Ruari McLean

Historian of Victorian book design and typographer whose work ranged from 'Eagle' to HMSO


John David Ruari McDowall Hardie McLean, writer and typographer: born Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire 10 June 1917; DSC 1943; Typographic Adviser to HMSO 1966-90; CBE 1973; married 1945 Antonia Maxwell Carlisle (died 1995; two sons, one daughter); died Stirling 27 March 2006.

To be in the forefront both of typographic design and of the history of books is a remarkable achievement. To have done this for almost 70 years is even more remarkable. Ruari McLean was always a stormy petrel, and seldom stayed long where he had begun his always unusual and often original work. But the two strands of his career, contemporary design practice and its history in what was, when he began, the deeply unfashionable Victorian era, have had a lasting influence.

He was born in 1917 in Galloway, but soon moved to Oxford where his father worked in the Customs and Excise, and went to the Dragon School and Eastbourne College. When he failed to get a Classics scholarship to Oxford, he had no idea what to do with his life. Among his father's friends, however, was Basil Blackwell, ever ready to take a sympathetic interest in the young, and it was through him that McLean got his first job as a trainee at the Shakespeare Head Press, which Blackwell had acquired from A.H. Bullen. He worked under Bernard Newdigate, then very much the grand old man of typographic design, and got a grounding in it that lasted the rest of his life.

But a restless feeling for a more modern approach took him to visit other printers, in Germany as well as England. He returned to join The Studio design magazine in 1938, moving to the design department of Lund Humphries, the Bradford printers, in 1939. It was there that he first came across the work of Jan Tschichold at the Bauhaus - and in July that year he used a holiday to visit Tschichold in Switzerland, where he had been exiled for Kulturbolschevismus. Tschichold had already written Die neue Typographie (1928), a trumpet-call for revolutionary asymmetric design, as logical and clearly fit for purpose as "traditional" typography. The contrast between the two styles and their evolution in practice underlay all McLean's work.

With the outbreak of war, he joined first the police but then the Navy, and had an adventurous time, serving in submarines, seconded to the Free French Navy, and later in Copp (Combined Operations Pilotage Parties) - landing by stealth on enemy shores from fold-boats (folding canoes) to deliver or pick up agents or conduct small operations, in Europe and then the Far East. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1942 and the DSC in 1943. A long time after, he wrote a memoir of his wartime career, Half Seas Under (2001).

Returning, McLean decided with characteristic foresight that design would no longer be the printer's prerogative, but rather the publisher's. In 1945 he joined the still new Penguin Books, which had grown in size and popularity in the wartime book starvation. Tschichold, now in classical mould, arrived in 1947 to transform their design. McLean was responsible for the design of children's books, which he did until, tiring of institutional life, he decided to go freelance in 1946. He had already begun to collect Victorian books, and in particular the greatest of early Victorian illustrators, George Cruikshank, whose work he explored in his own first publication, George Cruikshank (1948).

Over the next five years McLean built up a successful and varied practice (one of his achievements was the design of Marcus Morris's pioneering comic Eagle, in 1950), but he specialised in complex illustrated books. His skill in this attracted the attention of the refugee publisher George Rainbird, and together they founded Rainbird McLean in 1951.

The first firm was to be a "packager", commissioning a text, collecting the illustrations and designing and producing the book to sell in bulk at an attractive price to other publishers. Charles Rosner's Adprint had shown the way during the Second World War, but Rainbird McLean's success was so great that they were able to publish books on their own account as well. These books changed the face of illustrated-book publication.

This success attracted other imitators, and McLean felt increasingly uncomfortable in a competitive world. He jumped at the chance offered by James Shand of the Shenval Press to found his own design magazine, Motif, in emulation of Oliver Simon's Signature. It was a lively and original periodical, which ran to 13 numbers between 1958 and 1967, reflecting McLean's interest in modern typography and, increasingly, the very different world of 19th-century poster-types, a new-old world of florid Victoriana also popularised in the Architectural Review. Motif gave new illustrators a showcase, and new writers a chance to explore new fields.

In 1951 McLean had written Modern Book Design for the British Council, a short and admirably clear introduction to the subject, which showed his gift for putting over a large subject in a small space; he later expanded this into Modern Book Design from William Morris to the Present Day (1958). He had taught, too, as tutor in typography at the Royal College of Art, 1948-51, and teaching and practice were to be entwined in the rest of his career.

