Obituary: Sir John Verney Bt

John Verney, writer, painter and illustrator, born 30 September 1913, MC 1944, succeeded 1959 as second Bt, married 1939 Lucinda Musgrave (one son, five daughters, and one son deceased), died Clare Suffolk 2 February 1993.

JOHN VERNEY, painter and illustrator, film director's assistant and baronet, Yeomanry officer and parachutist, traveller and lover of most things British, especially Farnham, Surrey, was also wonderful company to his many friends, master of the ludicrous, inventor of the 'Dodo-Pad' and author of one of the best memoirs of the Second World War, Going to the Wars.

Nearly 40 years ago John Verney, then principally known outside a small family circle as an eccentric illustrator of children's books and of Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, turned his mind to his war experiences. The result, after many months of painstaking effort, was a seemingly effortless, often hilarious narrative in which his brother officers, and in particular 'Amos' (never otherwise identified) loomed larger than he did. Going to the Wars (1955) was well received, chosen by the Book Society and later by World Books, published in American and European editions, and is still occasionally revived - most recently by Julian Critchley (for 'Heroes and Villains', Independent Magazine, 16 June 1990). It set its author off on an entirely new career as a writer, though previously he had published charming travel articles which were gathered together in 1954 as Verney Abroad.

'Abroad,' he wrote in the preface, 'came early to be identified in my mind as the place where an Englishman must go if he wanted, among other things, to draw. I have been going there at every possible opportunity ever since.'

He was published by Collins, who also published the magazine of the same name, and I was lucky enough to be his editor, and became a lifelong friend. He was a man of many friendships, for he was gregarious, funny, melancholy, disrespectful, more interested in others than himself. He had what he certainly would not have called 'a good war', won the MC after parachuting into Sardinia and taking an active part in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, was taken prisoner, attempting to bamboozle his Italian captors with his fluent German and French. He finished the war in a camp hospital where the ward sister kindly put medicinal brandy into his nightly Bourne Vita. He remembered her as 'the most beautiful girl in the world . . . except one'. The one was Lucinda, in real life Jan, whom he met and married in 1940. Returning to her and his infant son (who died at the age of eight) was what kept him going through the long and dangerous months of his fighting career.

His gentle, self-mocking style - echoes of Waugh - concealed the dangers if not the horrors of the Mediterranean campaign for the Sussex Yeomanry, into which he had been commissioned; his pen brought others to life - particularly the partisans and peasants encountered while on the run - rather than himself.

The war probably took a greater toll on his ambitions and energy than he realised. Certainly he might have developed into a significant abstract painter. But he preferred to tackle jobs that came to hand, and these tended to be commissions from publishers for illustrations somewhat in the manner of Edward Ardizzone, in which quizzical little people - often military - peered out of the busy hatching. His approach to Going to the Wars was much less apparently casual. He wrote slowly and carefully over many months and discussed the shape and purpose of each chapter, re-working often. The result delighted everyone.

Collins continued to publish a number of children's books he wrote and illustrated - the most famous being ismo (1964), in which President de Gaulle's trousers featured pivotally. Friday's Tunnel (1959) and The Mad King of Chichboo (1963) were also memorable. He wrote two semi-autobiographical books, Every Advantage (1961) and Fine Day for a Picnic (1968), as well as a further volume of memoirs, A Dinner of Herbs (published by Hodders, 1966). A selection of his occasional pieces for Collins and others, with illustrations by the author and an introduction by Craig Brown, appeared (from the Alastair Press) in 1989.

But his most abiding interest was in his annual Dodo-Pad, defined by him in his Who's Who entry as 'the amusing telephone diary', which Collins (later HarperCollins) published regularly from 1965 to the present day. The 1993 edition's prelims catch the special Verney flavour:

From time to time the mind of man takes a sudden leap forward and invents something which makes life so much better that people soon begin to wonder how they ever got on without it. The wheel, printing, electricity, self-adhesive tape, and now - the DODO-PAD.

The eponymous product of Lord Dodo of Doodle, who resembled his maker only in his compulsive doodling, the Dodo-Pad is far from being the only, or even the most significant, contribution John Verney made to his times. Apart from his publications, and his wonderful company and conversation, he became a key figure in the intelligent conversation of his beloved Farnham - and later Clare, in Suffolk - where he lived first at Runwick House and where many visitors came for Sunday lunch. Afterwards there would be tennis or croquet or Allen-scything the paddock or talking in his studio, a converted stable-loft where he drew and painted fantastic doppelgangers of his life and loves all over the walls and furniture. He loved painting on unusual surfaces, and his tabletop Rape of the Sabines memorably encapsulates his characteristic ironies. He was deeply and happily married to Jan for 53 years and will be missed by many friends of all ages and by his large, lovely and loving family.

(Photographs omitted)

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

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor