Conversations with the Themersons

1 July 2009

For Stefan and Franciscka Themerson, exile merely signified no frontiers. Just one manifestation of their wide range of skills, knowledge and interests was the Gaberbocchus Press, whose design and typography was characterised by original and sympathetic interpretation of each book’s meaning.

Stefan and Franciscka Themerson were a Polish émigré couple who came to London after World War II. Their fruitful creative partnership spanned numerous media including experimental photography, photomontage, film-making, poetry, fiction, painting and design. This partnership culminated in a prolific publishing venture, the Gabberbochus Press, which they started in London in 1949.

Stefan Themerson (1910–1988) was born in Płock, Poland. While still at school he was writing poetry and had stories published. He went on to study physics as well as architecture. Drawn to the avant-garde, he became absorbed in experimental photography, photomontage, and film-making. When typographer and designer Anthony Froshaug first met Stefan Themerson, he remarked that he was impressed by the ‘universality of interests of this person’, which included in-depth studies in poetry, science, music, invention, politics and painting.

Franciszka Weinles (1907–1988) was born in Warsaw. The daughter of a well-known painter, Jakub Weinles and a pianist, Łucja Kaufman, she took to the arts as a young child, and studied music at the Warsaw Academy of Music, and then painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. While there, she met Stefan Themerson in 1929. It was the start of a partnership that would span 59 years. The couple married in 1931.

The Themersons’ first collaboration was Apteka [Pharmacy] (1930), an experimental film. Between 1930 and 1937 they produced four more films and played a seminal role in the development of avant-garde cinema in pre–war Poland. They also collaborated on a number of children’s books, written by Stefan and illustrated by Franciszka.


Cover of f.a., for the Polish film-makers’ co-operative SAF

The Themersons’ first independent foray into publishing was the journal f.a. [Art Film] for the film-makers’ co-operative SAF (Spółdzielnia Autorów Filmowych) which they founded in 1935, establishing contacts with London and Paris. The journal was edited by Stefan and designed by Franciszka.

In 1938 the Themersons left Warsaw for Paris in search of a wider artistic environment. Franciszka was illustrating children’s books, while Stefan edited a children’s newspaper supplement and wrote poems. When World War II broke out, the Themersons volunteered for war service. Stefan joined the army and Franciszka became a cartographer for the Polish Government-in-Exile. After two years of separation, they were reunited in London in 1942, and made two more films. Six years later, they founded the Gaberbocchus Press.

In 1954, they became British citizens. Stefan rejected any notion of ‘exile’ and spoke of his cultural heritage as the world at large. This lack of nostalgia, coupled with a sense of detachment and the Themersons’ policy of publishing writers on the basis of their work rather than their heritage typify what differentiated Gaberbocchus from other small émigré publishers of the time.

Writers are never, writers are nowhere in exile, for they carry within themselves their own kingdom, or republic, or city of refuge, or whatever it is that they carry within themselves. And at the same time, every writer, ever, everywhere is in exile, because he is squeezed out from the kingdom, or republic, or city, or whatever it is that squeezes itself dry. – Stefan Themerson, 1946

Stefan counted among his friends the writers, artists, scientists and philosophers they had come to know in Warsaw, Paris and London. Of these, Kurt Schwitters and Bertrand Russell had a significant influence on his work and philosophy. Stefan’s first book published in English, Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry: a novel (1949) lays out the meanings and strategies of his semantic poetry. He wrote eight novels, philosophical and critical essays, poems, a short play, more stories for children and an opera. As a painter, Franciszka had important solo exhibitions throughout England and Europe, and participated in many group exhibitions. She evolved a style of figurative painting, full of drawing, that she called ‘bi-abstract’ and that one critic described as ‘modern cave painting’. Her prolific, fluent drawing ranges from the lyrical to the grotesque. A brilliant illustrator, she also designed for the theatre.

The Gaberbocchus Press
The Themersons founded the Gaberbocchus Press in 1948, registering it as a limited company and issuing 1,000 shares worth £1 each. The name ‘Gaberbocchus’ was borrowed from a Latinisation of Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’ (devised by Carroll’s clergyman-uncle). The Gaberbocchus logo is a drawing of a literate, amicable dragon often found reclining and enjoying a book. Franciszka re-invented the dragon many times over the years.


Franciszka Themerson reinvented Gaberocchus’ literate amicable dragon many times over the years

Publishing took the place of film-making in the Themersons’ minds and creative lives. The press enabled them to stay independent; to remain in touch with Europe, introducing the work of important European writers and artists to a British audience; and finally, to publish their own experimental work in whatever form they chose. When asked by a journalist as to how many copies of books they expected to sell, Themerson said: ‘I want this book to exist as a document so that someone can have access to it… some day.’

In the 31 years of its existence, Gaberbocchus Press published 60 titles. Among them were first English editions of such European writers as Christian-Dietrich Grabbe, Raoul Hausmann, Alfred Jarry, Pol-Dives, Raymond Queneau, Kurt Schwitters, and Anatol Stern. Gaberbocchus authors also included Bertrand Russell, Hugo Manning, Oswell Blakeston and Stevie Smith.

The editing, design, and paste-up were done in-house by the Themersons. Two other people were intimately involved with the press: Barbara Wright, translating texts from the French, and the painter, Gwen Barnard. For reasons of time, energy and finance by 1979 the Press was no longer truly viable, and Gaberbocchus was taken over by the Dutch publisher, Jaco Groot, whose company, De Harmonie, maintains a caretaking role.

The press also functioned as an important meeting place for those interested in art and science. The Themersons ran the Gaberbocchus Common Room from 1957 to 1959 in the basement of their office in Formosa Street. The members, 149 members in all, met informally on a weekly basis, paying a subscription of 10 shillings. 82 events – lectures, discussions, plays, poetry readings and music recitals – were organised during the two years that the Common Room was active.


Invitation to an event at the Common Room

A Gaberbocchus book
‘Book design,’ Hugh Williamson wrote, ‘tends to be at its best when carried out by a single designer, who can prepare a coherent plan for every stage of the book’s production.’ The unique look and feel of Gaberbocchus books was largely due to the Themersons’ involvement in the design and production. Gaberbocchus titles show thought, deliberation and planning.

Stefan Themerson described their approach: ‘When we design a book what we aim at is a best-looker not a best-seller. You may think it odd, but that is sound economic policy for a publisher of our size.’ The form of each book – achieved by their choice of typography, style of imagery, and format – was the result of their sympathetic and original interpretation of the book’s meaning.

The Themersons’ approach to the book as a material object to be touched and handled as well as read is evident in their very first publications, Jankel Adler: an artist seen from one of many possible angles (1948) and The Eagle & the Fox & the Fox & the Eagle (1949). They were printed on mould-made deckle-edged paper using a hand press, and bound with special cloth. As Nick Wadley noted, ‘manual assembly, not only of things but of the means to assemble things, was a natural activity to both of them’.


Page from Stefan Themerson’s Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940-1948 (1958)

While the Themersons also made use of commercial production processes – subcontracting the typesetting, printing and binding – their approach to book design combined something of the trade book designer with something of the artist. Their artistic approach is evident in their preferences for associative aspects of typography, integrated complex layouts that treat the page as a canvas, and the strong use of colour in their books. For the Themersons, the book was another medium for their creative expression.


Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi (1951). First English translation and preface by Barbara Wright, with drawings by Franciszka Themerson

Franciszka was Gaberbocchus’ primary illustrator. While most 0f the illustrations were drawings, other styles used in Gaberbocchus books include photographs, photomontages, monoprints, collages, diagrams, photograms, engravings, reproductions of a variety of material including illustrations on magic lantern slides, collages created using Victorian steel engravings, and gravure illustrations.

The Themersons had a deep interest in typography and typographic layout. In his writings on the placement of printed words on the page, Stefan Themerson noted:
A page of a book is like a human face. Look at a page by Hemingway and compare it with Sterne and Marcel Proust. They are different typographical beings. But force upon them those ragged edges, and the influence of the author’s style on the physical aspect of the page, their typographical physiognomy will disappear. No, unjustified setting is a sort of gleichschaltung [enforced conformity] through diversity, a very phoney diversity. Produced methodically by chance. For the comfort of the keyboard, and not for the comfort of the eye.


Aesop’s The Eagle and the Fox, the Fox and the Eagle (1949) shows the Themersons’ deep interest in typography and typographic layout

For him, an unjustified or ragged-edged setting was more appropriate in the setting of poetry. Themerson’s meaning of unjustified is that words in the line have fixed spacing and are not adjusted. Internal vertical justification, or IVJ, was the organization of words on a page in a more planar, less linear way. IVJ started with Themerson’s invention of semantic poetry, and was actually borne from his attempt as a writer and poet to strip language down to its ‘true reality’.


The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (1953), one of the Gaberbocchus books featured that year in the National Book League British Book Production exhibition.

Franciszka’s caricatures for Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (1953) are a good example of the use of imagery in Gaberbocchus books. The visual, though related to the text, does not directly illustrate it but rather adds another dimension to the book. The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (1953) was one of the Gaberbocchus books that were featured in the National Book League British Book Production exhibition in 1953. The book employs a sophisticated multi-coloured palette with as many as ten different colours.

Although the design of Gaberbocchus books reveals an understanding of both structural and associative possibilities of typography, the Themersons were more clearly interested in the latter. Their skill is most evident in display composition (particularly book jackets and title pages), and in illustrated titles.


Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1958)

When compared to the ‘grey’ design and printing of numerous mainstream titles of the 1960s and 1970s, the Gaberbocchus output is both inventive and refreshing. Their work is best summed up in a review written by the designer Ruari McLean:
Originality of text can be greatly enhanced by originality of decoration, illustration, even of materials. Most English book designers are so paralysed by the obligations of good taste and the fear of looking like Americans (or, alternatively, of not looking like Americans) that they hardly ever take a risk. Gaberbocchus Press … however, is always taking outrageous risks; whatever the financial results, the aesthetic results are wildly stimulating and satisfactory.

Images produced by the kind permission of the Themerson Archive. This article first appeared in the St Bride Library journal, Ultrabold, Summer 2009.

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