BEHIND A BOY AT THE HOGARTH PRESS:
TWO MEN AT THE WHITTINGTON PRESS
Editor's Note: If you have seen the
excerpts from A Boy at the Hogarth Press,
Richard Kennedy's illustrated memoir of his coming of age in Virginia Woolf's basement,
you may be as taken as we were with the utter charm that this man's pen wielded,
both in drawing and writing.
Through good fortune and a little gumshoe,
we were able to track down Richard's original publisher, John Randle of the Whittington
Press in England. John's is one of the most celebrated artisanal presses still in
existence, his letter-press work the kind that rare-books dealers love to get their
It was through John that we met one of Richard's
daughters, Rachel. Recently we spent a March afternoon with Rachel and other family
members at her Maidenhead cottage, agog over walls filled with her father's artwork.
Besides being a well-known illustrator of children's books, Richard also worked
in oils and watercolors. His work, so full of life, welcomed you into his canvas
as warmly as Rachel welcomed us into her home.
That was when we realized that reprising
A Boy at the Hogarth Press would not
only bring smiles to a whole new audience; it would also be a tribute to a man who,
though he died in 1989, is still alive in the hearts of those who treasured him.
What follows are John Randle's reminiscences
of his good friend Richard Kennedy.
Richard Kennedy went to work for Leonard and
Virginia Woolf at their embryonic Hogarth Press in 1926, at the age of sixteen.
He had no qualifications - indeed his very lack of them had caused his Uncle
George to ask his friend Leonard Woolf if he could find employment for his young
nephew. Thus was Richard propelled into the strange, incestuous rock pool of Bloomsbury
life, and the illustrated diary he put together forty years later gives us a vivid
picture of its inhabitants and their eccentric ways.
a fly on the wall in the basement at Tavistock Square, the Woolfs' London home where
they ran their Hogarth Press, Richard made the tea, printed book-jackets on the
treadle press, and helped Virginia to set type. He was of no consequence to the
mandarins of Bloomsbury, hence they took little notice of him. Yet his apparently
vague exterior hid an acute observation and a memory unusually retentive of dialogue
The genesis of
A Boy at the Hogarth Press is inextricably bound up with the beginnings
of the Whittington Press. Meeting Richard in 1964, when I had just started my first
job as production assistant at the small but typographically distinguished London
publishing house of Ernest Benn, was the catalyst that six years later brought into
focus some hazy notions of starting a hand-press in the country and printing one's
own books in the way one wished. Richard had come in with a portfolio of drawings
for a series of remedial readers we were doing. I was immediately struck by the
somewhat distracted air of the artist, but even more so by the fluidity and sureness
of line in
his drawings. Although he never seemed to size up his drawings accurately, after
reduction they miraculously always fitted the allotted space exactly.
We found we had certain experiences in common.
We had both been educated (neither of us very successfully) at Marlborough College,
a boys' boarding school in Wiltshire run on distinctly traditional lines. His father
had been killed in France during the First World War when Richard was four, mine
in the next war on the India/Burma border when I was two. Chatting over a glass
of beer one lunchtime, Richard told me of his time at the Hogarth Press - how
the drains smelt at Rodmell, the Woolfs' Sussex cottage, how Virginia rolled her
own cigarettes, and how Leonard was in the habit of 'withering' his long-suffering
secretary, Mrs Cartwright. It was a refreshing antidote to the more serious studies
of Bloomsbury then beginning to proliferate, and I told Richard he really should
write it all down. It was not until some years later that he finally put pen to
The manuscript for
A Boy at the Hogarth Press came just at the time my fiancée, Rose,
and I were making plans to start a press in the Cotswold village of Whittington.
Her first task was to sort out Richard's intriguingly holistic manuscript (now at
the University of Minnesota), in which the illustrations often blended tantalisingly
with the text. We printed the book in 1972, over a year of weekends of escape from
publishing jobs in London, on an 1848 Columbian hand-press. It was set in 12-point
Caslon type from Stephenson Blake, the last of the English type founders. It all
brought back happy memories of the school press at Marlborough, where twelve years
earlier I had first become fascinated with the processes of setting type and printing
on a hand-press.
A Boy at the
Hogarth Press turned out to be a minor classic, and established
Richard as one of a handful of writer-illustrators who could successfully combine
both disciplines within one book. Richard himself was something of a surrogate father
to the Whittington Press. Not only did he get us off to a flying start by providing
a best seller for our first book, but he was a constant source of stimulus in other
ways, as with the manner in which he set about illustrating a book.
Unlike most artists, he would send along a
mass of drawings, or 'rushes' as he would call them, seeing himself as the cameraman
and the publisher as the scissor-wielding director who would trim out the bits to
be used. In this way maximum harmony could be achieved between text and
illustration. With Richard's help we broke out of the constraints of the type margin
and allowed his wonderfully fluid line to wander all over the page.
Richard died in 1989. He was a man of great
humanity and kindness, with a strong sense of the injustices of life suffered by
the less privileged. He also had a rare talent for friendship. Many will be grateful
to him for the encouragement he so often gave to their own projects, and for his
complete openness of mind, perhaps in part a legacy from his Bloomsbury days.
Co-founder of the Whittington Press
© 2006 John Randle. Excerpted from his introduction to the Levenger Press edition
of A Boy at the Hogarth Press.