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‘Watching Eva Neurath at work made me understand visual intelligence’

30 January 2017

Among the tasks I was given as a junior editor at Thames & Hudson, where I started work in 1982, was proofreading a biography of Marlene Dietrich. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t notice the figure who’d come into my room until she started picking up the proofs. To my mild alarm, it was Eva Neurath, the firm’s founder, who waved me to sit down while she looked with rather languid curiosity at the illustrations.

Stylishly dressed as always, in a well-cut coat, she was on her way home, and I knew that her chauffeur-driven Daimler would be waiting for her at the front door on Bloomsbury Street. She’d removed the sunglasses that she habitually wore because of worries about her eyesight and so for the first time I was able to look at her closely – she’d never set foot in my room before. Tossing the last page of proofs on to my desk, at last she spoke, ‘I remember Dietrich. She was not really beautiful,’ and swept out.

This cryptic comment was interpreted by my colleagues: as a young woman in Berlin in the 1920s, I was told, ‘Mrs N.’ (as she was universally known in the firm) had hoped to become an actress, but her career had faltered thanks to the rise of Dietrich. I didn’t question the story, as it seemed entirely in keeping with Thames & Hudson, which was staffed by central Europeans whose stories I eagerly devoured. There was the picture researcher Alla Weaver, a White Russian who had been taught English by Vladimir Nabokov; the designer Ruth Rosenberg, who explained to me how she’d stayed in Germany until it was almost too late because she didn’t want to leave her boyfriend – ‘he was a Nazi, but I was in love’ – and the Hungarian picture researcher Georgina Bruckner, who, when told the year that I had been born, exclaimed in surprise, ‘After the revolution?’

The combination of Thames & Hudson’s high-pressure, European creativity with its quintessentially English setting in a rambling group of Georgian houses captivated me, and, being young, I didn’t pay much attention to the pain and loss that lay behind these stories. Eva Neurath’s background was similar. Having fled Berlin in 1939, she was given a job in publishing by a fellow refugee, Walter Neurath. After the death of Walter’s wife, they married, soon after founding Thames & Hudson to publish illustrated books in London and New York – hence the firm’s name. This story was recorded by Eva in a memoir of her early life that she wrote for her grandchildren. Recollections, published last year by Thames & Hudson, is a small, elegantly designed book, and it explains a great deal about ‘Mrs N.’ that I never knew.

Her family circumstances were less easy than I’d assumed. Born in Berlin in 1908, the youngest of five girls, she left school at 14 partly thanks to anti-Semitism – her father was Jewish – and this lack of formal education gave her a lifelong appetite for self-improvement. Her father died when she was seven and she was brought up by her emotionally distant, bohemian mother, whose second husband was a lawyer at the UFA film studios in Berlin. As a child Eva occasionally worked as an extra, which is probably the origin of the story I was told about her film career – if she ever thought of becoming an actress, she doesn’t mention it.

With no experience of publishing when she started working with Walter Neurath, she taught herself design, for which she had a natural gift. After Walter died in 1967, Eva left the day-to-day running of the firm to his children, Thomas and Constance, and until her death in 1999 concentrated on just a few books every year. I worked with her first on The Bayeux Tapestry by the then director of the British Museum, David Wilson. It was the sort of technical challenge that she relished: the tapestry was specially photographed and there were endless series of picture proofs that she took to Bayeux to check against the original. I had to sit with her while she made corrections to the layout, usually in the office but occasionally at her home in Highgate, hung with works by Schiele and Kokoschka, – the remains of a collection that she and Walter had sold to support their fledgling firm.

Occasionally she would reminisce about Thames & Hudson’s early days, but the constraint of my junior status made me shy of asking her questions, although I could sense the humour beneath her grande dame manner. Watching her at work made me for the first time understand visual intelligence, a quality that – as a career in publishing has taught me – surprisingly few people possess. I remember how she corrected a proof of the title page by cutting it into pieces, which she laboriously rearranged on a new sheet of paper. At last she looked up at me, and smiled: ‘They are not just words you know.’

From the February issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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