The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

May 22, 2016

May 22, 2001

According to her obituary Lesley MacDonald Weissenborn (December 14, 1911 to May 22, 2001):

was the driving force behind the Acorn Press, run with her husband Hellmuth, one of the most interesting private imprints to flourish after the Second World War. She was a tiny, outgoing woman and indefatigable socialiser whose organising ability enabled her to operate successfully in the tough, male-dominated publishing industry.

.....When they revived Acorn Press, the Weissenborns aspired to continue the tradition of handpress printing started by William Morris and to match the quality of production press production achieved by Oliver Simon of the Curwen Press (a friend of theirs), Francis Meynell at Nonesuch Press, Robert Harling and others.

This was after the war. Her husband was first married to a fellow German refugee; Edith and their son went on to the United States while Hellmuth was interned on the Isle of Mann for a statutory six months. He never followed his wife to the United States, divorcing Edith a couple of years later. (ca. 1942). But the obituary tells the story:

Lesley was one of the two spirited Macdonald girls, the elder of two daughters of Francis Macdonald, manager of Martin's Bank in Wallasey, Cheshire, and his wife Jessie. Lesley's sister is the artist Frances Macdonald, who also made her mark in a masculine world. She was an official war artist during the Second World War and, like her husband. Leonard Appelbee, contributed to the landmark Arts Council Festival of Britain show "Sixty Paintings for '51".

Francis, her father, died of tuberculosis when Lesley was 21. She had by then left Wallasey High School and soon moved to London, where Frances was studying at the Royal College of Art. After the Wallasey house was war-damaged, their mother joined them. In the capital, Lesley worked for Baynard Prim as a secretary-cum-personal-assistant, developing an interest in publishing and meeting authors. Baynard Press was notable for its School Prints, for which it used many famous artists, and for its excellent standard of printing.

In 1938, Hellmuth had fled to England from Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and son, Florian. When war broke out, his wife with Florian joined her mother in America, Hellmuth being interned for six months at Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Lesley met Hellmuth in 1943, when he had his first solo show of pastels and graphic art at the Archer Gallery and Baynard asked him for a marine alphabet engraved on wood

Hellmuth and Lesley married in 1946 and began publishing children's books as the Acorn Press, taking over a defunct imprint. Their joint expertise made them ideally suited for this venture. Hellmuth later recalled that they were both interested in printing and that, although he had no business experience, Lesley had a good knowledge of the industry, of paper manufacturers and book-binders. We were both devoted to producing books as perfectly as possible so that we took the plunge.

What he could bring to the partnership were his natural skills as a painter, engraver and illustrator and his wide learning in art history, philosophy and anthropology. Having studied under Walter Tiemann at the Academy for Graphic Art and Book Design, Leipzig, and obtaining his doctorate in 1925, he had joined the staff there in 1928, becoming a professor. After internment in 1941 he was appointed a visiting teacher at Ravensbourne College of Art, in Bromley, where he stayed until 1970, also working at his studio in Kensington.

The first Acorn Press books, illustrated by Hellmuth, were
A Picture ABC (1945), Counting (1946) and Raven the Rascal (1946) and were a promising success. They were soon followed by Three Brothers and a Lady, by Margaret Black, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, one of the most outstanding practitioners in his field, which was chosen as one of the fifty best-produced books in Britain in 1947. Gradually, the Acorn Press established a name for the quality of its finely printed, hand-set and hand-printed illustrated books as well as for its more commercial publications.

In 1949, Hellmuth illustrated Richard Friedenthal's Goethe Chronicle with 15 of his wood engravings. He was to work as an illustrator for 30 London publishers as well as for Acorn Press. One of his and Lesley's most ambitious undertakings was their joint translation of Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplicissimus, the first English version of the German baroque novel published in 1669. Translating took seven years and Lesley became fluent in German. John Calder published the book, illustrated with 45 wood engravings, in 1964.

A further development at Acorn Press was the association with John Randle, from the early 1970s. Randle, then production manager at Heinemann Educational, was beginning to make himself independent through the Whittington Press. He was keen to print using some of Weissenborn's original boxwood blocks. After that, a string of books was published partly under the sign of the Acorn Press, partly with the Whittington Press, notable examples of the collaboration being
Ruins (1977), Roads Rails Bridges (1979) and Proverbs (1979).

By the time of Hellmuth's death, in 1982, his work was being shown quite often again in Germany, with a big exhibition at Guteberg Museum, Mainz, in 1980. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, Lesley attended a retrospective show, the minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher greeting her off the plane and addressing the assembled private-view audience.

Hellmuth's had been a rather dominating personality. "After he died in 1982, Lesley was determined not to let life get her down," says her niece, Jane Appelbee Stokes:

...The Macdonald girls were keen Liberals and Lesley stood, unsuccessfully, in local council elections as a Liberal Democrat. It was a fund-raising, 28-guest dinner for the Lib Dems, which she catered for single-handed, that caused her first stroke in November 1991.

Lesley was the first woman chairman of the Authors Club. Among her friends she numbered many with literary and political associations, such as the Simons, Bonham Carters and Laurens van der Post.

I am not sure how much Lesley cared about cats, but her husband was famous enough to have his lino-cuts of cats included in the book Cat Cuts, by Miriam Macgregor (1999).

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