Obituary: Desmond Flower

Desmond Flower was a publisher, a book-collector, a scholar and a writer; he was business-like in his dealings, a generous and perceptive patron, sympathetic and courageous, appreciative of the good things of life. Yet there was a sense of promise not fulfilled, a talent that never found its ideal application.

In publishing terms he was born to the purple. He was the son of Sir Newman Flower, who transformed Cassell's from a publisher of popular magazines into one of the greatest book-publishers in London; he was also a distinguished musicologist and a collector of Handel's manuscripts and printed scores. His parents had little in common apart from a love of music, but this did not prevent their only son from enjoying a happy childhood. At school at Lancing he was a success, notably in athletics, but the promise of a blue at Cambridge, to which he went in 1926, was wrecked by injury. He transferred to fencing, and it was from the maitre d'armes that he acquired his love of France and all things French. At David's book-stall in the marketplace he began to collect old books; bibliophily led to lifelong friendship with two fellow Kingsmen, John Carter and John Hayward.

In 1927 his father was offered the chance to buy Cassell's and took it, later making over the shares to a family trust. Flower was thus faced with the decision whether to follow his father, or to follow his other interest and become an antiquarian bookseller. He chose the former, so, after a sojourn in Germany at his father's request, he began work at La Belle Sauvage, the old coaching inn that was Cassell's premises in Ludgate Hill, London, on 1 January 1930.

Cassell's list included Arnold Bennett, H.G.Wells, Compton Mackenzie and many other best-selling authors, none more so than Warwick Deeping. These and others, visiting American publishers, the great literary agents, A.P .Watt, Curtis Brown, A.D. Peters and the newly established Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, became familiar to Flower. He also discovered a special enthusiasm for good typography and jacket design, still rare then, and this led to friendship with Oliver Simon at the Curwen Press and the great innovative designer McKnight Kauffer.

Simon's friendship led to two others, with A.J.A. Symons and Francis Meynell. He soon became a habitue of Symons's First Editions Club; together they founded the Book Collectors' Quarterly, whose lively content and elegant typography survived the uneasy Thirties till 1938. Meynell's Nonesuch Press did not, and Flower, to his regret, could not buy it when Meynell offered it to him, due to his commitment to Cassell's; instead he compiled its monument, The Nonesuch Century (1936).

He edited the works of Ernest Dowson (1934), put together anthologies, and with A.N.L. Munby produced a pioneering set of facsimiles, English Poetical Autographs (1938). But the achievement of which he was most proud, and justly, was the edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall, edited by John Carter and with 30 drawings by Paul Nash, reproduced by stencil at the Curwen Press, an unsurpassed masterpiece of the process.

In 1933 the Sunday Times launched the first of three annual book exhibitions and for each Flower produced a special exhibit of rare books and manuscripts, discovering a flair for the organisation and visual display involved. This led to other friendships, notably with Percy Muir of Elkin Mathews and Stefan Zweig, as great a collector as author, who also joined the Cassell's list. The greatest of all the authors to come now was Winston Churchill, whose History of the English-Speaking Peoples was conceived in 1936. Almost the last thing that Flower did before joining the Army in 1940 was to prepare the first volume of Churchill's wartime speeches.

The Second World War was spent in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; landing early in Normandy he witnessed the destruction of Caen, and subsequently won the MC in Operation Bluecoat in August 1944.

He returned to Cassell's in 1946. Ironically, he had seen, without realising its implications, the pall of black smoke over London in May 1942 when La Belle Sauvage was burned to the ground. The firm's Watford warehouse was also destroyed, and in makeshift offices and with the added burden of paper rationing Flower began to rebuild Cassell's. In this, Churchill's six-volume history The Second World War (1948-54) was a gigantic asset, and also a liability, since there was little paper left for old faithfuls like Deeping and Ernest Raymond, or new successes like The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, whose first serious novel was discovered and published by Flower in 1938. The Folio Society, like the Nonesuch Press earlier, proved an abortive venture. Constantly on the move, he revisited America to look for books to publish and Caen, where he discovered that but one book survived from the university library - appalled, he sent it all the duplicates from his Voltaire collection.

Voltaire had for some time the centre of his book-collecting, and this led in 1947 to the idea for an exhibition of French books at the National Book League. "A Thousand Years of French Books", thanks to generous loans from private and public collections, notably the Bibliotheque Nationale, was a bibliophilic feast after wartime starvation. Flower became a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, and was encouraged to put on an equally successful exhibition of English books in the Galerie Mazarine. In 1955 came another NBL exhibition of great books from private collections. Next year, at long last, Cassell's were able to build their own new building, and Churchill laid the foundation stone. "You must admit, Desmond, that I have made a prodigious effort," he had said on the conclusion of The History of the English-Speaking Peoples. So, too, had Flower.

Perhaps it had all been too much, for something of his touch seemed to desert him. The edition of Dowson's letters and the augmented facsimiles of autograph poetry came out, but from other hands. His father died in 1964, spared the horror of the libel suit that followed the publication of David Irving's The Story of P.Q.17 in 1966. Shortly after Crowell, Collier, Macmillan, the New York publishers, offered to buy Cassell's; Flower was opposed to the sale but, since the shares were vested in a charitable trust, unable to resist it.

After his second divorce, in 1972, he was obliged to sell his Voltaire collection, now at the University of Texas. It was symbolic that the edition of Voltaire's Therese that he gave to the Roxburghe Club (of which he was proud to be a member), due to be hand-set in the Baskerville type, whose punches he had been instrumental in retrieving from France, had to be completed by machine-setting.

But his capacity for enjoyment did not diminish. His friendship with successive French cultural attaches was maintained, as with other old friends. He continued to enjoy concerts, jazz, good wine and food, and above all travelling. Years before, his father said to him, "Travel, keep on travelling; it is essential to the development of the mind." If he never arrived quite where he might have, he acquired a breadth of mind and experience few could equal. To give and receive enjoyment is a gift, and one he had in abundance.

Nicolas Barker

Desmond John Newman Flower, publisher: born London 25 August 1907; MC 1944; director, Cassell & Co 1931-71, deputy chairman 1952-58, chairman 1958-71; president, Cassell Australia 1965-71; editorial consultant, Sheldon Press 1973-85; married 1931 Margaret Coss (one son; marriage dissolved 1952), 1952 Elizabeth Smith (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1972), 1987 Sophie Rombeyko; died London 7 January 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie