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.
Before the Second World War, Max Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece had worked together in Paris to launch Albatross, first in competition to the old-established firm of Tauchnitz, and then to run the two companies as a joint operation. Wegner seems to have been more in control of the editorial side in the early years, but relations between the two may have soured, and in 1936 he moved from Paris to Hamburg, taking over the sales and distribution business from Kurt Enoch. From that point on, Holroyd-Reece ran the editorial side of the business from his home and office on the Ile de la Cité.
When the war came, the two found themselves on opposite sides. Holroyd-Reece had been born in Germany as Johann Hermann Riess, but had become British and fled to London, with the Nazis appropriating the business and appointing a German manager to run it. After the war, he re-launched the business from the same offices, although he himself continued to live in London.
Wegner meanwhile set up in effective competition, using the Tauchnitz brand from Hamburg. His short-term ambitions were relatively modest, and by 1948 he had re-issued about 10 of the previous Tauchnitz books in a new series, with no new publications at all. Those 10 were selected from the more than 5000 previously published by Tauchnitz. On the face of it, it’s quite odd to publish them as a new series, rather than under their original Tauchnitz series numbers, but it probably reflects the lack of clarity over rights to the Tauchnitz brand and copyrights. Wegner had no ownership of the original Tauchnitz firm and had simply created a new company, Tauchnitz Edition GmbH in Hamburg, taking advantage of the uncertainty over property rights in post-war Germany, as Holroyd-Reece was doing from Paris.
The post-war conditions in Germany however meant that the books were printed on poor quality paper and did not look attractive, either in comparison with the pre-war publications or with some of the same books being issued from Paris under the Albatross brand. Perhaps not surprisingly they don’t seem to have been a great commercial success.
Of even more concern for Wegner though was that by 1948 Wolfgang Brandstetter, the owner of the firm Oscar Brandstetter, had succeeded in re-establishing his ownership rights over Tauchnitz. Wegner was effectively forced into a short term partnership with Brandstetter as joint Managing Director. As well as extending the series further to an eventual total of 18 titles, they also created a new Students’ Series aimed at German schools, again using texts that had already been published by Tauchnitz in its pre-war Students’ Series.
The partnership between Wegner and Brandstetter was short-lived, and by 1950 Wegner was moving on again, forced out of Tauchnitz for the second time in his career. The Tauchnitz name and business was sold off, although the Students’ Series continued for several more years under a Brandstetter imprint.
The attempt to revive Albatross after the Second World War lasted only 3 or 4 years, from 1947 to 1950. In fact most of the new works published in this period, at least in English, came in 1947. After that only a handful of new books were added to the main Albatross series, although it continued to re-issue books published before the war, and it also diversified into books in other languages.
Albatross had been very successful as a publisher before the war, both in economic terms, and in literary terms, offering the first European publication to a succession of major novels by writers such as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh as well as crime writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. For much of that period it had been led by John Holroyd-Reece, who was also responsible for the post-war revival. Why could he not continue the record of success?
Volume 514 (pre-war) and volume 516 (post-war)
The business re-started more or less where it had stopped eight years previously at the outbreak of war. The last books to be published had been numbered up to volume 514 and then volume 518, with 515 to 517 not appearing. After the war, the numbering re-started from 550, but three volumes with earlier numbers also appeared (516, 517 and 521), presumably because they were about to be published with those numbers when war intervened. It’s almost as if somebody just dusted off the old files and went back to where they were.
In that first year of the re-launch, a total of 27 books were added to the series – not quite up to the rate at which books were being published before the war, but respectable enough. A significant number of volumes from the pre-war Albatross series were also reprinted, as well as a selection of pre-war Tauchnitz volumes in Albatross branding. It seems clear though that sales were not up to expectations and a high proportion of the books languished in warehouses.
In literary terms, the highlight of the publishing programme was ‘Brideshead revisited’, newly published in the UK in 1945. Virginia Woolf’s pre-war novel ‘The years’ was also included, and there are books by Rosamond Lehmann, Agatha Christie, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, but the list lacks some of the sparkle of the pre-war years. Despite the backing of Collins, there was no return for the Albatross Crime Club, and only a small number of crime titles were added to the main series.
With sales disappointing, the new publishing programme had to be cut back drastically, and I can only track down about three new titles published in 1948, another three in 1949 and then six in 1950 before the series finally expired.
Quite why it failed, is hard to say with confidence, 65 years later. But conditions in the market had changed irreversibly. The massive success of Penguin, with their print runs of 100,000 copies, may have made it all but impossible for a small scale publisher specialising only in the Continental European market, to compete. Obtaining the agreement of authors, their agents or their UK publishers, to sell European paperback rights separately, may also have been increasingly difficult, when the market could be adequately covered by Penguin or other UK paperback publishers.
The business did have some success with foreign language translations of English novels, and bound editions of the Albatross titles (possibly unsold stock re-bound?) continued to be sold in Europe, possibly for several more years after 1950, although it’s hard to be sure. But for the most part, by 1950 the game was up. The Albatross brand was about to disappear, followed not long after by that of Tauchnitz, the business it had first vanquished and then revived.
Portuguese and Spanish Albatross editions from around 1948
At the end of the Second World War it was unclear exactly what remained of the combined Tauchnitz and Albatross publishing business that had been so successful before the war. Albatross had been owned by Sir Edmund Davis, who had died in 1939, and Tauchnitz had been owned by the printers Oscar Brandstetter, whose premises in Leipzig had been destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943. The editorial office in Paris of the combined business had been taken over by the Nazis during the war, and although it continued to sell existing stock for a surprisingly long time, as well as launching a number of other ventures, the business had effectively disappeared by the end of the war.
