Obituary: David Herbert

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The Independent Online
David Herbert was a leading publisher of his time who dedicated his innovative mind to creating high-quality, visually attractive books, many of them of educational value. These books were, unusually, almost always self-financing. Herbert believed in the value of nurturing authors and those whose skills helped him to fulfil his creative ideas: to him people mattered more than anything else.

David Herbert, descended from the family of George Herbert, the Metaphysical poet, was born in Clapham, south London, in 1927 and after schooling at Rugby studied English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1949 he succeeded in joining Penguin after many applications to Allen Lane, who later teasingly told him that he had only taken him on to save the postage on his rejection letters. Herbert described Allen Lane many years later as "a genuine revolutionary with an educational message". Lane was to give him the experience and inspiration to develop his own qualities in the same direction. It was at Penguin in 1952 that Herbert first met Brenda Swann, his wife and constant companion.

Herbert was then offered the opportunity to teach English, Drama and Spanish at Christ's Hospital, in Sussex, where he remained from 1955 to 1961, thus satisfying a deep desire to teach young people. He then joined the graphic arts publishers Studio Vista at a time when art teaching was changing rapidly to a more experimental approach: he set about creating books to meet this need, and caught the new mood exactly with the first book he worked on, Basic Design: the dynamics of visual form (1964), by Maurice Sausmarez, which has been a continuous seller ever since. This was published in Studio Paperbacks edited by John Lewis and was followed by many other successful titles.

Herbert also published such books as Pop Art: object and image by Christopher French (1965), Art Deco by Bevis Hillier (1965), Kinetic Art by Guy Brett (1968), Kitsch: an anthology of bad taste by Gillo Dorfles (1968) and Op Art by Cyril Barrett (1969), all pioneering titles in their field. Parallel with this development was his expansion of practical art and craft books like Motley's Designing and Making Stage Costume (1964) and Julian Trevelyan's Etching (1967).

From the publication of his first book, Herbert's flair was recognised by foreign publishers, and he had no difficulties in selling large editions of every book to the United States.

In 1968 Studio Vista was bought by Crowell, Collier and Macmillan and the heavy hand of the American conglomerates began to make itself felt. Herbert was offered a directorship in George Rainbird, part of the Thomson Organisation, in 1972. After this experience he decided that large conglomerates were not conducive to creating books of real quality, and he began to lay plans with his wife to form his own imprint, the Herbert Press, whose first titles were published in 1976; this was to be the culmination of his career. The aim of the Herbert Press was to remain small so that they could devote time to close relations with authors and to producing their books, which were to be self-financing.

The Herbert Press, of which I was privileged to be a director in recent years, was an instant success as Herbert followed the same aims he had employed at Studio Vista in a modern context. Among his successes were Bill Riseboro's The Story of Western Architecture (1979), now in seven languages, Redoute's Fairest Flowers (1987), which sold over 30,000, and the trade edition of Christopher Skelton's The Complete Engravings of Eric Gill (1990).

I shared a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair with David Herbert one year and watched the steady stream of foreign publishers coming to see him on the first day, to find out about his new books and to sign them up for their markets.

A year after, in 1995, Herbert sold his company to A. & C. Black, for whom he continued to work, he contracted cancer, which he fought with his usual fortitude. During that period he managed to create his last beautiful book, Stories in Stone: the medieval roof carvings of Norwich Cathedral, by Martial Rose and Julia Hedgecoe. Herbert had spent his childhood in Norwich, where his father was the Bishop. The book will be published in February.

Robert Cross

David Mark Herbert, publisher: born London 2 January 1927; married 1955 Brenda Swann (one son, one daughter); died London 18 November 1996.