By MICHAEL CAINES
In 1948, two Polish emigrés in London, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, set up the Gaberbocchus Press, the name being a Latin spin on Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. Working initially with a hand press, they would go on, over the next three decades, to publish an average of just a couple of new books every year – and what books they were.
Among other notable firsts, Gaberbocchus published the first English translations of Ubu Roi; Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style; The Good Citizen’s Alphabet by Bertrand Russell; and other works by Stevie Smith, Kurt Schwitters and the Polish futurist poet Anatol Stern. These publications, “best lookers” rather than “best sellers”, are also examples of a sound principle (for small publishers? for all publishers!) put into practice: that “the design of each book should be an expression of its content”.
The Themersons were artists in their own right, who collaborated on experimental films and children’s books. The TLS welcomed the “wit and the precision and the merciful economy” of Franciszka’s drawings for Ubu Roi, and later the “many rum non sequiturs” of Stefan’s novel Mystery of the Sardine. It is only from the recently published Unposted Letters, however, that I have learned what led up to this settled post-war life: a period of intense uncertainty, with Stefan stuck in France, and Franciszka stuck in England. One of them was reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland . . .