Francis Meynell was born in Bayswater, London, on 12th May 1891. He attended St Anthony’s School, Eastbourne until he was fourteen when he went to Downside School. In 1909 he entered Trinity College Dublin but left early in his third year without taking a degree.
Meynell started work in his father’s firm, the Roman Catholic publishers Burns and Oates, where he quickly took charge of design and production, and where he first met the future RDI Stanley Morison. The two men not only shared an interest in ornamental typography, as well as good book design generally, they also both had sympathy for left-wing politics.
A conscientious objector during the First World War Meynell helped to found the Guild of Pope’s Peace in 1916, and the Anglo-Russian Democratic Alliance the following year. He became the business manager and then the assistant editor for The Daily Herald (1913-20) where he became involved in smuggling diamonds out of Russia to subsidize the paper.
He relinquished the management of the Pelican Press, which he had founded in 1916, to Morison until his return in 1921 after he had stepped down as editor of The Communist. Two years later he published Typography, a volume of specimens of type used by the Pelican Press and in 1929 The Typography of Newspaper Advertisements. His Nonesuch Press (founded 1923) was unusual in that Meynell used a small hand press to design books but printed them commercially, so that a wider audience could afford to buy quality fine-press books. Illustrations for some of these volumes were commissioned from E. McKnight Kauffer RDI. Meynell published a full account of the press in The Nonesuch Century: an appraisal, a personal note and bibliography of the first hundred books (1936) but as a result of the prevailing depression the Press was acquired in this same year by the Limited Editions Club of New York, although Meynell managed to regain it in 1951.
The 1930s saw an unexpected career change. Meynell’s journalism brought him to the notice of United Artists, who engaged him to design their advertising. Motion Picture Herald described Meynell as a ‘poet, publisher and publicist extraordinary’ who had revolutionized British film publicity. He then moved to the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation before taking on the role of director of the advertising agency Mather and Crowther. He became Director-General of the Cement and Concrete Association (1946-58).
One evening newspaper said of Meynell’s duties as an Adviser on Consumer Needs for the Board of Trade, during the Second World War, that he was going ‘ from limited editions to limited clothing’. After the war Meynell was one of the three judges who chose the design by Reynolds Stone RDI for the ‘Victory stamp’, and he was consulted by the King on the design of memorial scrolls for the war dead. Appointed Honorary Adviser on Typography for HMSO (1945-66) and a member of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (1954-70), Meynell was knighted in 1946. As part of the preparations for the resumption of peace-time activities after the war, Meynell was a member of the committee established to look at ways to encourage industrial design. Their report recommended the setting-up of the Council of Industrial Design (COID), and Meynell served on COID’s council where his knowledge and appreciation of design were considered invaluable. He was also a member of the Advisory Council for the Victoria & Albert Museum and served on the Council of the Royal College of Art (RCA). A Vice-President of the Poetry Society (1960-64) Meynell received a DLitt honorary degree from the University of Reading in 1964.
Examples of the Nonesuch Press were displayed at the Britain Can Make It exhibition and Meynell also sat on the BCMI Council and various committees. He took part in the ‘Design at Work’ exhibition in 1948. As well as designing the visitor’s book for the Royal Pavilion, Meynell was responsible for much of the official printing for the Festival of Britain (1951).
Meynell was appointed a Royal Designer for Industry in 1945. As Master of the Faculty (1953-55) he gave an oration entitled, ‘The Seeing Eye’, which addressed the subject of taste. He took an active interest in the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), chairing talks on ‘Anglo-Swiss Cultural Relations’, ‘Business as Patron of the Arts in the Industrial Age’, and ‘Letter Design and Type Cutting’ by Harry G. Carter, who had worked with Meynell at the Nonesuch Press. He gave the Percy Smith Memorial Lecture on ‘John Baskerville: printer and designer’ (1952), reviewed the Exhibition of Modern Dutch Books held at the RSA in 1949 and wrote the RSA Journal obituaries for Richard B. Fishenden, editor of the Penrose Annual, and for his friend of fifty four years, Stanley Morison RDI. Meynell was also a judge for the RSA’s Industrial Design Bursaries competitions
‘His interest in people and ideas and his highly developed sense of the ridiculous drew young and old, famous and not famous, to seek his companionship’ wrote one correspondent to The Times.
Sir Francis Meynell died at the age of 84 at his home in Suffolk on 10th July 1975.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group D: Books & Printing – item 250
Francis Meybell, My Lives (New York: Random House, 1971)
Ian Rogerson, Sir Francis Meynell: designer extraordinary (London: Nonesuch Press, 1992)
Photo © Planet News Ltd., Johnson Court, EC4. RSA, London.