Bruno Cassirer Publishing House in Oxford 1940-1990
(Notes based on Bruno Cassirer Publishers Ltd Oxford 1940-1990 – an annotated Bibliography with Essays – eds Feilchenfeldt and Weber, published by V & R Unipress) with thanks to Anna Nyburg
Bruno Cassirer was known as “the great Berlin art publisher”. He built up a large establishment there which became an important centre of Berlin’s cultural life. As it became harder for Jewish businesses to function after 1933, he fought on bravely, determined to publish without restrictions in the face of oppression – he found it impossible to believe that his beloved Germany was going to succumb to Nazi pressures. However, after the pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany in November 1938, he closed down his Berlin publishing house, and escaped with his family to England in December of that year.
Faber & Faber London’s directors Richard de la Mare and T.S. Eliot had promised their support years ago if Bruno Cassirer ever needed assistance in setting up an English publishing house. They kept their word and in May 1939, the firm of Bruno Cassirer Publishers with its directors Bruno Cassirer and his son-in-law Günther Hell (he changed his name later to George Hill while in the British Army) was founded. After a brief period in London, Portland Road in Oxford became the family’s business and home address for more than 50 years. Faber & Faber London distributed their books for half a century. However, in spite of his efforts, his energy and enthusiasm, Bruno Cassirer, died aged only 69 in 1941 and George Hill, then 36, took over. During the war years, Hill managed with the assistance of his wife Agnes, the Cassirers’ younger daughter, to keep the publishing house going in spite of paper rationing and his own time constraints. First he served in the non-combatant Pioneer Corps – but later moved up to serve in the British Army, taking part in the D-day landings and working as an army interpreter in France.
Continental publishers like Bruno Cassirer Publishers from Berlin or Phaidon from Vienna (and after the war Thames and Hudson) changed the face of British publishing. Phaidon introduced good quality art books accessible to the general public at a realistic price. Cassirer, however, continued with little financial backing as a small but high quality enterprise operating from the house in Oxford. They published important and well-designed art books, including oriental works by members of the famous Oxford academic circle that his brother and sister-in-law Sophie and Richard Walzer moved in. Philosophy was represented by Bruno’s cousin Ernst Cassirer among others, Buddhism by Conze, and the list included psychiatry, cookery books, the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and a big series of beautifully designed photo pockets, which were a kind of summary of the world after World War Two by the famous Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys, who had become a friend of the editor Hill. This series, which was a bestseller for Bruno Cassirer Oxford, includes pockets with pictures of London and Cambridge and two full size photo books of Oxford with forewords by Alan Bullock, Master of St. Catherine’s College. After the early death of Agnes, Hill married Elsie, a British-born woman, who became the company’s reader. For 30 years, the couple continued to work successfully together. They edited important art books like Goya’s Graphic Work by Tomás Harris (2 vols.) and they translated Wildensteins’s Catalogue Raisonné of Chardin, Cézanne’s Letters or Souchal’s Sculptors of the Reign of Louis XIV (4 vols.).
George Hill retired in his eighties, closing down Cassirers after 50 years in Oxford, but its importance is summed up by a statement by John Bodley of Faber & Faber who wrote “What will all the Faber list be without a golden thread of Cassirer titles running through it?”
KS December 2016