Obituaries: Oliver Robinson

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The Independent Online
The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Oliver Robinson is "reticent". He could seem inordinately shy at first meeting but the sparkle (sharper than a twinkle) in his eye soon gave him away. He loved the publications that he first art-edited then edited, nurtured, passed on somewhat unwillingly to his chosen staff and finally supervised - above all the redoubtable Good Housekeeping. He loved the typographical niceties: the designing of the layouts, the choosing of illustrations and photographs (his artist contacts were the envy of his competitors), for he was a publishing animal right from the start. This is not surprising when you know his background.

Born in 1908, the eldest son of the young family Robinson, Oliver was closest to his father, that extraordinary Victorian artist "Will" Heath Robinson (1872-1944). As Oliver wrote in the introduction to the catalogue of a Heath Robinson exhibition at Chris Beetles' gallery in London, he and his siblings, three brothers and an elder sister, were brought up in true Victorian tradition in so far as correct behaviour and good manners were concerned, but he remembered having a very happy childhood, living among a large clan of cousins.

Heath Robinson loved family life and never discouraged his children from walking into his home studio and offering their suggestions for improving the work in hand, which he would discuss in all seriousness even if he never took them on board. He made up adventurous bedtime stories for the children, and their likenesses could be recognised in his published illustrations. What enthralled them were his ideas for mechanical contraptions, firmly based, as Oliver recalled, on what they thought of as the solemnity of their father's humour.

Seemingly workable, these models were meticulously drawn up in fanciful detail so as to turn the logic in them on its head: the figure whose feet were jointed back to front so that he was neither coming nor going or the Perinanicular all-purpose tool with a special attachment for removing gravy stains from gravel paths. As the years went by these contraptions become more and more convoluted and more and more famous until the term "Heath Robinson" entered the world of dictionaries to mean absurdly ingenious and impracticable in construction; a mechanical device absurdly complicated in design yet having a simple function.

Oliver was still a schoolboy at Craneligh when his lifelong interest in printing started. His father gave him a small printing press on which he produced, meticulously, a one-off magazine called the Occasional Magazine. It was not surprising that Oliver Robinson went straight from school to work in the well-established printers Hazell, Watson and Viney, where he acquired an invaluable grounding in general printing, not forgetting such arcane details as the characteristics of differing typefaces and their effect on certain paper, the success or otherwise of an art editor's layouts from the copy and artwork passing through the firm, and so on.

By 1930 he had moved to the National Magazine Company, the autonomous offshoot of Hearst Magazines in the United States, to become Art Editor of Good Housekeeping, a monthly that managed to become the most classic, yet innovative, of all women's magazines. Three years later Robinson served a temporary stint on Nash's in the same stable, by which time he was firmly established at "Nat Mag".

Soon after the bombing started in London, Robinson was deputed to "evacuate" his editorial team to the quiet atmosphere of an early medieval castle in Wales, the famous St Donats then owned by Hearst (and where the Atlantic College is now based). With him went his mother Evelyn, her mother, and the cat.

Despite the semblance of family life, everyone found the tempo of life and the isolation in this southernmost tip of Glamorgan to be just too much. The team returned to base. Oliver Robinson was called up and given a temporary commission in the Queen's Royal Regiment in 1941, transferring a year later to camouflage operations, in the company of many fellow artists and designers, at Farnham, Surrey. By 1944 he was a Staff Officer at the War Office. I wonder how gentle, kind Oliver managed the square-bashing and the obligatory smart saluting? Did he already have his taste for scarlet braces and a copious intake of snuff, this last not ideal for a chronic asthmatic?

After the war, publishing conditions were still difficult but Robinson, now the Editor, concentrated on moulding his team on Good Housekeeping and making use of his superb eye for talent-spotting. Where others would only see the eagerness of the inexperienced, he would see the potential and in the words of a highly successful protegee of his, Joan Sturdy, "He would pick talent, give guidance, stretch with a workload that he assumed the person could tackle - and expect an enormous output." It usually worked. His staff were incredibly loyal and in case of trouble he would always back them up or show them how to extricate themselves. He believed in Alexander Pope's maxim "To err is human, to forgive divine".

To Margaret Webb, my Art Editor on House Beautiful, Robinson was "gifted, gentle, intelligent, reliable, never angry, amusing, even mischievous. It was good to know he was always there, always supportive." To me, in despair at being told our quarterly was instantly to go monthly, he gave unusual advice but it worked after a fashion. "Think of editing like driving a four-in-hand," he said. "You can't let one horse shoot ahead of the others, you have to coax each horse along, first one and then another, and keep evening up your team at the same time." That's when I learnt to do without sleep.

In 1957 the publishing position changed and Good Housekeeping, among other magazines, was losing circulation and continued to do so for the next seven years or so. Drastic steps needed to be taken, and it was decided to concentrate on the household service features at the expense of more general ones. This left Robinson in charge of a magazine with much less appeal to his own interests and he found it difficult to sympathise with all the trendier titles competing for an increased readership and a larger slice of the advertising cake. He brought in a new Editor and relinquished his ties with his beloved Good Housekeeping to become Production Editor for the whole National Magazine group in 1965 until he retired in 1970, at the age of 70.

Luckily he had his clubs, the Savage and the Sketch Club, to compensate for the loss of his time-consuming work on GH. He was a long-serving member of the Savage, since 1935, latterly as Trustee. As a clubman he was "more of a listener than a performer but you knew he was there". The Sketch Club, with its distinguished membership, will be celebrating its centenary in 1998. It meets regularly in its studio in Chelsea, where the PEN English Centre is its tenant. In the upstairs lecture room there is a dramatic frieze of silhouette portraits amongst which is one of Oliver Robinson - in profile and densely black, a fitting choice for a reticent man.

Oliver John Robinson, journalist: born 7 April 1908; Editor, Good Housekeeping 1947-65, Editor-in-Chief 1965-67; married 1933 Evelyn Laidler; died 26 June 1996.