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Francis Meynell (1891 – 1975) was a knighted publisher, poet, designer, alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin and a spy (well, not exactly – more of an international man of intrigue).
Meynell’s name has most recently come to light in released MOD papers that detail the official, but secret, version of a set of events that Meynell himself openly described a long time ago.
The story runs, according to the official version at least, that Meynell travelled to Stockholm in 1920 to meet with Russians who had agreed to use riches and spoils from the Workers’ Revolution to bankroll the Daily Herald in London, which was a left wing paper predominantly aimed at Labour voters (when Labour actually meant Labour). The enterprising spy sent to keep a close eye on the proceedings informed his superiors of Meynell”s eventual return with riches concealed in a box of chocolates. Fair enough.
Meynell’s telling of the story, which came out much earlier, is far more entertaining. He tells of travelling all the way to Stockholm to end up in a room adjoining that of another Englishman. This Englishman over the next few nights managed to enter his room, apologising profusely when he saw Meynell was in the room at the time. It seems he later re-entered thinking that Meynell was asleep and was observed carefully examining the room’s contents. The next day Meynell met his Russian connection, got the precious items and put them in the bases of chocolates, leaving them in his room with the wrapping a little bit open. As expected, they were examined. He took them all back out, popped them into the second box he had bought and brought with him from the room, put an address on them and posted them back to England. This left Meynell free to return home empty handed, munching on some nice chocolates.
Meynell commissioned one of his most successful pieces in the wake of the First World War with the philanthropic aim of brightening the populace’s lives with aspirational imagery. The advert (pictured above) for the dubiously funded Daily Herald, pictured here, was to rejuvenate the British public who had spent the previous years being subjected to sombre images advertising the war effort. The poster made its young designer, Edward McKnight Kauffer, relatively famous and his vorticist work was instantly popular.
Low cost, high quality. It may sound like a slogan for a carpet sales team but this was in essence what Meynell’s first, and most enduring, foray into publishing was all about. In Meynell’s own words the aim was to release works of ‘significance of subject, beauty of format and moderation of price’.
Meynell used Monotype machines, as pictured above, to replicate the more laborious methods of handset type in publishing enduring classics such as Shakespeare and Homer (‘Our stock in trade has been the theory that mechanical means could be made to serve fine ends; that the machine in printing was a controllable tool.’). His press commissioned graphic artists of great and international reknown such as Rudolph Koch and produced skillfully bound masterpieces and exquisite papers.
The press issued books that combined Monotype’s modern techniques and proprietary fonts in styles that were very traditional. The output of Nonesuch was essentially the embodiment of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s ideals. Nonesuch was in existence, in one form or another from 1923 to the mid 1960s. Nonesuch’s editions are highly prized and can sell for more than £1000.
There was much more to Meynell than simple propaganda. Although he was supported by Russian Revolutionary funds, Meynell’s patriotism was not to be doubted. As an imprisoned conscientious objector during the Great War he was, however, a thorn in the ruling class’ collective side. In funding his projects, his greatest concern was the welfare of the lower British classes, endeavouring to provide them with lower priced literature of the highest production values and newspaper reporting from a tradesman’s perspective. Such was Meynell’s strength of philanthropic conviction and quality of output that he was made Knight Bachelor, in spite of his ‘wanderings’.
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at
It is archived in Art, Biography, Culture, History and tagged Art, daily herald, Design, monotype machine, Nonesuch Press, printing, russia, Sir Francis Meynell, spy, Trinity College alumni, typography.
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