Obituary: Nicolas McDowall at Old Stile Press

Peter Wakelin’s obituary for Nicolas which appeared in yesterday’s Online Guardian ‘Other Lives’ section, was a necessarily reduced version of what he produced. Here is the obituary in full:

Nicolas McDowall Obituary

Nicolas McDowall, who has died aged 84, spent a lifetime creating beautiful books, first in educational publishing and then through the private press he established with his wife Frances, which was at the forefront of the British fine-art press movement. 

Nicolas and Frances worked directly with artists to create between one and five books a year for forty years under their imprint, the Old Stile Press. Among dozens of collaborators were Harry Brockway, Glenys Cour, Natalie d’Arbeloff, John Elwyn, Garrick Palmer and Peter Reddick. Sometimes Nicolas also made books of his own, such as his typographic conceit A Bodoni Charade. They published historical texts and worked with contemporary writers including Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Such choices reflected their love of the natural world and a humanitarian ethos attuned to Nicolas’s Quaker faith. 

Each book was a beautiful object that brought word, image, type, paper, binding and slipcase into a creative unity. Values of design were fundamental; Nicolas balanced type and imagery and sought a satisfying negative space on each spread. The guiding spirit was a neo-romanticism that melded traditional qualities with modernist inventiveness, underpinned by Nicolas’s enjoyment from an early age of William Blake, the Kelmscott Chaucer and the contemporary artists then showing in the London galleries. He explored techniques unfazed by the sensitivities of purist bibliophiles but he loved the age-old feel of words and images impressed in paper. Like autographic prints, the books often used artists’ blocks directly and were numbered in a signed limited edition. They ranged from miniatures and pamphlets to a folio of Philip Sutton’s woodcuts nearly half a metre square and the full script of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Nicolas was born on 22 May 1937 at Emsworth in Hampshire. His father, Toby McDowall, was a GP and consultant psychiatrist and his mother Nell (née Kewley) was a full-time mother to their three children. His education at Winchester College was excellent but he was deeply unhappy. Studying Philosophy at the University of St Andrews was a joyous contrast and it was there that he met his future wife Frances Pickering, daughter of the Fleet Street editor Sir Edward Pickering, who was reading English and Music. They married in 1964, by which time both were working in publishing, Frances at OUP and Nicolas at Edward Arnold. He began as a sales rep touring schools before moving into management at the Mayfair offices. He became a commissioning editor, head of the education department and finally a director. His creativity came to the fore promoting bold typography and graphics in books for schools, exemplified in the poetry anthology Dragonsteeth, which used a strikingly wide format with a stark silhouette of Stonehenge on the cover. 

In the 1970s Nicolas took classes in typesetting and bookbinding and began printing letterpress in a studio in their back garden at Blackheath. The first Old Stile Press book appeared in 1981, by which time Robin and Heather Tanner had become crucial friends and mentors. As the press had been named after a country stile Robin designed a pressmark based on the flared ‘squeeze-belly’ examples found in Wiltshire. Nicolas went part-time at Edward Arnold so as to concentrate on the new venture and in the late 1980s, once their children Daniel and Cressida had left school, they moved to a spot beside the River Wye upstream of Tintern Abbey and he took the opportunity of redundancy. 

A big, powerful man, Nicolas was nevertheless reticent and spoke in a mellow voice with a slight stammer; he hated public speaking and business lunches and avoided exhibition openings and literary events unless duty compelled. The peace, natural surroundings and creative work of the decades after they moved to Monmouthshire were a tonic to the debilitating depression he had suffered periodically since his schooldays; while Frances toured the international book fairs he enjoyed the therapeutic routine of day after day working at his presses and roaming a garden that stretched from river to woods. He designed each book and printed every sheet by hand while Frances ran the business operation, commissioned bindings and made paper in the basement.

Their Arcadian idyll was shared by like-minded visiting artists and writers (I was one of them) who spent happy days talking and planning projects over the dining table, experiencing a unique atmosphere of kindness and encouragement that enabled both youthful and established talents to flourish. Visitors were fascinated by the works of British neo-romantic artists that surrounded them: Nicolas said that he aimed to stretch his resources to minor works by the major artists and major works by the minor artists. He and Frances were keen to share their enthusiasm with others: they loaned works freely and an exhibition from the collection toured public galleries. 

Nicolas died of cancer on 31 July after a short illness. Frances died in 2019. They are survived by their son Daniel McDowall and daughter Cressida Maher, grandchildren Luke, Toby, Oliver, Imogen, Willow and Fenn and Nicolas’s younger siblings Julian and Christabel. The books of the Old Stile Press are in public and private collections across the world and its archive has been acquired by the University of Indiana.

Peter Wakelin

Photographs by Bernard Mitchell and Peter Wakelin

13 thoughts on “Obituary: Nicolas McDowall at Old Stile Press

  1. I am so grateful to have had my attention drawn to the obituary of Nicolas McDowall. I owe so much to him – he mentored me when he was at Edward Arnold. Always there to guide and encourage and with such a great sense of humour.

    I moved to Clevedon from London in 2019, just before Frances died. We had made plans to meet up at their home. But things did not work out and since then COVID has put a blight on meetings.

    Your wonderful obituary has brought back memories of a delightful, gentle and cultured man. Thank you. Jane Moran

  2. I’ve only just seen this sorry. Lovely moving words by Peter, and what an interesting man Nicholas was. I know it was difficult for you both losing him (and Frances earlier) such long-standing likeminded friends. Life’s a bitch as you get older, seeing our friends leave us one by one. However I can’t think of anything better than having an obituary written by Peter, and it was probably cathartic for him too.
    Look after yourselves, I’m so sorry for your sorrow. xxxL

  3. Word pictures from Peter and the sharing of loving conversations, thank you for gifts on a Monday morning to carry with me today and always.
    Love as ever
    Bern xxx

  4. And, like Anita Mills, I have gone , first to the Frances and the paper made of iris and reed link , and from there to the British Library , the Lady Dragon, and Peter, the Dragon Tamer link.
    And loved every bit of those.
    I did not know how to post this there, but here is as good a place to say so.
    And to thank Anita Mills, as, were it not for her, I woud probably have missed both links, having arrived here rather late . And to hope other late comers to the Artlog, follow her example.

    Thank You, all
    Love from Madrid

  5. After my last comment, I went back and reread your blog post about Frances’ paper making for the Barnfield project. A Herculean task. I would like to know what has happened to the brooch! A hefty chunk of silver, that was! 🤪

  6. A loving tribute for, in all our estimations, a “power couple” of small presses. Two things surprised me… first, that Frances made paper in their basement. I didn’t know that. Also, that the archive will go to the University of Indiana!! How did THAT come about? I would have thought the collection would be kept somewhere in the UK. The world’s a far less interesting place without Nicolas and Frances. xo Anita

    • Well to start with, the basement at Catchmays is not what many would think of as a basement. It’s more a below ground-floor storey countersunk into a large courtyard. So though down from the level of the garden and grounds, not at all Stygian, but with big windows and light and space. A lovely place to work. In fact the last time we saw them both, we had lunch in there. It’s rather open-plan and airy.

      With regard to Indiana, there was a very good reason that I can’t now recall, but it was something to do with having a particular interest that made the Press archive germane. I’m racking my brains. It may have been that private presses were the governing factor, or maybe poet’s papers. Sorry, it’s gone. But I also discovered this week that their collection of OSP books has gone to the Pallant House Gallery, in Chichester.

      When I see Cressida I shall ask her about the beautiful silver ‘Equus’ brooch you made for Frances, and that she wore at the book launch in London.

  7. What a beautiful obituary !
    I have printed it and wrapped it in a folder to keep among Peter’s books. (I often go to read them, and look at the images. It is such a pleasure.) I do hope may be published as part of a book of remembrance of them both, their work and their support of artists, with more pieces by Peter, but also by other artists and writer friends.

    You and Peter are lucky to have such fantastic friends. Though it is hard to say goodbye when the time comes, people like these do not really die, but stay alive in the remembrance, in the respect and in the love of all who knew them.

    Love for both of you from Madrid !!!

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