Hamish Hamilton

A publisher in the 'Wood'

From the present day right the way back to the dawn of residential settlement, authorship and its related skills have been well represented locally.  The journalist Cyrus Redding suggested that a friend of his might build a villa hereabouts in 1806: ‘green lanes, clear air – the very place for lovers of quiet and the lovers of Nature’. The publisher Hamish Hamilton may have had similar thoughts in mind when he brought his wife and young son from Park Lane to 43 Hamilton Terrace in 1949.

Hamish (known to most of the world as Jamie) Hamilton was born in 1900 at Indianapolis to an American lady of Dutch stock whose husband, a Glaswegian, travelled extensively on business.  Brought up by relations in Scotland, he was sent to Rugby and Cambridge, where he briefly studied medicine before reading French, Spanish and Law.  As a young man he gained much prowess as a diving and skiing champion besides being a redoubtable wet bob (he coxed the England eight at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics), and he remained an enthusiastic member of the Leander Club throughout his life. Nobody, however, less typified ‘Leanderthal Man’ (to borrow a phrase coined by a former president of this Society), for Jamie had neat hands and a good many intellectual interests.

While still at Cambridge he joined the publisher Jonathan Cape, where he served his apprenticeship, and then went to America (where his half-sister lived) to become the London representative of Harper and Row. In 1931 Harpers helped him found his own imprint, and right from the first title (Time Was, a steady seller for forty years) his professional flair was apparent. As The Times obituarist wrote, ‘he liked writers, was punctilious about nursing their vanities and insecurities, taking them to festive lunches on publication day’, and this personal approach, together with his habitual geniality, won him many friends in many countries. When war came, he enlisted and served in the Netherlands and France before being seconded to the Ministry of Information, then housed conveniently close to his office in Bloomsbury. In 1940 he married Countess Yvonne Vicino Pallavicino, formerly of Rome. Their son Alastair was born in London in 1941.

Houses in St John’s Wood, like those in many other parts of London that had suffered during the Blitz, were not difficult to come by after 1945, but most people lacked the means to maintain a household in traditional style. Jamie, with help from family in America, set about refurbishing 43 Hamilton Terrace and his wife (to quote The Times obituarist again) ‘brought gaiety and enchantment to all his enterprise’. Their gift for entertaining soon became proverbial. Not since Alma-Tadema’s day had anyone in the Wood hosted parties such as Jamie arranged, where the champagne flowed and the titled and talented met on equal terms. The Queen Mother herself, with Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Kent, came one evening to a piano recital given by Franz Osborn, one of Yvonne’s friends, and the Princess came again, for a party Jamie organised to celebrate Kathleen Ferrier’s move to 40 Hamilton Terrace.

It was Jamie, as Gerald Moore made plain, who initiated the Ferrier Memorial Scholarship scheme, and who ensured that it continued to flourish by appointing one of our former Vice-Chairmen, Paul Strang, to succeed him as chairman of trustees. The Hamiltons moved away from the Wood in 1976, into equally elegant quarters at Cumberland Terrace, Regent’s Park.

After Jamie retired as managing director of the firm, the Hamiltons used the opportunities offered by increased leisure to travel beyond Europe, to India, the Far East and Australasia, and spent more time with Yvonne‘s family in Italy. A large number of friends contributed articles to a book published to mark Jamie’s eightieth birthday in 1980, among them two former neighbours of his in the Wood, Gerald Moore and the art critic John Russell. From then on, ill health curtailed their trips overseas, and they returned to live mostly in London. Jamie spent his last years in a flat at Kingsmill Terrace.  He died at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in 1988.

While the history of the firm is freely available on line, comments about the Hamiltons in the Wood are less easy to locate, and I am grateful to their son for drawing my attention to several books of memoirs containing references to his parents. Thanks to his kindness we are able to reproduce a rarely seen image of Jamie and Yvonne taken at Hamilton Terrace in the early 1960s. Readers may notice the signed photograph of Toscanini standing on a shelf in the drawing room. Many still cherish memories of two delightful, generous people who represented all that was most civilised in the London of their time. Their contribution to the reputation of the Wood as ‘an abode of love and the arts’ has yet to be fully appreciated.


This page was added on 10/01/2012.

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