The wooing of Robert Hughes
Stephen Davies was a young publisher with a newly acquired credit card which he pushed to the limit the day he took Robert Hughes to lunch. Here he pays tribute to the larger-than-life art critic, who died on Monday aged 74I first met Robert Hughes in Langan's Brasserie off Piccadilly. It was a favourite haunt of his, and suited his truculent, jovial taste for the Bohemian. I was working as Deputy Books Editor in BBC Publications, and it must have been at the end of 1979 or the beginning of 1980. Hughes had been commissioned to script and present a block-busting series of documentaries on Modern Art - in those far-off, happy days when the BBC regularly commissioned such projects, and still managed to ensure that they contained some real and rigorous content.
There was a prejudice throughout general publishing that BBC Publications wasn't "a real publisher" (whatever that might be), and this prejudice had somehow leaked into the BBC itself: rumours came back to me that neither Hughes nor his redoubtable producer, Lorna Pegram, wanted the book of the series to be published by us. I, on the other hand, was determined to get the book, so I decided to see what behaving like a "real publisher" could achieve.
I went and talked to Lorna, attempting to walk a delicate path between flattery and toughness. I pointed out to her that the programmes were due to air in less than six months, and that to bring to publication in that timescale a fat book (as yet unwritten), with an elegant design, and furnished with colour illustrations throughout (a permissions nightmare in the time available) was not something any other publisher could offer. I, on the other hand, could promise to drop everything and achieve this. It was something we had done before, and could do again. I saw her frosty disinclination begin to melt, and my reward was to be allowed to take Robert Hughes to lunch, in the hopes of persuading him to let us offer for the book.
Which is how I came to be getting out of a taxi in front of Langan's Brasserie. I had nobody to guide me in this, but I decided to go for broke (how nearly this was literally accurate!). I would bring along the book's designer and picture researcher, to prove we had a team ready to take the project on, and in the hope of talking a bit about what sort of book it was going to be. It was early days for credit cards - at least for me - and I wasn't absolutely sure that I would be able to pay the resultant bill, but I decided to push on anyway.
As we entered the restaurant I saw Robert seated at the bar, and waved tentatively to him. It was then that I heard him utter the most characteristic words imaginable - words which could hardly have been more terrifying to a young editor in my position: "Hello, there! Waiter: another bottle of champagne!"
The bill for that lunch was eye-watering, but I am happy to say that Barclaycard saved my face. This fiscal anxiety apart, I can't remember a more entertaining publishing lunch - more stimulating, more challenging, but also more warm-hearted and loaded with wonderful gossip.
We got the book, and then of course had to make good my rash promises. I have no complaints about the months that followed, which involved a fortnight in New York, where Robert Lived in a huge loft - was it SoHo or Tribeca? - his literary labours overseen by a huge parrot, noisy and bad-tempered. There were memorable rows with Bob Gottlieb of Knopf, who were publishing in America, but that just taught me some valuable lessons in overcoming British reserve and giving rein to my inner aggression. Did I really say: "You know how to hand it out, Mr Gottlieb, but you sure as hell can't take it!" What movies can I have been watching? Yet even that turned to good in the end, because I was passed on to an assistant editor who couldn't have been easier to work with.
The book appeared on time, and was a huge success. The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change garnered the sort of reviews that publishers dream of. Eventually it passed to a "real publisher", and in an enlarged edition is still in print with Thames & Hudson. Some years back I remember them advertising it as "this modern classic". Today it is described as "legendary".
And that seems fair to me. Greetings, Robert. You recognised your moment, and you seized it. We are all richer for that. And I have a copy of the original edition in which you wrote, with characteristic generosity and (admettons) some exaggeration: "For Stephen, who took an unruly clump of paper and made it into a book - with amazed gratitude from his indebted friend, Bob Hughes."
With friends like that…