The Folio Society: a brief history

It’s Folio’s birthday this month – 66 years since Charles Ede presented the very first edition: Tales by Tolstoy. To celebrate we approached Sue Bradbury, our former Editorial Director, about reproducing the introduction she wrote to Folio 60 – the bibliographical history published to mark our 60th anniversary. See below for the full text and you can also spy a few images from Folio's past.

Ten years ago, on The Folio Society’s fiftieth birthday, Alan Bennett painted an unforgettable picture of the world into which it was born: 1947 was an extraordinary year. 'Winter went on until May and the snow sometimes drifted as high as the tops of telegraph poles; and then, when spring came, there were huge floods, and then a very hot summer . Things were pretty bleak in 1947. Rationing was more severe than it had been at any point during the war, and print and paper were still restricted. Books produced just after the war all carried a logo inside, of an open book and the legend, "published under the Authorised Economy Standard". And there weren’t many illustrations, and though the print was quite good, the whole appearance of the books was rather dull.'

 But there was already a smell of change in the air, a sense of mounting visual excitement that culminated for people of Bennett’s generation in the Festival of Britain in 1951. Colour was coming back; there was an increasing clamour for good design, and, given that the leading writers at that time were Dylan Thomas and Christopher Fry, both of whom were in love with words, there was a sense, Bennett said, ‘in which language itself seemed to be coming off the ration’.

 For Charles Ede, the founder of The Folio Society, coming back from the war into this world was a transforming experience. He had fallen in love with the work of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press while he was still a schoolboy, and as a soldier had already begun a collection of Kelmscott, Golden Cockerel and Nonesuch editions. But now he decided that being a private press publisher was not for him. Alerted to a decline in standards that might not easily be reversed, and convinced that good design and production should be available to everyone and not just to a few comparatively rich book-buyers, he embarked on a plan to produce books to the highest possible standards using commercial methods.

 tolstoyLooking back on his youthful idealism many years later, Charles admitted that had he been older and wiser The Folio Society would probably never have happened. His friend and mentor Christopher Sandford, owner of the Golden Cockerel Press, was not convinced by his plan for a ‘poor man’s fine edition’ and doubted it would work: ‘But life is full of wonders,’ he said, ‘and people like you do get away with things – like Lane and his Penguins – so thumbs up.’ In 1946, undeterred and recently demobbed, Charles acquired a basic training at the London College of Printing, and in October 1947 the newly fledged Society published its first book – Tales by Tolstoy, with pen-and-ink drawings by Elizabeth Macfadyen.

The plan was to publish a book a month, selling (in those early days) through booksellers, and trying to establish some idea of demand by sending out a prospectus in advance. There were formidable problems, not least of which was post-war paper-rationing. As an ex-serviceman, Charles qualified for only 10 tons – sufficient for perhaps five books. The rest had to be begged, wheedled or scrounged. For the first three years the Society’s survival, on its owner’s admission, hung in the balance, and the first seven were ‘biblically lean’. The concept of a book that fell somewhere between an édition de luxe and a commercial publication was new and difficult to sell, and, with a few honourable exceptions, booksellers were reluctant to carry them. It was only when the Society began to enrol subscribers directly by offering them a Presentation Volume (a reward that still occupies an important role in encouraging membership) that it became apparent that there was a market for the Folio style of book.

candideAnd gradually the Society began to make a name for itself. An enterprising buyer from Liberty’s of London came up with the idea of an ex­hibition entitled ‘How a Book is Made’. The subject was Voltaire’s Candide, then in production. Printers, papermakers and binders enthusiastically contributed, and the exhibition was a modest success. Other 'diversifications' in the interests of survival included a rather less successful attempt to organise poetry readings: members could not be persuaded to turn up in large numbers even for performers of the calibre of Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield, though those that were present at an evening hosted by Margaret Rutherford would never forget her, jowls a-quiver but otherwise straight-faced, declaiming that there were fairies at the bottom of her garden.