Between 1960 and 1964 he was consultant to The Observer, then launching its colour magazine, and he succeeded Sir Francis Meynell as honorary Typographic Adviser to HMSO, 1966-80. It was for his redesign of the passport, he reckoned, that he was appointed CBE in 1973.

McLean published his pioneering Victorian Book Design & Colour Printing in 1963, following it with Victorian Publishers' Bindings in Cloth and Leather (1973) and Victorian Publishers' Bindings in Paper (1983), based on his own large collection, and all copiously illustrated and designed by himself. He also wrote monographs on the work of contemporary illustrators, Joan Hassall (The Wood Engravings of Joan Hassall, 1960), Edward Bawden (Edward Bawden: a book of cuts, 1979, and Edward Bawden: war artist, 1989) and Nicolas Bentley (Nicolas Bentley Drew the Pictures, 1990), and on other Victorian pioneers, Joseph Cundall (Joseph Cundall: a Victorian publisher, 1976) and Benjamin Fawcett (Benjamin Fawcett: engraver and colour printer, 1988).

In 1969 he wrote the textbook Magazine Design (1969), and in 1980 The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography. He translated his hero Tschichold's 1935 textbook on typographic design, Typographische Gestaltung (Asymmetric Typography, 1967), and the unreconstructed Die neue Typographie (The New Typography, 1995), and wrote two books on him, Jan Tschichold: typographer (1975) and Jan Tschichold: a life in typography (1997). His own autobiography, True to Type, appeared in 2000.

Ruari McLean Associates, in which he had been joined by Fianach Jardine (later Lawry, daughter of Douglas "Bodyline" Jardine), moved to his native Scotland in 1973, settling at Dollar in Clackmannanshire. There in addition to his design work McLean was on the Academic Advisory Committee of Heriot-Watt University and a trustee of the National Library of Scotland. He also served on the advisory committee of the Royal College of Art, and was Sandars Lecturer at Cambridge, 1982-83. Writing and collecting more books continued to fill his life, spent between Dollar and Mull, where a holiday house became his home, until latterly when he came to live permanently in the Lowlands, first in Sanquhar, then in Tillicoultry.

His writing, especially on Victorian books, will be a permanent memorial, long after his pioneering design work has itself become history.

Nicolas Barker

Ruari McLean's autobiography True to Type is, unusually, true to the man, writes James Fergusson. It is anecdotal, engaging, laddish and sometimes a bit chaotic.

All his life McLean made drawings - for his diary, in his letters, for Christmas cards, and to illustrate books and articles. True to Type features a drawing of his office at Broomrigg, his house at Dollar, that vividly demonstrates the benefits of the freelance life: piles of books and papers fight for space with a cat, a dog, a hen and several goslings. Shelved next to a file entitled "Scottish Design Centre" are "Scottish Diver" and "Scottish Love Poems". Hanging on the wall are an Edward Bawden print of a policeman on a bicycle and what looks like a portrait of McLean's wife, "Tony", rather disgruntled.

Side by side with the autobiography may be read obituaries he wrote over the years for The Independent of some of the leading characters in his life: Edward Young (2003), his sometime flatmate, who competed with his raffishly handsome friend for girls and drew Penguin Books' first penguin; Henri Rousselot (1994), the French admiral who commanded the Rubis, the submarine on which McLean served, and later married a Dundonian; Captain Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott (1992), the prescient éminence grise behind Copp; the Rev Marcus Morris (1989), the hard-drinking, chain-smoking founder of Eagle, Robin and Swift; Berthold Wolpe (1989), Faber and Faber's book designer who always carried a leather briefcase bulging with "homework" and the latest rare book he had bought but needed to hide from his wife; and Edward Bawden (1989), who was furious at the fine weather when he came to stay with the McLeans at Carsaig.

Ruari McLean's second book of memoirs (a third, said to be about "girls", was never published) was subtitled "Seaman, Submariner, Canoeist" and, even for those not interested in the sea, is worth a long look for its drawings. He could have made his living as a cartoonist and the originals deserve to be in the Imperial War Museum.

Eleven years earlier, in 1990, the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club had published (a title that mysteriously doesn't feature in his Who's Who entry) McLean's Silly Diving Signals and Other Diving Rubbish. Its centrefold is a self-portrait drawing of the author in full diving fig, with crossed flippers, at 70 feet off the Isle of Mull. One for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, perhaps?

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