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Faber & Faber

– Its Design
and History

Report of the lecture
given by Toby Faber

on October 28th 2015

Toby Faber is the grandson of Geoffrey Faber, the founder of Faber & Faber.

Geoffrey Faber was a graduate and fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a connection which was to prove very important in his career.  Toby said of his grandfather that he survived the First World War mainly by being ill.  He subsequently held several jobs including that of directorship of the family brewery before leaving this because his wife did not like the smell of beer.  In 1925 he went into partnership with a friend and fellow All Souls graduate Maurice Gwyer, founding Faber and Gwyer.  Maurice Gwyer already owned the Scientific Press but in 1929 the partnership was dissolved and a new publishing house was formed.  There was only one Faber but Walter de la Mare suggested that one could not have too much of a good thing so Faber & Faber was born.

T.S.Eliot, an All Souls connection, joined the firm as a literary advisor.  He was a poet but also a banker with a good business brain.  His association with Faber & Faber in this dual role was to last many years and he eventually became a director.  Eliot's prestige meant that many poets were attracted to the firm and it developed a reputation as a poet's publishing house.  Over the years it published, amongst many others, Ezra Pound, David Jones, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W.H.Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney who implied that getting a call from Faber & Faber was tantamount to getting a call from God.

From the start Faber employed many outstanding illustrators and artists including Rex Whistler, Rowland Emmett, John Piper and Richard de la Mare and Eliot himself provided the illustrations for his book of comic verse Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats published in 1939, possum being Ezra Pound's nickname for him.  More recently, Damien Hirst did the cover for Happy like Murderers, a book about the Wests.  Faber sent him a case of wine in payment.  He is now a teetotaller: not because of the case of wine, one hopes.

War brought changes and many illustrators gained experience as war artists.  In 1941 an important recruit to the firm was Berthold Wolpe who, because he was German, had been interned in Australia as a resident alien.  A gifted designer, he created the Albertus and Hyperion typefaces and Albertus soon began to be known as Faber typeface.  His influence as an illustrator was immense.  Faber has always promoted a strong partnership between art and literature and the cover designs developed a distinctive and easily recognisable style.  Paper shortages in the war lead to tight typefaces and constricted book runs but in spite of this books by Faber & Faber did well in the war, particularly detective stories.  However, they did not publish Animal Farm as Eliot said they could not publish something so rude about an ally.  GCSE texts guarantee immense sales so this was a big financial mistake.

Neither did Faber & Faber publish Ulysses as they were uneasy about the obscenities but they did publish Finnegan's Wake.  C.P.Snow a family friend who advised Toby's father, a scientist, to go to Trinity College Cambridge, fell out with the firm and had great commercial success with other publishers.  A decision to wait and see the returns on Gerald Durrell's first book meant they missed out on publishing subsequent books and depressing sales of Yan Martell's first novel meant that they did not pick up the option on his second which was unfortunately The Life of Pi.

But there were also triumphs.  Postwar, the charismatic Charles Monteith, another fellow of All Souls joined the firm eventually becoming the chairman.   One evening, rushing for a train to Oxford and needing something to read he picked up a manuscript from the slush pile.  Cut, modified and renamed after much discussion, this novel by William Golding which had been rejected by 21 publishers was published as Lord of the Flies.  It became and remains a huge best-seller and a constant choice for GCSE examinations.

Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour put together by Dorling Kindersley was originally viewed with lack of confidence but it helped keep the firm afloat in difficult financial times in the mid 70's when they had to move to new premises.  A chance remark to Charles Monteith at a party led to the discovery of P.D.James.  She had a shell-shocked husband, three children and a job.  She got up very early each morning to write and, not surprisingly, took seven years to write her first book.  It took her one day to find a publisher and she became the biggest seller on their list.

Faber experienced a period of recovery in the 1980s helped by the reinvigoration of William Golding's career when he won both the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and by the launching of Cats the musical based on Eliot's poems.  Andrew Lloyd Webber is alleged to have said to Steven Spielberg that if he wanted to make real money he should get into musicals - obviously an accurate observation.  Eliot was the lyricist and Faber collected the agent's fee.

Later, in 1998, Faber & Faber in conditions of great secrecy published Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes's book about his relationship with Sylvia Plath.  Faber had always been very supportive of Ted Hughes and this was a huge success.

Though famous as a poet's publisher, Faber have many other strings to their bow.  A music list was created at Benjamin Britten's suggestion and play scripts bring in large returns on slim volumes.  Similarly, an early decision in the 1960's to produce paperbacks using rights purchased from other publishers has proved profitable in the longer term.  Other interests have included a pioneering ecology list, e-books (2009), books for children, books on bridge and even, as I found on the back of a very old Faber paperback, books on body building!

Ann Brookes

Related Links (open in new windows):

Toby Faber's website
Faber & Faber
Wikipedia article

Download the illustrations from Toby Faber's lecture here - by kind permission of Toby Faber (Warning: large file - 16MB)