chemicalAmong other activities which saved the Society from bankruptcy in its early days was the design and production of commissioned books. Ironically, the only folio-sized volume which the Society produced in those early years was a history of alum entitled The Earliest Chemical Industry (1948). Written by Professor Charles Singer to celebrate the anniversary of a mining company near Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire, it was not only extremely readable but has since proved to be an important contribution to the subject: indeed, Folio’s copy was consulted by Adam Hart-Davis as part of his research into a series of television programmes about ‘What the Tudors and Stuarts did for us’. More rewarding still was a sale of manuscript pages which led to the establishment of Collectors’ Corner, and then to Folio Fine Art. Original prints, autograph letters, fine bindings, old maps and antiquities were offered through a total of eighty-four general catalogues, and contributed handsomely to the Folio coffers.

The main concern of the Society, however, then as now, was to produce, as the founders had promised, ‘editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman’. John Mortimer says: ‘Books, many books, are essential to life, and the great masterpieces of the world are books which have to be read and reread so that they’re constantly in your mind as well as on your shelves.’ Paperbacks do a wonderful job: ‘You can stuff them in your pocket, bring them out on aeroplanes or in doctors’ surgeries, take them onto the beach, or, in restaurants, keep them open with the butter knife. But you need a more permanent tribute to the books which go to make up a life.'

That, in essence, is what The Folio Society is about.

 At first the Society favoured the established classics above all others – partly because Charles felt that only books which had stood the test of time justified a comparatively expensive ‘suit of clothes’, partly because he simply could not afford to gamble. Fiction was more popular than non-fiction, and early lists were a mixture of novels, short stories, memoirs, belles-lettres, poetry and drama. Many of the illustrators Charles commissioned were familiar to British readers through advertisements and magazines like the Radio Times – among them Eric Fraser, Barnett Freedman and Edward Bawden, whose cover for Gulliver’s Travels was excitingly ahead of its time.

joanEven in those early years, though, the Society was finding a non-fiction niche for itself with eyewitness histories. In 1956, The Trial of Joan of Arc was published: it was a translation of the only known text in oratio recta and therefore the first to report Joan’s own words, and was illustrated with facsimile woodcuts from early French printed books. It was followed in 1958 by an account of Richard Coeur de Lion’s campaigns in Cyprus and the Holy Land, attributed to ‘Ambroise’, a Norman Frenchman thought to have accompanied the Lionheart on the Third Crusade. This was decorated with dramatic four-colour woodblock illustrations by Raymond Hawthorn, who was commissioned again in 1964 to produce wood-engravings for Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

Just before the Society’s twenty-fifth birthday, Charles sold the company to John Letts and Halfdan Lynner. Both had backgrounds in publishing and marketing and were intrigued by the quality of the books produced and by Folio’s unique, if eccentric, position in the market. A number of factors triggered the sale, but one of the main reasons, according to Charles, was that he had always relished his involvement with every aspect of Folio – the choice of titles, the supervision of illustrators and printers, even the packing and sending of books – and when it grew too big for him to do everything himself he rather lost interest. He turned his attention instead to classical antiquities, while the Society celebrated its Silver Jubilee by moving from the elegant and clubbable environs of Stratford Place to interesting, if less salubrious, quarters near the Elephant and Castle. When I joined the company in 1973, the knowledge that I was within a stone’s throw of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, of Guy’s Hospital where Keats was a medical student, and of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, the setting for one of Dickens’s best and most deeply felt novels, Little Dorrit, almost compensated for the twentieth-century wasteland that we inhabited.

