Ian Mackenzie-Kerr

Thames & Hudson book designer

Wednesday 05 October 2011 23:24

As a book designer at Thames & Hudson for nearly 50 years, Ian Mackenzie-Kerr was still working four days a week until his recent illness. He joined them in 1957, having worked for another publisher for less than a year.

Ian Mackenzie-Kerr, book designer: born London 18 November 1929; died London 27 May 2005.

As a book designer at Thames & Hudson for nearly 50 years, Ian Mackenzie-Kerr was still working four days a week until his recent illness. He joined them in 1957, having worked for another publisher for less than a year.

Thames & Hudson had no art department then, and in the early years designed at least half the books produced by the firm. Mackenzie-Kerr was closely involved in the development of integrated illustrated books on a grand scale, especially the series that began with The Age of Rococo by Arno Schoenberger in 1960. These books reflect Mackenzie-Kerr's skill in finding images, supervising colour printing, and overcoming the suspicions of some academic authors towards pictorial lavishness by his knowledge, enthusiasm and tact.

Colleagues were amazed by his ability to bring order to piles of unruly photographs to achieve a smooth match of words and images. He developed a particularly strong friendship with Edwin Smith and Olive Cook when working on books such as The Wonders of Italy (1965). In 1982, he helped Cook to produce the major anthology of Smith's photographs, Edwin Smith: photographs 1935-1971, and lived long enough to see his essay on their book collaborations published last year as the first part of A View of the Cotswolds, a book planned by Cook for the Whittington Press shortly before her death.

He also enjoyed his contact with Michael Ayrton, designing the monograph Giovanni Pisano, with notes by Henry Moore, in 1969. When computer design became unavoidable in the 1990s, Mackenzie-Kerr was quietly proud to have mastered the new technology, although he had recently been considering retirement.

Ian Mackenzie-Kerr's mother, a ballroom-dance teacher and enthusiast for history, was a strong influence. His father had been an officer in the Black Watch in the First World War, and made his living between the wars as a hotel manager. This seems an unlikely background for someone as learned and fastidious as Ian, but the passing spectacle of hotel guests probably helped to stimulate his ability as a mimic and raconteur. He would enter the part of the person being portrayed, whether it was Edith Sitwell or Henry Moore.

He developed his talents for art and drama at Bryanston School, where he first briefly met another old boy, Charles Handley-Read, later famous as a pioneer collector and historian of Victorian design. The headmaster, Thorold Coade, was the chief drama producer, and among other roles cast Ian Mackenzie-Kerr as Lady Macbeth. He was fine looking, with very dark eyes, and briefly considered a professional stage career; even when he was already in the book world, he was offered Peter Cook's role in Beyond the Fringe for the Australian tour.

National service took him to Cyprus as an intelligence officer, where he monitored Arabic language broadcasts. He began four years at Goldsmiths College, London, under Clive Gardiner in 1950. Stanley Payne, a fellow student, remembers him arriving as "a fully formed 18th-century graphic gentleman". Betty Swanwick, who became a close friend, was his most important influence there, and he enthusiastically joined her toy theatre group, where complete productions were designed, written and performed by students in a more elaborate version of a Pollock's toy theatre. He returned in later years to help, and wrote and illustrated a short article extolling this art form in ARK, the magazine of the Royal College of Art, in 1956.

Moving on to the Royal College, Mackenzie-Kerr was taught illustration by Edward Ardizzone and Edward Bawden, relishing the difference in their approaches to a life model. He was able to imitate the drawing style of both artists, but normally his own drawings (known to his friends through exquisite hand-coloured Christmas cards), inclined more towards Bawden.

Among his published drawings are a set of section titles and a frontispiece for Roy Strong's collection of Times journalism, Strong Points, published by Thames & Hudson in 1985. Mark Boxer had been suggested, but Mackenzie-Kerr's delicate and allusive emblematic trophies are a better reflection of the content.

At the college, he continued to act, including the leading role in Farquar's The Recruiting Officer. His thesis was on Christ Church, Spitalfields, and he had a great knowledge of architecture and enthusiasm for seeing new places. In 1962, Mackenzie-Kerr was persuaded by Nikolaus Pevsner to become designer and joint editor (with Ian Sutton, his colleague for 40 years at Thames & Hudson) of the Victorian Society Annual, which was no sinecure. He gave the society a graphic identity later lost but recently restored to its printed matter and was a regular on its walks and visits, and later those of the Twentieth Century Society. He was an adventurous foreign traveller, with specialised groups and friends.

Ian Mackenzie-Kerr's verbal and graphic wit was shared with office colleagues in the form of illustrated notes left on their desks, and he was pleased that so many younger Thames & Hudson staff came to visit him in hospital. He kept an illustrated diary of his personal and professional life which will be a valuable record of the momentous period of publishing history to which he contributed.

Alan Powers

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