of his son's life, and latterly his home.

A country childhood of bird-nesting and rabbit-poaching, punctuated by early schooling at Cambridge, came to an end in 1932, when he was sent to Beacon Hill, the progressive school founded by Bertrand Russell and his second wife Dora. Before he arrived, however, Russell had left Dora, and his memories of Beacon Hill, though vivid, were not happy, chief being distrust of authority. Beltane at Wimbledon, his next school, was more congenial; he made weekend visits to his grandmother, Constance, at her house The Cearne, in Kent. Always good with his hands, he learned roofing and plumbing when the school was evacuated to a rundown mansion in Wiltshire.

In 1940 he was admitted to King's College, Cambridge, to read mathematics, but after a year he was called up and spent the next five years in the RAF, crewing motor-boats as support for flying-boats, round the coast of Britain and then Sierra Leone. He returned to King's in 1946, graduating in English two years later. After a brief apprenticeship in printing at the Shenval Press, in 1949 he joined Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, the small publishing firm of which his father was one of the founding directors.

The firm had been launched in 1946 by Rupert Hart-Davis, and the office was above a shop in Connaught Street. In 1947 it had its first bestseller, Stephen Potter's The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship; in 1950 came the second, Elephant Bill; its success allowed a move to the more commodious 36 Soho Square.

Garnett was now the firm's production manager, and soon an expert editor as well. Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet, another bestseller, and the three-volume autobiography of Lady Diana Cooper (Hart-Davis's aunt), exercised both skills. Laurence Whistler's books spurred him to become a glass-engraver. His nautical experience came to the fore with the Mariner's Library of sea classics, and he took charge of the sailing list of Adlard Coles when it merged with Hart-Davis.

But the heart of the firm lay not in these but in scholarly but readable books such as Leon Edel's five-volume life of Henry James, Allan Wade's Letters of WB Yeats and Peter Fleming's imperial sagas. All of these achieved their reputation thanks to the joint expertise of Garnett and Hart-Davis. Not for nothing did one of their admiring beneficiaries call the firm "the university of Soho Square".

But commercial success did not follow. Three times the firm had to be bailed out. Control passed first to Heinemann, then Harcourt Brace and finally to Granada. Hart-Davis himself left in 1963; three years later the firm was merged with MacGibbon & Kee and finally Garnett was sacked. As he left, a water-pipe burst in the attic, leaving him to say "Après moi le déluge".

Fortunately, Macmillan was in need of just his talents, to supervise copy-editing and proof-correction. He soon became indispensable, and took over from me the direction of the new edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music. It was the first major reference work to be compiled for computer-typesetting, which made exceptional editorial and organisational demands. Garnett surmounted them all, and the new edition of 1980 was a great commercial success, spawning subsets on opera and women composers, and then an even larger Grove Dictionary of Art (1996).

But having grown up in the midst of the Bloomsbury group (as a small child, he was scared by Virginia Woolf's lifelike imitation of a wolf), his heart lay in more creative writing. For Hart-Davis he wrote three books for children, beginning with The Silver Kingdom (1956), illustrated by his wife Jane, and based on his own experience of submarine archaeology; The White Dragon (1963), about a great Fenland frost, became a Puffin paperback. Gerald Durrell's books owed much to his editing, which verged on authorial, as did the natural history books of Bernard Heuvelmans.

In 1991 came his life of Constance Garnett. Her difficult childhood and later marriage were mediated by early academic success at Newnham, and then fascination with Russia and the revolutionaries, seen at first hand in 1894. This led to her prodigious output of translations: all of Dostoevsky, as well as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol and Turgenev. These were of incalculable benefit to English readers, as was recognised in her lifetime by Joseph Conrad, among others.

At Macmillan he became expert at drawing out Harold Macmillan's memoirs, but his favourite authors were Marie Rambert, whose autobiography Quicksilver (1972) owed much to his skill with a tape-recorder, the Duchess of Devonshire, who dedicated Wait for Me! (2010) to him, and, most of all, Joyce Grenfell, whose Joyce by Herself and Her Friends (1980) he edited with her husband Reggie Grenfell.

Richard Duncan Carey Garnett, editor and writer; born London 8 January 1923; married 1954 Jane Dickins (two sons); died Salisbury 26 May 2013.

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