Lehmann, (Rudolph) John Frederick (19071987), publisher and author, was born on 2 June 1907 at Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, the fourth and youngest child and only son of , oarsman, contributor to Punch, and Liberal MP, and his wife, Alice Marie (d. 1956), daughter of an American, Harrison Davis, and descended on her mother's side from Sir John Wentworth, an eighteenth-century governor of New Hampshire. In the house and garden of Fieldhead, where he was brought up with his sisters, , Beatrix, and Helen, the profession of letters was powerful as both living presence and lively inheritance. His paternal grandmother belonged to the notable Scottish publishing family Chambers (whence his father's second name), and a great-uncle of his father was W. H. Wills, assistant editor with Charles Dickens of Household Words.
Lehmann went as a king's scholar to Eton, where he edited College Days. Among his contemporaries were Eric Blair (George Orwell), Henry Yorke (Henry Green), and Cyril Connolly. He read history and modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a second class (division one) in both part one of the history tripos (1928) and part two of the modern and medieval languages tripos (1930). There his close friendship with Julian Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf, plunged him so irresistibly into the Bloomsbury circle that by 1931 he was working as factotum at the Hogarth Press, which also published A Garden Revisited (1931), his first volume of poems. His verse, praised for metrical skill, elegiac tone, and clarity of diction, followed at rare intervals, ending with the Collected Poems of 1963, a self-critically thin volume.
As Nazism took grip in Germany, Lehmann left publishing to live as a poet in Vienna, a city he monitored as Christopher Isherwood did Berlin. The first of his three volumes of autobiography, The Whispering Gallery (1955), reflects the hardening of his anti-fascist view of that pink decade, while with heartache he faced the dilemma that was to dog him insolubly: whether to be impresario or artist. In 1935 he founded the twice-yearly (often irregular) hard-bound New Writing, which abruptly lost its left-wing élitism when in 1940 it burgeoned, as the paperback Penguin New Writing, into part of the war effort. This magazine was his masterpiece. Four or six issues a year during the Second World War all sold out their 75,000 or more copies within days. A morale booster of high potency, a documentary record of war by the men fighting it, packed full of poets and story-writers who were his own discoveries, this was the voice of cultural survival.
In 1938 Lehmann had bought Virginia Woolf's share of the Hogarth Press, but when his partnershipvigorously described in Thrown to the Woolfs (1978)ended in 1946, he launched his own firm, John Lehmann Ltd. His good-looking books225 titles by 1954, when his supportive printers withdrewreintroduced British readers to the wider world at a crucial post-war point. Saul Bellow, George Seferis, and Gore Vidal ornamented his list, as did the no less influential Elizabeth David. His services to European letters earned him the Légion d'honneur (1958), the Greek order of George I (1954), and an honorary DLitt at Birmingham (1980). He was appointed FRSL (1951) and CBE (1964).
Lehmann's subsidy from the Daily Mirror in 1954 to found the London Magazine and maintain the aesthetics of humanism was soon dropped. The magazine tottered on too conservatively for the current Zeitgeist until Alan Ross took it over in 1961. For the remainder of his life Lehmann took visiting professorships in America and engaged in literary journalism and reminiscence of reflective quality, especially in his popular studies Lewis Carroll (1972), Virginia Woolf (1975), and Rupert Brooke (1980). In his books, of which there were many, his writing was always courtly and finished, expressive only between the lines, except in the homosexually libidinous novel In the Purely Pagan Sense (1976), which he predicted would lose him his friends. It did not.
Lehmann was a tall, broad, and formidable figure, whose guttural voice and avuncular presence filled a room, with eyes, as William Plomer put it, like forget-me-nots within a skull. His gardens (and gardening) he loved. At his frequent parties at his Egerton Crescent home in London, where he had the generosity to confront young writers with their elder peers, his rooms were ablaze with massed flowers from the country. For much of his life he shared homes in London and near Crawley, Sussex, with the dancer Alexis Rassine.
Lehmann died after a long illness, in which hip operations had interrupted his mobility, in a nursing home at 29 Devonshire Street, Westminster, on 7 April 1987.
David Hughes, rev.
Daily Telegraph (9 April 1987) · The Independent (10 April 1987) · A. T. Tolley, ed., John Lehmann, a tribute (1987) · J. Lehmann, In my own time (1969) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1987) · personal knowledge (1996)
Princeton University Library, papers
Ransom HRC, corresp. and papers
U. Cal., Berkeley, Bancroft Library, corresp. and papers | King's AC Cam., letters to G. H. W. Rylands
U. Reading L., corresp. with Ewald Osers
U. Sussex Library, corresp. with Leonard Woolf
UCL, letters to Alex Comfort
photograph, Hult. Arch.
Wealth at death
£244,753: probate, 28 Oct 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales