I f you have a library of art books the chances are you will have titles by Thames & Hudson and Phaidon, two of the world’s most prominent visual arts publishers. In the mid-20th century these two houses helped to bring talents from Van Gogh and Cézanne to Michelangelo and Botticelli – along with studies of English cathedrals and Roman culture – to a mass audience at an affordable price.
Their legacy, however, is founded on an extraordinary tale of fortitude and enterprise that dates back to Europe during the dark days leading up to the Second World War. That story is now being retold in Brave New Visions, a new exhibition at Sotheby’s London.
The founders of Phaidon, Béla Horovitz and Ludwig Goldscheider, were established Viennese publishers when the Nazis annexed Austria. As Jews, they were clearly in danger and so had already fled to Britain. So too did Walter Neurath, co-founder of Thames & Hudson, another Viennese Jew whose socialist views put him doubly in peril. In London he met his future business partner, Eva Feuchtwanger, a Jew who had escaped from Berlin.
These émigré publishers then did something extraordinary – or, perhaps, ordinary for them. They started making wonderful books. Anna Nyburg, author of Emigres: The Transformation of Art Publishing in Britain, explains: “After war broke out in 1939, Phaidon continued to publish large numbers of new books, all of which were eagerly bought: books were in short supply during the war and art books in particular brought much comfort.”
Neurath, meanwhile, created the series Britain in Pictures which helped maintain morale during wartime. Through Neurath, Feuchtwang found work at Adprint, the packaging company which produced Britain in Pictures and the two worked together there throughout the war. Finding they shared a love of art books, they founded Thames & Hudson in 1949 and were married four years later.
These publishers subsequently championed major critical voices, including John Berger and Kenneth Clark, and pioneered the use of “integrated spreads” in which images and text were merged. They also produced landmark titles such as EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art (Phaidon) – a project that was actually conceived at the height of the war.
Their legacy is a living one, says Nyburg, who has curated the story for Sotheby’s. Both houses are still trading and remain leading art publishers. Indeed, Thames & Hudson is still partly a family firm. “Other publishers followed their lead, copying their design, printing and publishing ideas,” Nyburg notes. “Eventually colour illustrations and cheap cover prices became the norm, but the two refugee houses kept up their scholarly but accessible standards.”