By 1928, when Aldous Huxley’s work first appeared in the Tauchnitz series, he was already a well-established writer. Tauchnitz was still the dominant English language publisher in Continental Europe, but it had struggled during the First World War and the difficulties that followed in Germany. It was no longer quite at the cutting edge of English literature, where it had been for most of its long existence, and British publishers were becoming reluctant to allow continental reprints as soon after UK publication as they previously had. Still, to join the near-5000-volume-strong Tauchnitz series was recognition that you had reached a certain level in your profession. The honour was as much to Huxley as it was to Tauchnitz.
‘Two or three graces’, a collection of Huxley’s short stories appeared in early 1928 (or possibly late 1927) as volume 4810, and the satirical novel ‘Those barren leaves’ followed shortly after as volume 4816. Although both volumes are dated 1928 on the title page, the first printing of volume 4810 is dated December 1927 at the top of the back wrapper, while volume 4816 is dated January 1928. There are multiple reprints of both books, identifiable by later dates on the back wrapper.
Sales must have gone well, and having identified Huxley as a promising young writer, Tauchnitz were keen to extend the relationship. The following year they published his new novel ‘Point Counter Point’, a longer work that stretched over two volumes, numbered 4872 and 4873, and dated March 1929 in the first printing. That was followed up by ‘Brief candles’, another collection of short stories, (volume 4958, dated October 1930) and by ‘Music at Night and other essays’ (volume 5017, dated October 1931). Both works appeared in Tauchnitz very shortly after first UK publication.
Tauchnitz though, by this time, was in turmoil. Hans Christian Wegner had been appointed to manage the firm in late 1929, after the death of Curt Otto, and was keen to modernise the series, encouraging writers such as Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. But his ideas were too radical for the Tauchnitz board and he left in 1931, becoming one of the key founders of the rival firm Albatross. At last, Tauchnitz had a serious competitor.
Wegner would have had a relationship with Huxley’s agent and UK publisher and been well aware of which works had already been published by Tauchnitz. He wanted Huxley for his new Albatross series, and saw an opportunity to win him over by publishing some of the earlier works that had been ignored by Tauchnitz
‘The Gioconda Smile and other stories’ appeared as volume 2 of the Albatross series in 1932. It brought together most of Huxley’s short stories from the two collections published in the UK as ‘Mortal Coils’ (1922) and ‘Little Mexican’ (1924). ‘Antic Hay’, another early work from 1923, followed as volume 24, with ‘Crome Yellow’, his first novel from 1921, published as volume 64 in 1933. Inbetween though came the real prize. Having won Huxley over and published his early work in far more attractive editions than the drab Tauchnitz volumes, Albatross was rewarded with his latest new work, ‘Brave new World’ published early in 1933 as volume 47 of the series.
A further volume of short stories appeared under the title ‘Uncle Spencer and other stories’ later in 1933, as volume 87. It combined the two remaining stories from ‘Little Mexican’, with five stories that had appeared in Huxley’s first collection ‘Limbo’ in 1921. So in the first 100 volumes and the first two years of Albatross, five Huxley volumes had been published. The tally at that point stood at six Huxley volumes in Tauchnitz and five in Albatross. Not bad for a writer who was still in his thirties.
But then two other events intervened that were to have significant effects on Huxley’s continental publishing history. The first was the near collapse of Tauchnitz, unable to compete with its much more modern rival, and the second was the rise to power in Germany of the Nazi party. I’ll come back to the effects of those two events in my next post.
When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages. The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.
But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed. The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later. Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross. When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.
Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross. Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.
But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo. The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books. Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.
One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’. Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P. So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.
I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945. Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.
The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks. Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.
One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book. For Penguin, orange meant fiction and crime was green. These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.
For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers. Was red a more appropriate colour for crime? On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.
Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green
But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red
When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art. They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.
Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre. In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.
Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours
But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long. Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green. From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library. Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.
Launched in May 1930, the Collins Crime Club had been a huge success, surfing the wave of public interest in the golden age of detective fiction. By 1936 it had published around 200 titles and claimed to have around 20,000 subscribers, although it was not really a club – just a mailing list of potentially interested readers. The star writer was undoubtedly Agatha Christie, but there was a wide range of other writers including John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts. Philip Macdonald and G.D.H & M. Cole.
The books sold at 7 shillings and sixpence, a fairly standard price for UK hardbacks at the time, but one that put them out of the price range of most ordinary people, who perhaps borrowed them through libraries or waited for cheap editions to be published. A selection of the books was published in cheaper paperback editions in continental Europe through Albatross Books, with which Collins were associated. The Albatross Crime Club published only books from the Collins Crime Club, in distinctive red and black covers, but these could not be imported into the UK.
It was the success of Albatross in Europe that gave Allen Lane the idea for Penguin Books. Possibly Collins should have seen it coming, but they were experimenting in a rather different direction in the UK at the time, with a series of cheap hardbacks sold at 7d, less than 10% of the standard hardback price. This series certainly included crime novels, although I am unsure whether any of the titles had previously appeared in the Crime Club.
Quite why hardbacks at sevenpence were a failure, while Penguin’s paperbacks at sixpence were a roaring success is hard to say, but they were. Penguin’s launch in July 1935 was transformational. Within months, perhaps even weeks, it was clear that their format was a success. By October, Hutchinson had launched their own paperback series in a very similar format to Penguin, and a new market had been established.
Hardbacks at 7d, or paperbacks at 6d – the public knew which they preferred
Collins could see now that Penguin represented a threat to their core market. There had been only a handful of crime novels in the early titles, but enough to warn them of what could happen. In fact Penguin had issued what almost amounted to a direct challenge to Collins by including a novel by Agatha Christie in their first ten titles. ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ was the first of Christie’s novels and like her other early novels had been first published by The Bodley Head, before she moved to Collins in 1926.
The Bodley Head was the Lane family company that Allen Lane worked for up to the launch of Penguin, so this was a book he had access to, or at least thought he did. As it happened, a copyright dispute over ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ led to Penguin withdrawing it a few months later and replacing it with another early Christie novel ‘The murder on the links’, but the episode made clear that Penguin’s ambitions included becoming a major publisher of paperback crime.
Penguin’s original volume 6 and its replacement soon after, volume 6A
So Collins were now fighting a rear-guard action as they started to plan a paperback series of Crime Club novels. Some aspects were almost a given. The price would be 6d, the size would be the Albatross and Penguin size (using the golden ratio) and the books would have a dustwrapper in the same design as the cover. These were basic features of the market established by Penguin.
But the most important feature of the Penguin revolution was no cover illustrations, other than a standard logo. This feature, again copied from Albatross, seemed fundamental to Penguin’s success. It conveyed an image of seriousness and established a break with the traditions of earlier paperbacks, which had often had lurid cover illustrations. For the Collins Crime Club, cover illustrations had been an important part of their marketing, so it was a big decision to replace them with a standard designed cover.
In the end, Collins settled for a new design that created a standard identity for the series and established its up-market credentials, while still having a nod to the earlier Crime Club branding. It was sufficiently similar to the Penguin format to make clear that it was a direct competitor, but sufficiently different to be instantly recognisable as a Collins Crime Club novel.
Instead of Penguin’s central white band, Collins introduced a large white circle for the title and author. And as well as using colour to indicate genre (again green for crime), Collins splashed across the cover a stylised picture of two masked murderers carrying a pistol and a knife that was effectively a development of the original Crime Club branding.
In its own way this cover was as classic a design as was Penguin’s three bands, and indeed it lasted rather longer. It was still being used right up to the end of the series in 1959, long after Penguin had abandoned its three horizontal bands in favour of various experiments with vertical bands, other grids and even cover illustrations. But it has never quite achieved the iconic status of Penguin’s design, now used for everything from t-shirts and bags to deckchairs, and I have been unable to find out who the designer was.
It’s not clear that there was any intention at the start to use the white circle on the cover as a unifying element across different types of fiction, or to develop it as the name of the overall series. It’s not even clear that there were any plans at the start to publish fiction from other genres in similar paperback editions. It is very clear in the early books that the brand is ‘The Crime Club’ and there is no mention of ‘White Circle’ at all. It’s only from about July 1937 onwards, once other types of book have been published, that ‘White Circle’ starts to appear as a series name.
The next key decision of course was which books to publish, and here Collins were spoilt for choice. Penguin, in its early days, had to search across the market and negotiate with various hardback publishers, who were often reluctant to allow cheap paperback editions. As a result, they ended up with a lot of older books, where hardback sales had declined to a trickle. But Collins had a treasure trove of around 200 recent titles that had already been published in the Collins Crime Club and could take their pick.
Unsurprisingly they chose a more recent Agatha Christie novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, for volume number 1. The first 6 titles, published in March 1936, also included an Edgar Wallace and novels by John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts. The other two were by Philip Macdonald, one of them under the pseudonym of Martin Porlock. The next batch in June included further titles by Christie, Rhode and Macdonald as well as one from G.D.H. & M. Cole and these writers between them accounted for most of the first 30 titles, although other authors were gradually introduced.
By the time war broke out in September 1939, the series of Crime Club paperbacks had reached around 80 titles, and the wider White Circle series had extended to cover westerns, mysteries, romantic fiction, general fiction and even a small number of non-fiction titles. It was certainly in some respects a serious rival to Penguin, at least in the area of crime fiction. Even in that area, Penguin would eventually triumph, but not before the Crime Club paperbacks had reached almost 300 titles, published over a period of more than 20 years.
Was it a success in terms of broadening the reach of classic crime fiction and extending its popularity? I imagine it must have been. The print runs were probably at least 20,000 and quite possibly 50,000 or more, so sales are likely to have been far higher in paperback than they ever were in the original hardback editions. The wartime Services Editions will have extended that reach even further. But in the end, the Crime Club paperbacks did fail, presumably as another victim of Penguin when they ended in 1959, and it was the hardback editions that outlasted them, continuing right through to 1994.
This is the second of two posts about the continental European editions of major crime writers in Albatross Books. The first one reviewed the Agatha Christie editions and this one goes on to look at Dorothy L. Sayers, her great rival for the title of ‘Queen of Crime’ in the 1930s. There are quite significant differences in the way that the two authors appeared in the series that raise some interesting questions.
The two writers did not share a UK publisher. While most of Christie’s novels appeared in the Collins Crime Club, Sayers used a number of different publishers, but in the 1930s, mostly Gollancz. That was no barrier to being published in Albatross, which took books from across the range of UK publishers, but it was in practice a barrier to the Albatross Crime Club, which was effectively the continental arm of the Collins Crime Club. So instead of appearing in Crime Club branding, ‘The nine tailors’, the first Sayers novel to appear in Albatross in 1934, was in the main series as volume 212 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library.
This was the ninth book in the already well established series of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and it appeared very quickly after first publication in the UK. I don’t know the exact dates of either UK or European publication, but both were in 1934 and judging by the numbering sequence, the Albatross edition must have been around the middle of the year. Although it had once been normal for European editions, particularly by Tauchnitz, to appear simultaneously with the UK editions, this had largely died out. By the 1930s it was relatively unusual for UK publishers to allow a paperback continental edition within less than a year of the original hardback publication in the UK.
Perhaps allowing such an early continental edition was a mistake, because there was no repeat of it when the tenth story ‘Gaudy Night’ appeared the following year. There was a gap of two to three years before that appeared as volume 364 of the Albatross series in February 1938, with the next story, ‘Busman’s honeymoon’, following in March 1939.
‘Busman’s honeymoon’ was not only the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel, it was effectively Sayers’ farewell to crime writing. Marriage turned out not to be good for Wimsey’s crime fighting abilities and Sayers turned instead to religious writing and to translation, most notably producing an acclaimed translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.
In any case the war was coming and there was little time left for Albatross. But they had already gone back to some of her earlier crime writing, starting with ‘Whose Body?’, the story that had first introduced Lord Peter Wimsey. That had been first published in the UK in 1923 by Unwin, but the rights had subsequently been acquired by Collins.
For reasons that I don’t fully understand, Collins considered the book to be a mystery story rather than a crime story, so that it did not appear in the Collins Crime Club or the Albatross Crime Club. I suspect that the distinction has something to do with the rules established for classic detection novels to ensure that authors played fair with the readers, although to me ‘Whose Body’ looks remarkably like a crime and detection novel. I’d be delighted if anyone can explain to me why this is considered to be a mystery rather than a crime novel and whether the same applies to all of Sayers’ work.
Anyway the distinction seemed to be important to Collins, who established a separate series for mystery stories in their UK White Circle paperbacks and a separate series too, with its own logo, for the Albatross Mystery Club. The Mystery Club series started in 1937 with volume 401 and ‘Whose Body?’ appeared in July 1938 as volume 418. It was quickly followed by ‘Unnatural Death’, another early Wimsey story that had been acquired by Collins, again in Mystery Club branding, as volume 425 in October 1938.
Both books, like almost all of the Albatross Mystery Club titles, are now pretty difficult to find. The main series books are perhaps a little easier. ‘Gaudy Night’ and ‘Busman’s honeymoon’ were both reprinted after the war, probably with a longer print run, and copies dated 1947 are now much more common than the pre-war editions (and since they carry no mention of the earlier printing, very easy to mistake for first printings).
Albatross Books was founded in 1932 in Paris as a direct rival to the long-established firm of Tauchnitz, which had had a near-monopoly on the sale of English language books in Continental Europe for 90 years. It was phenomenally successful in the period up to the Second World War, and its effects were felt long after that, particularly in its key influence on the launch and development of Penguin Books.
In that period, from 1932 to 1939, it would have been difficult to ignore Agatha Christie. She dominated crime writing at the time, and crime writing was enjoying its golden age. Yet in some ways it was just a happy coincidence that she was able to appear in the series. There was no tradition of publishing detective stories in English on the continent. Tauchnitz had published the Sherlock Holmes books from 1891 onwards, but had shown relatively little interest in other developments in crime fiction after the First World War. Albatross too seemed at the start to be primarily interested in publishing literary fiction, championing D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley amongst others. In its first 50 books, there were just 7 crime stories.
All that was to change though with the launch of the Albatross Crime Club in 1933. It was effectively a joint venture with the Scottish publisher, Collins, and came about because of the presence of two of the Collins family on the Albatross board. I don’t know how much of the initiative came from Collins, eager to establish a European outlet for their Collins Crime Club novels, and how much from Albatross, keen to expand their list into more crime novels. But either way, it provided the platform for Albatross to publish the works of Agatha Christie, as well as other leading crime writers.
And they seized the opportunity. Over the six years of the Albatross Crime Club, it included 14 Agatha Christies, starting with ‘Lord Edgware dies’ as volume 115 in 1933. Each volume followed shortly after its first appearance in the Collins Club, usually within a year, sometimes much quicker. And although overall the Albatross Crime Club published far fewer books than the Collins Crime Club, it seems to have taken all the Christies it could get. As far as I can tell, every Christie novel that appeared in the Collins series between ‘Lord Edgware dies’ in 1933 and ‘Appointment with death’ in 1938, was also published in Albatross.
The Albatross editions are not only the first continental European editions, they’re also the first paperback editions. Collins didn’t launch the White Circle series of paperbacks in the UK until 1936, after Penguin’s launch. The first volume in that series was ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which had already been published by Albatross in 1934 (volume 121) and so far as I know all 14 of the pre-war Christie books published by Albatross were first paperback editions.
Albatross Crime Club edition (1934) and Collins Crime Club (1936)
Like all the Albatross editions, they’re beautiful books, and mostly not too difficult to find. The print runs would have been relatively low, possibly only a couple of thousand copies of each book, so it’s unlikely that more than a couple of hundred survive, but they’re still out there to be found and usually not too expensive. The first book, ‘Lord Edgware dies’ would have had a transparent dustwrapper, although these were naturally fragile and I have never seen a copy with the dustwrapper intact. All the later books had paper dustwrappers in the same style as the covers. I don’t think any of the books were reprinted, so all copies are first printings.
When Albatross attempted a revival after the Second World War, it still had some support from Collins, but it was much less successful and there was to be no re-launch for the Albatross Crime Club. Instead a small number of crime titles were published in the main series, just four in total, but two of those were by Christie. ‘Ten little niggers’ (since renamed as ‘And then there were none’ and televised recently by the BBC) appeared as volume 554 in 1947, followed by ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’ as volume 575 in 1950. The first of these was again a paperback first printing, but the second may just have been beaten by the White Circle edition that appeared the same year. It’s probably significant that unlike the pre-war publications, these were not recent novels, hot off the press. Both had been written, and published in the Collins Crime Club, several years earlier. Albatross was no longer the cutting edge publisher it had been in its pre-war glory.
Overall though 16 Agatha Christie novels, all of them continental European first printings, and possibly 15 paperback first printings, is not a bad representation for the ‘Queen of Crime’ in Albatross.
For other paperback first printings, see also the story of Agatha Christie in UK Services Editions.
There were two English-language paperback series launched in Paris in 1932 as competitors to the long-established Tauchnitz Editions. One of them, Albatross Books, was enormously successful, effectively taking over Tauchnitz within two years and going on to publish around 450 books before the outbreak of war in 1939. The other, Crosby Continental Editions, was by almost any measure a failure, publishing just 10 books and not even outlasting the year.
But for some reason, it is the history of the unsuccessful company that seems to be more researched by historians, biographers and bibliographers, and the books of the unsuccessful company that are more highly prized these days, at least by booksellers. Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the founders of Albatross Books have slid gently into obscurity, with neither meriting an entry in the English-language Wikipedia, although they do creep into the German version. Most of their books can still be bought for just a few Euros. In contrast Caresse Crosby’s life is pored over by historians and the books she published are highly prized and highly priced.
Much of the attention she gets is of course nothing to do with the Crosby Continental Editions. She is remembered for her invention of the modern bra, her highly colourful sex life, and the circles she moved in as a result of her wealth and her personality. She had a huge range of contacts and was able to draw on them for her list of publications. She persuaded Ernest Hemingway to let her publish ‘The torrents of Spring’ as the first book in the series and then ‘In our time’ as volume 6. She received advice from Ezra Pound, and persuaded T.S. Eliot to write an introduction for volume 4, ‘Bubu of Montparnasse’. That book had been translated by Laurence Vail, the husband of Kay Boyle, another friend of hers. Boyle’s own work ‘Year before last’ appeared as volume 8 of the series, and her translation of ‘Devil in the flesh’ by Raymond Radiguet, as volume 3. Crosby seemed to call in favours from a friend for almost every volume in the series.
And yet, it was a total failure. That may partly have been the choice of titles. Although Hemingway, Faulkner and Saint-Exupery sounds an impressive selection of authors, it was competing with Albatross, whose first ten books included titles by James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, A.A. Milne and Edgar Wallace. Crosby had been keen to launch her series with a best-seller and was delighted to get Hemingway on board, but ‘The torrents of Spring’ is probably not his finest work. Albatross, which later published ‘The sun also rises’, may have got the better deal (not to mention Tauchnitz, which had earlier published ‘A farewell to arms’).
Overall the list contains 6 works by American authors and 4 by French writers in translation. Was it insufficiently cosmopolitan, or even insufficiently British, to appeal to the readers of English language books in continental Europe, many of whom would have been British expatriates or tourists?
But perhaps even more important is that the books, as physical objects, are poorly designed, if not simply ugly. It seems a strange thing to say, given that Crosby’s other venture, the Black Sun Press, was known for producing beautiful, high quality, limited editions. But to my eye these are anything but beautiful, and are not a patch on the elegant Albatross books. They seem to be modelled on the Tauchnitz Editions, which by then were looking old-fashioned. They used the same broad shape and the same buff covers. The CCE symbol on the cover is clunky and unattractive (to modern eyes resembling a Pac-man). In comparison, the taller and more colourful Albatrosses, with the distinctive albatross silhouette, would have stood out in every bookshop stocking the two series. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Crosby editions were designed to fail and deserved to fail.
Which would you rather buy, whether in 1932 or now?
Interestingly they seem to have been issued originally with glassine dustwrappers, as were the early Albatross books, although Albatross soon abandoned these as a bad idea. Few of them survive from either series, but the photo below shows one recently sold at Sotheby’s. Judging by this, the dustwrappers did little to improve their appearance.