The Folio Society evolved, rather than changed, over this period, at least in part because of the staying power of those involved in it. The Editorial Director, Brian Rawson, who had joined the Society in 1956, remained in the post until his death twenty years later, working with John to produce each year’s programme of books just as he had worked with Charles. (History does not relate whether they continued to operate the OMDB – Over My Dead Body – principle, by which both were allowed to veto one title completely at any stage of the process.) Meanwhile Tim Wilkinson, who had worked for Folio from 1958 until 1964, rejoined the company as Production Director in 1968 and stayed until 1984.

salemWhen Bob Gavron, the company’s present owner, bought it in 1982, John stayed on as Managing Director to oversee the transition. Thus the various batons changed hands slowly and, for the most part, relatively smoothly. As the Society grew, attracting members not just in Britain but worldwide, its owners worked to establish a clearer Folio identity. Advertisements portrayed the Society as a publisher rather than a book club; Folio books were not much more expensive than the average hardback, but they were a great deal more handsome; they were bought to be read, not just displayed as furniture (though, as the Reverend Sydney Smith famously remarked, there is ‘no furniture so charming as books’). Recklessly, the Society advertised its lack of a computer system – its substitute at the time being a stencil machine operated by Gladys. But Gladys retired and the stencil machine gave up the ghost and by and by Folio allowed itself to be dragged into the computer age. In those days, members requiring special treatment were filed separately in a shoe-box labelled ‘Funnies’, and the Society still does its best to cater for exceptions, though the much larger membership makes this more of a challenge. One of the editorial aspects that appealed most to John Letts was the scope offered by historical source material. Along with Folio’s reputation for resurrecting neglected classics, this fed his passion for what he called ‘the byways of literature’. Travel books published over the next ten years or so included The Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations of William Lithgow (1974); an account, by Folio member David Stanbury, of The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1977), compiled from the records of Robert FitzRoy, Darwin’s captain on his epoch-making voyage, and Lamas of the Western Heavens – the extraordinary adventures, superbly translated, of two French missionaries who braved the most hair-raising journey to penetrate Chinese-held Tibet in the 1840s. When historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was shown a copy his immediate response was: ‘Why, I ask, had I never read this marvellous book before?’

moscowSeveral new eyewitness accounts of periods and events were commissioned, including Richard Barber’s The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince (1979) and Roger Thompson’s The Witches of Salem (1982), and some wonderful memoirs resurrected, among the most memorable of which were James Boswell’s London Journal (1985), Sergeant Bourgoyne’s grim account of the Retreat from Moscow (1985) and – a particular favourite of mine – Escape from the Terror (1979), which told the remarkable tale of Madame de la Tour du Pin’s flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. A woman of supreme resource and courage who bore, unluckily for her, an uncanny resemblance to Queen Marie Antoinette, she managed to get her entire family, including a sick husband and a grand piano, to safety in America.

Occasionally there were fictional discoveries to be made: John was particularly proud of resurrecting two masterpieces of humour: Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself (1988), the wonderfully funny ‘autobiography’ of an arch-hypocrite who is hoist by his own petard at every turn, and The Unlucky Family (1980) by Mrs Henry de la Pasture, an Edwardian gem in the tradition of The Diary of a Nobody and The Young Visiters, about a family from the London suburbs who inherit a stately home. Books like these helped to establish The Folio Society as a publisher, not just a producer of handsome books.

durrellAll the same, handsome they were; and they would become still more handsome as the Society grew and prospered. Joe Whitlock Blundell, who became Production Director in 1986, oversaw a revolution in printing methods and used it to the company’s advantage, increasing the number of books with colour illustrations overall, and introducing facsimile editions of classic children’s books, illustrated by artists like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and the Detmold brothers. New young artists came onto the scene, partly as a result of The Folio Illustration Award, which ran for twenty-five years and was open to students in all disciplines at the Royal College of Art. Paul Cox, responsible for illustrating all P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels as well as, most recently, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (2006), was one of the early winners of the Award; former winner Ian Pollock, now well known for his hair-raising posters advertising the London Dungeon, produced brilliantly imaginative illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost (1991), and Lucy Weller, another former winner, was the perfect choice for the ‘now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t’ Scarlet Pimpernel (1997). Her most recent set of illustrations, for Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, are small theatrical masterpieces, and among the most imaginative artworks of any produced for the Society.

