Eland publisher, Rose Baring, celebrates the life of Antony Gray, a man who has been invisible yet central to the visual beauty of the Eland list.
Last week, I had one of those dreams from which you wake happy, with a smile on your face and a feeling that all is right with the world.
I’d been invited to a spring party – a celebration – somewhere in the English countryside. The house was a cross between a wooden Russian dacha and the home of a member of the Bloomsbury Group. It had the warmth and large, light-filled windows of a dacha. It also had the same sense of being more of an excuse to be in nature than a way of avoiding it, closer to a tent than a house. Inside, there were arty things everywhere – on walls, over fireplaces, on doors and window frames. Omega-workshop-style murals, comic but beautiful puppets, decorated mirrors, wooden objects still in the making, flowing textiles which might be donned by guests of a theatrical bent. A rickety wooden staircase – more ladder than staircase – led to an upstairs den where plans for other, unrealised projects were piled on the desk of an obviously fertile creative mind.
The guests were a marvellous assortment of artists, wearing hats, long, bell-bottomed trousers, round tinted glasses, capes and colourful ties. One was pushing a barrel organ, another riding a penny-farthing, or was it a unicycle? There was a bonfire and a lake of some kind, where young children and grandfathers were sailing boats they had made themselves, with all manner of rigging and string glinting in the sunshine. What a party it promised to be!
The only person I recognised was Rosey, sitting quietly at the centre with a smile on her face and a piece of work on her lap. And at once I knew that it was the celebration I had missed for the life of her husband, the genius typesetter Antony Gray, and I recognised the house as their house in Crouch End, which has exactly that sense of natural creativity. The walls are a fascinating tapestry of paintings found by the two of them in junk shops, mostly 20th-century British, the back garden is a work of art, which the geraniums on the front porch, climbing some years to above your head, prefigure. And up the staircase, at the top of the house, was Antony’s work room, with light cascading through large windows front and back, and orderly piles of books in the making on a couple of huge tables. It’s one of my favourite places in London.
Why? Because in it I learned so much – about typesetting, but also about the almost meditative dignity of work taken seriously, the simple pleasure of working together to make something as beautiful as it is possible to make it. And about how friendship can grow through a shared endeavour and passion. Antony and I worked on ninety-seven books together, each going over them with our own fine toothcomb. I would drop in on his and Rosey’s house on my way to my other job, and whatever else was going on in my life, as I turned into Oakfield Road I got something of that sense that all was right with the world. Sometimes I would be introduced to a lodger in the hall, characters whose lives were, I’m sure, improved as mine was by finding themselves there. We would sit at the kitchen table, with its William Morris tablecloth, sometimes with a cup of tea, but more often with tap water, drunk from exquisite, thin, hand-blown, etched tumblers picked up in those same junk shops. The details mattered. There would be an exchange of news, laughter, gentle ribbing, before turning to the job in hand, Antony’s eyes sparking with pleasure at the thought of new project. However many times he had turned on his Apple Mac to start a new book, he still seemed to think of it as a delight and a privilege to be doing so.
When our printer’s rep first introduced me to Antony over fifteen years ago, my eyes were blind to the beauties of a well-set page. Taken by the hand, Antony showed me how the white space was almost more important than the text – round the edges of the page, between the lines, the words and even the letters. He showed me the tiny changes that transformed a piece of text’s readability and how only a few modern typefaces took such crucial things into account. He introduced me to leading and ligatures, kerning and tracking; to the difference between orphans and widows, indenting and displaying, hyphens and en dashes. And he quietly but firmly rebuked me when I suggested cutting corners.
I only learned after he had died that Antony had discovered his passion for type at Marlborough College, where I had also spent two years of my life. There was an old printing press there on which he made his first forays into layout, moving straight on to the London School of Printing and then into work with a variety of different publishers and printers. He worked with type and print all his life, moving his Apple down into his bedroom for the last months of his life, making changes to things for me and taking an interest in what was going on in my life and that of my children to the end. He was a master craftsman, who stayed true to the principles of his craft even when his tools changed from hot metal to digital. He understood that nothing would flourish unless you gave it time and attention – be it friendship, flowers or a piece of work. I owe my understanding of that to him, and it is a gift for which I will always remember him. If I, or he, believed in such things, then Antony would now be working at the helm of some magnificent celestial typesetting contraption, producing heavenly posters and notices for the angels. Lucky angels.