The fact that they are sold at Sotheby’s at all is an indication of the veneration in which these strange little books seem to be regarded. As far as I can tell, they are not rare – probably not as rare as many of the Albatross Books. As an example, ABE currently has 17 copies of the Crosby volume 1 for sale. The prices range from £32 to £178 for copies without the dustwrapper, to £1,250 for one copy with a dustwrapper, and £35,000 for an apparently limited edition in a slipcase, signed by Hemingway. Interestingly, the dedication from Hemingway in this copy is to Sylvia Beech, the owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris and refers with a hint of sarcasm, to the heading on the cover ‘World-wide masterpieces in English’. Hemingway seems to be well aware that the book he had contributed was less than a masterpiece.
In comparison, ABE has just 5 copies of Albatross volume 1, at least 3 of which seem to be reprints, but you could still buy a first printing for £9. I know which book I’d prefer to buy.
Despite the short duration of the series, it had a surprising re-birth after the war, with one volume, ‘Devil in the flesh’ reprinted in an American hardback edition with a dustwrapper still in the old design, and one new volume issued in Rome in 1951. This final volume, a 13 page pamphlet advocating the use of referendums and issued almost 20 years after the others, seems to have little connection with the rest of the series.
The Christmas of 1938 must have been a rather tense one. The Munich agreement had been signed three months before, but Europe was sliding inexorably towards crisis and within a year it would be engulfed by war.
John Holroyd-Reece, at that point effectively the Managing Director of Albatross Books in Paris, may have had more to fear than most. The business of Albatross, selling English language books throughout Continental Europe, depended on peace in Europe, and his personal situation was both very European and very exposed to the risk of a war between Britain and Germany. He had been born and brought up in Munich as Johann Hermann Riess, to a German Jewish father and English mother, had opted for British nationality and anglicised his name, was now living in France and his (second) wife Jeanne was Belgian.
But despite the difficult political situation, he had a lot to celebrate. He was living in a magnificent apartment on the Ile de la Cité, one of the most prestigious areas of Paris, in the shadow of Notre Dame, in a building shared with the offices of the firm. Business was going well, publishing not only Albatross Books, but also the long-established series of Tauchnitz Editions, which they had effectively taken control of 4 years before.
So when he decided to send out a Christmas card, it was never likely to be a simple nativity scene or a cute picture of snow, robins and holly. He commissioned an artist to produce it and ended up with an astonishing card, almost 4 metres long and folded concertina style into a 30 page booklet featuring images from their home and office.
The artist was Gunter Böhmer, then 27 years old, but who was to go on to become a significant artist across a range of styles. He was born in Dresden in Germany, had studied in Italy, and had worked at Officina Bodoni in Verona with Giovanni Mardersteig, who had created the book design for the Albatross series. In 1934 he had provided illustrations for one Albatross book – the German language edition of Dickens’ ‘The life of our Lord’, and in the course of 1938, he had illustrated another – ‘Victoria Regina’ by Laurence Housman, a series of dramatised episodes in the life of Queen Victoria. He also worked on cover illustrations for an Albatross /Tauchnitz marketing brochure at the end of 1938.
For the Christmas card, Böhmer seems to have been given free rein to produce something that not only glorified Holroyd-Reece as his patron, but extraordinarily featured a significant role for himself as the artist. He appears on the very first page of the card, apparently arriving at Rue Chanoinesse with his sketchbook, palette and a hunting horn, accompanied by a donkey, to meet Holroyd-Reece and an angel. The symbolism of the card is not always easy to understand!
Throughout the rest of the card there are images of Holroyd-Reece and his wife in various settings, both in the office and in their private rooms, and also of various other Albatross staff working in the offices. Some of the staff can be identified by initials written alongside them – ‘WO’ for Wolfgang Ohlendorf, or ‘SB’ for Sonia Bessarab for example, but others are more mysterious.
Perhaps most mysterious of all though is the near constant presence of the artist himself, who wanders in and out of the pages of the card, before again taking centre stage at the end. He’s shown saying goodbye to the Holroyd-Reece family outside the house, before departing past Notre Dame with his donkey, in a scene that seems to evoke Mary and Joseph. The final page shows him and his donkey relaxing together with the hunting horn after a hard day’s work. I can’t think of any other work of art produced for a wealthy patron, where the artist seems to have as large a role as the patron.