NewsWire: Tolkien’s Publisher, Rayner Unwin, Receives the Gift of Men – London Times Obituary

by Nov 27, 2000Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Rayner Stephens Unwin, Chairman of the family publishing firm Allen & Unwin, counted J.R.R. Tolkien and Thor Heyerdahl among the outstanding authors his firm published.


Rayner Unwin

The London Times

SIR STANLEY UNWIN, if not widely loved, was universally recognised as a dominatingly able publisher, and he did not die until his son Rayner was in his forties. Rayner proved a good publisher in his own right and a devoted worker for the book trade — his CBE in 1977 was thoroughly deserved — and it was sad that, late in his career, as his refashioned publishing house was consumed by a conglomerate, he had to say rather bitterly to his friends, “I feel I’ve betrayed my father.”

Rayner Stephens Unwin was educated at Abbotsholme School, Trinity College, Oxford, and Harvard. He was in the Navy in the later stages of the war, serving from 1944 to 1947 as a sub-lieutenant, RNVR.

He joined the family publishing firm Allen & Unwin in 1951, and had learnt his business there very thoroughly by the time the redoubtable Sir Stanley died in 1968. The elder son, David, had worked in the firm during the war years but subsequently turned to authorship, and it was Rayner who succeeded to the chairmanship.

For nearly 20 years, towards the end of which British publishing was undergoing extraordinary upheavals (with family companies particularly affected), Allen & Unwin continued to trade comfortably enough. It was well run; it had sound general and academic lists, with Tolkien and Thor Heyerdahl as outstanding authors.

But by the mid-1980s Unwin was seriously concerned at the size of his firm — an £8 million turnover was small in a publishing world increasingly full of much bigger battalions — and at the need for an experienced and high-powered successor. For many months he held confidential discussions with Robin Hyman, a shrewd publisher who had built up his own firm, Bell & Hyman, to a very profitable £5 million turnover. In 1986 the publishing trade was astonished to learn of a merger which created a new company, Unwin Hyman, with Robert Hyman as managing director and Rayner Unwin as non-executive chairman.

All went well until 1989 when grave problems arose (not least, Hyman’s serious illness), profits plummeted and a substantial bid was made for the ailing company. Rayner Unwin, deeply opposed to the bid, had a 40 per cent holding; Hambro’s Bank, which favoured it, had nearly 50 per cent. The pill was made even more bitter since the acquiring publisher was the huge market-led conglomerate HarperCollins. “Sharks”, Rayner Unwin grimly called them.

Unwin’s services to the trade included more than 20 years on the Publishers’ Association Council, as member, treasurer, vice-president and president, and almost 20 years as chairman of the British Council Publishers’ Advisory Committee.

He was also chairman of the 1988 IPA Congress organising committee. This was the first congress of the International Publishers Association to be held in London since 1936. Stanley Unwin had then been IPA president: his son played a leading role in the massive organisation of the London conference.

Just before he died Sir Stanley had completed a deed arranging for funds enabling the establishment of a charity which would involve both bricks and mortar and book trade education. Rayner Unwin let the Stanley Unwin Foundation lie fallow for more than ten years, but then found an admirable use for it. He put up £200,000, 75 per cent of the purchase price of what had previously been Wandsworth’s Town Hall. It was retitled Book House, and in it was installed what had been the excellent but financially distressed National Book League, plus what had been the Publishers’ Association’s training and education sector. This neatly met the requirements of the deed, and enabled Book Trust, as the merged body was called, to develop.

Although he lived in Little Missenden, worked in Bloomsbury, and was reputed never to have penetrated further south in London than to his club, the Garrick, Rayner Unwin — once persuaded that Wandsworth really existed — acted with admirable decision and generosity. Streaks of his father’s deep belief in self-help were evident in his insistence that the impoverished NBL should pay 25 per cent of the purchase price of Book House, and that Book Trust should pay the foundation a modest rent. His natural generosity reasserted itself when he arranged that the rent be devoted to the upkeep and benefit of the building.

Early in his career he published two books, The Rural Muse (1954), on the poetry of John Clare, and The Defeat of John Hawkins (1960), about the adventures of the Elizabethan navigator. Much later, he followed this up with A Winter Away from Home (1995), which described the northern voyages of the Dutch explorer Willem Barents, and a history of the family firm, George Allen & Unwin: a remembrancer (1999). His other interests were mainly rural.

He married Carol Margaret Curwen in 1952, and is survived by her and by three daughters and a son, who followed him into publishing and worked in the family firm until its demise.

Rayner Unwin, CBE, publisher, was born on December 23, 1925. He died on November 23 aged 74


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