In 1993 Bob Gavron moved the Society, by then bursting its Southwark premises at the seams, to Eagle Street, on the fringes of Bloomsbury – a suitably literary address. Given the founder’s passion for Kelmscott, it is particularly pleasing that our present offices overlook William Morris’s former home in Red Lion Square. On moving there Morris wrote a postcard to his old Oxford friend, Edward Burne-Jones: ‘Dear Ned – Do call – Squalor and Vittles at all hours – Wm.’

And in many ways Folio has gone on as before. Classic works of literature continue to form the bedrock of its publishing programme. Trad­itional methods of printing and binding are preserved; traditional forms of illustration – wood-engraving, drawing, lithography – are championed. But there have been sea changes, too – not just an appreciable increase in the number of books published overall, but an increase, too, in the number of new and more recent books, so that the Society can claim to reflect the spirit of the present as well as that of the past. It used to be said that a defining feature of Folio was that all its authors were dead, but one of the great pleasures of the last decade and more has been working with living writers, whether as the authors of newly commissioned works for the Society, or as editors, translators and introducers.

Perhaps our most unusual publication was After Pushkin (1999), Folio’s 250th-birthday tribute to Russia’s great poet, which involved Seamus Heaney, Ruth Padel, Carol Ann Duffy art-of-loveand Ranjit Bolt, among others, producing their own translations, or versions, of Pushkin’s work. Ted Hughes produced one of his last poems, ‘The Prophet’, for this book, and Ralph Fiennes read it unforgettably one evening at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank.

But that is one book among many: John Keay’s The Spice Route (2005), John Mortimer’s selection of ‘Rumpole’ stories (1994), Frederic Raphael’s retelling of Greek myths in Of Gods and Men (1992), illustrated by his gifted artist daughter, Sarah, James Michie’s translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love (1993), Katharine Duncan-Jones’s vividly robust Shakespeare’s Life and World (2004) and, published only a few months before this bibliography, Ian Fletcher’s masterful eyewitness history of the campaigns of Wellington in the Peninsula and at Waterloo – these are just a handful of the Folio-originated books which have become such an important and established part of our publishing programme.

The range has expanded, too: crime, cookery and natural history have all found their places in recent lists, with the enthusiastic endorsement of crime writers, food buffs and environmentalists. A reissue of Graham and Hugh Greene’s anthology, The Spy’s spysBedside Book (2006), prompted Stella Rimington, the first woman head of MI5, to give a lecture on ‘Spying in Fact and Fiction’ at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It attracted an audience of nearly eight hundred people, some of whom were undoubtedly ‘spooks’ themselves.

Special occasions have given rise to special projects which, in themselves, have helped to take the list in new directions as well as consolidating its core. For Folio 50, members were asked to choose their fifty best-loved books – The Lord of the Rings beating Pride and Prejudice to the tape by a nose. All the chosen books were published. The millennium provided the opportunity to canvass (and then publish) the ‘Books of the Century’ in twenty different categories, including Religion and Philosophy (winner: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison), the Historical Novel (winner: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa) and the Performing Arts (winner: My Life in Art by Constantin Stanislavski).

