From the Archive:
was Faber Modernist in Art?

By Robert Brown, 26 October 2022

Thinking about the recent centenary of the The Waste Land, a provocative question comes to mind: was Faber in the 1920s and 1930s modernist in art as well as in poetry?

I raise the issue because when Geoffrey Faber took over the Scientific Press in 1925, establishing Faber & Gwyer (as Faber was called until 1929), he needed to transform a very traditional publishing house. Although the list of Faber’s very first publications in the autumn of that year included T. S. Eliot’s Poems: 1909 -1925, a more typical work, for example, was Spain in a Two-Seater, an undoubtedly pleasant work about a motoring holiday by Halford Ross. None of these initial Faber books contained any expensive artwork, however, although Ross’s book did have an unusual typographic cover.

Yet, just two years later, certain new Faber publications began to have distinctly radical modernist designs. These included T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ (his initial contribution to the first series of Ariel poetry pamphlets in 1927). Equally striking in 1927 were the book jackets for The Modern Movement in Art whose author was a notable young art historian, R. H. Wilenski, and Shaken by the Wind, a novel by Ray Strachey.

Vintage London Underground poster
All of these designs were by E. McKnight Kauffer, perhaps the leading commercial designer working in London in the inter-war period, whose posters were especially prominent throughout the London Underground (pictured).

Much influenced by cubism, Kauffer’s designs for Faber and other clients employed the striking use of non-representative and geometrical patterns.

Now, a fascinating question is who was responsible for Faber’s commissioning of designs from McKnight Kauffer in 1927? The actual approach was made by Richard de la Mare, Faber’s production director, but acting on the advice of others. It is well known, for example, that T. S. Eliot was a friend of Kauffer (both were expatriate Americans working in London), and we know that Eliot recommended that de la Mare should ask Kauffer to illustrate his Ariel poems. There is no evidence, however, that Eliot was responsible for Kauffer’s doing the other two jackets. Wilenski had written approvingly of Kauffer in his book, and himself recommended the designer be asked to do it.

The key person in this design decision, however, was undoubtedly the commissioning editor for these books – in this case none other than the chairman himself. That Geoffrey Faber agreed with Wilenski’s recommendation is not surprising, as he had a great love of modern art, and was a collector in a small way (during the First World War he even bought a watercolour, ‘Burg auf dem Riff’, by Paul Klee: ‘it’s very lovely’, he told a colleague). His aesthetic tastes, in art at least, coincided with those of T. S. Eliot but as regards poetry, however, they diverged: Walter de la Mare remained Geoffrey’s favourite poet. Although radical modernism never dominated the firm’s publishing – in art or literature – it indelibly became part of the Faber brand image, and is still potent today.

One of the best statements of Geoffrey Faber’s publishing vision was contained in a letter to the controversial sculptor, Jacob Epstein in 1929, suggesting he write a book in which he could ‘reply to [Epstein’s] critics’, adding:

‘It has been the policy of the firm which bears my name to play a part in the re-formulation of values which is going on at the present day. In the sphere of art-criticism, I persuaded R. H. Wilenski to write his book on The Modern Movement in Art – a book which has done much to make modern art more intelligible to the ordinary man. In the sphere of poetry, we are the publishers of T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s poems; and, more generally, by publishing The Criterion (Mr Eliot’s literary review) and the critical works of Mr Eliot and Mr Read and others, we identified ourselves with the most important intellectual movement of the time. Of course our publishing activities are not confined to books of this type. That is, we publish books of a more popular kind; and we have at our command all the resources of the more purely commercial publisher. But the books I have mentioned are those which have the greatest interest for us.’

This article is by Faber’s former archivist, Robert Brown.