What did remain though were the rights to a backlist of almost 6000 volumes, containing the cream of English literature from the past century. For anyone who could establish their rights to this backlist, and to the goodwill and brand recognition that went with it, there was the possibility of re-creating a significant business. At least two men – Max Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece – were interested in doing so. They had both worked for Albatross before the war, although relationships between the two seem to have been difficult at times.
Holroyd-Reece chose to re-launch using the Albatross brand and series with the backing of Collins in the UK, and using the previous Albatross office in Paris, while Wegner attempted to revive Tauchnitz from Hamburg. It is unclear whether either of them could genuinely claim rights to the brand name or the Tauchnitz backlist, but in the chaos of post-war Europe, with uncertain property rights in Germany, that was perhaps not totally untypical.
Wegner started with a short series of 18 books, published between 1946 and 1949, all of them previously published by Tauchnitz. From 1948 to 1950 he added a Students’ Series of a further 12 titles, again drawn from the Tauchnitz backlist, and probably largely aimed at schools in Germany.
Early post-war Tauchnitz editions from the main series and the Students’ Series
Holroyd-Reece had rather larger ambitions, resuming the Albatross series with new titles as well as re-issuing pre-war titles. More controversially, he also re-issued books previously issued by Tauchnitz, in Albatross branding and format, but with their original Tauchnitz numbering. Some of these books were, at much the same time, being re-issued by Wegner in his Tauchnitz series. So for instance Hemingway’s ‘A farewell to arms’, originally issued by Tauchnitz in 1930 as volume 4935, also exists as Albatross volume 4935, issued in 1947, and then as volume 9 of the new Tauchnitz series, published in Hamburg in 1948.
Wegner took steps to legitimise his claims to the Tauchnitz brand in 1948, by appointing Wolfgang Brandstetter, the owner of Tauchnitz, as joint chief executive. Holroyd-Reece on the other hand could claim that when Brandstetter had bought Tauchnitz in 1934, it had ceded editorial control to Albatross. Indeed the evidence suggests that the purchase by Brandstetter may have been little more than a political fig-leaf to cover the embarrassment of a German firm being acquired by a Jewish-owned business, shortly after the Nazis came to power. Brandstetter at the start probably had no interest in running a publishing firm, or ability to do so. However it’s doubtful that an agreement entered into in 1934 in Germany, was still valid in 1947, with all that had happened in the meantime. Even if it was, some payment would presumably have been due to Brandstetter.
Of the two rival ventures, Albatross seems to have been the more adventurous and probably the more successful, launching a number of partnerships with other publishers. These led for instance to local language series under the Albatross brand in Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Germany. By 1950 though, both businesses were in terminal decline. Tauchnitz was sold and enjoyed a brief final resurgence in the 1950s, but in the end they were not really in competition with each other, they were both in competition with Penguin and the other new paperback publishers in Britain. The world of paperback publishing had changed for ever by the end of the Second World War and the conditions in which Tauchnitz and Albatross had flourished would never return.
James Joyce has a special place in the story of Albatross Books. The very first Albatross, published in 1932 was ‘Dubliners’ by Joyce, and in some ways the connection goes even further back than that, to the point when Max Wegner became General Manager of Tauchnitz in 1929. By that point, Tauchnitz was living on past glories and had lost most of its earlier dynamism. Wegner set about shaking it up. Amongst other things, a search through the file found correspondence from Joyce 10 years earlier about plans for Tauchnitz to publish ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’. It had never appeared. Wegner arranged for it to be published, and it finally appeared in May 1930 as Tauchnitz volume 4937.
Other Joyce books might well have followed, but Wegner’s changes at Tauchnitz were too much for the Board, which forced him out by mid-1931. It was a catastrophic decision. Wegner played a key role in the establishment of Albatross the following year as a rival to Tauchnitz, and by 1934 the new firm had effectively taken over the old one. It seemed fitting that ‘Dubliners’ became the first Albatross book, rather than the 5000 and somethingth Tauchnitz.
But Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the head of Albatross in Paris, had other plans in mind for Joyce as well. After ‘Dubliners’, it was natural to look next at ‘Ulysses’, which had been published in Paris 10 years earlier and reprinted several times, but was effectively banned in the UK. For the ‘Albatross’ edition, it was revised by Stuart Gilbert, at Joyce’s request, and carries a note saying it ‘may be regarded as the definitive standard edition’. That’s a substantial claim for a notoriously complex book that has been plagued by errors and misprints, but I think it’s fair to say that many people still regard this edition at least as an important one in the book’s publishing history, if no longer the definitive one.
The two volume Odyssey Press edition of Ulysses
But is it really an Albatross? It doesn’t immediately look like one, published in two volumes in almost plain covers, and bearing the imprint of The Odyssey Press. It does though have the standard size of an Albatross and the layout of the books is almost identical to other Albatross Books. It has the typical blurb in three languages on the cover, the same style of title page and copyright notice at the front and the characteristic Albatross colophon at the back, showing it uses the same typeface, the same paper supplier and the same printer as other Albatross Books from that period.
In practice The Odyssey Press (as the name might suggest) was an imprint set up specially for this purpose by Albatross, presumably because they were concerned that the book might not be consistent with the brand image they were trying to create for Albatross. They used the same imprint a few months later for publication of ‘Lady Chatterley’s lover’ as well – another book that at the time was banned in Britain. In some ways this feels like an excessively cautious approach to us now, but modern publishers too are concerned about establishing and protecting their brand image, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.
And in reality it was an Albatross – indeed very specifically it represented volumes 43 and 44 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library. Those volume numbers never appeared on the book and Ulysses didn’t feature much alongside other volumes in Albatross marketing, so the numbers are missing from most Albatross lists of titles, but there’s no doubt that that’s what they were. Lady Chatterley’s Lover similarly appeared in plain covers, but was allocated volume number 56 in the Albatross series.