anatomyMore recently, the Society instigated ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which novelists, historians, journalists, politicians, entertainers, musicians, poets, actors and directors were asked to nominate the one book they couldn’t bear to be without if abandoned on a desert island – or anywhere else for that matter. The choices are wonderful, and the reasons for them almost more so: Philip Pullman on Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, ‘the revelation of a personality . . . so filled with bizarre knowledge and so rich in absurd and touching anecdotes, that an hour in his company is a stimulant to the soul’; Kazuo Ishiguro on The Odyssey, ‘the perfect book with which to dream of homecomings’; Simon Hoggart on The Deptford Trilogy: ‘Robertson Davies isn’t just a novelist, he’s a gift passed from friend to friend’; Joanna Trollope on The Towers of Trebizond and ‘Rose Macaulay’s extraordinary power to evoke the full-blooded, imagination-Wring, exciting spirit of true Romance’; P. D. James on Emma, to which ‘I always return with anticipatory pleas­ure’; Ken Follet on James Bond – ‘a fantasy hero for his time’ – and Richard Eyre on Shakespeare’s plays: ‘British literature is set on a seam of Shakespeare, like a country that sits on a massive deposit of rich metals'. Shakespeare, in one form or another, has been a part of Folio’s publishing life ever since it started. This year sees the start of a new venture, a limited letterpress edition of the individual plays, beginning with the four great tragedies – Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. This is the edition that Joe Whitlock Blundell, the Society’s Production Director, had always wanted to create – letterpress-printed on heavy, luxurious paper, with elegant typography and an uncluttered page. The books are ravishing, and are just the latest addition to Folio’s venture into the arena of limited-edition facsimile publishing which began with the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold in 2001. At that point the Society had no idea whether or not there was a market for facsimiles of that kind among Folio members, but we need not have worried: medieval manuscripts like The Life of Saint Edmund (2004), The Luttrell Psalter (2006) and of the Holkham Bible Picture Book have been eagerly snapped up, and more rarefied treas­ures, like Maria Sybilla Merian’s Surinam Album (2006), have been just as successful. Exciting partnerships have been established along the way, especially with the British Library and with The British Museum, which promise new adventures.

 comfortThe reading world has changed, and the power of ‘word of mouth’ recommendation has greatly increased, through reading groups, websites and the media. The Folio Society has always had the great advantage of being able to speak directly to its members, to celebrate with them the books with which they are familiar, and to fill them with enthusiasm for unfamiliar titles, curiosities, new areas of reading to explore, and even for books hitherto resisted. Pictures help – the best illustration doesn’t just tell the story again but adds another dimension to it, another layer of meaning and aesthetic enjoyment – whether for fiction or non-fiction. The painter Neil Packer even pulls the words into the pictures, making them work as images themselves. Less distinction is made between artists and illustrators these days, thank heavens, but Folio has been lucky to commission Elisabeth Frink, Patrick Procktor, Paula Rego, Sarah Raphael, Tom Phillips and Beryl Cook – all of whom are better known for larger-scale artwork, whether painting, sculpture or prints. Quentin Blake, renowned for his work for children, has relished the chance to illustrate books for grown-ups, from Stella Gibbons’s humorous classic, Cold Comfort Farm (1977), to Cyrano de Bergerac’s science fiction odyssey, Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1991), and Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote (1995).

Change remains evolutionary, but it is exciting too. When the roller-coaster threatens to take over, among the things that conspire to keep us (more or less) on track are, first, the enduring vision set down by the Society’s founder; second, the contribution made over many years by writers, translators, artists, editors and designers who are among the best in their field; and third, the membership.

Folio members are not easily categorised. Most, I suspect, have a Groucho Marx-like suspicion of clubs. The only thing they appear to have in common is a passion for books. Yet they are Folio’s lifeblood, and as the number of members increases all over the world, so too does their influence on Folio’s future. It is they who inform our sense of direction. Over the years they have proposed many books which have found their way into print in Folio editions. They talk back. They write to us, often in verse, make copious suggestions, chide us for our frequent lapses and become our friends. ‘Would you like a book for Christmas?’ one of P. G. Wodehouse’s plump, tilt-nosed, sporty heroines asks her boyfriend from the Drones Club (Cyril Bassington-Bassington, Stilton Cheesewright or Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps), to which he replies: ‘No thanks, I’ve got a book.’ A life with one book is unthinkable, and while Folio books are not the only ones (nor should they be) they will, with luck, have a role to play in enriching the lives of book-lovers for years to come. The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, and avid member throughout his life, said that Folio was addictive, appealing to ‘people who are neither exact scholars nor yet without taste in the world of books’, and that is exactly what we want Folio to be. Fortunately, sixty years of publishing have barely impinged on the Aladdin’s Cave of our literary inheritance, so, with luck, we will be able to look forward to the next sixty years with confidence and relish.