Obituary: Desmond Flower

Nicolas Barker
Sunday 30 March 1997 23:02 BST

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.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in