Working for Benedict Nicolson at The Burlington Magazine in the 1950s


We were able to gain insights on the working practices of the Burlington thanks to a former Burlington staff member. Patricia Heatley (illustrated right, in a 1956 photograph), a professional secretary who studied typing and shorthand at Hornsey College of Art in London, worked as assistant to Fred Hipkin for six years in the 1950s.

In this blog Patricia Heatley remembers her time at the Burlington under the Editorship of Benedict Nicolson (1914-1978, illustrated left).

Benedict Nicolson was the Editor of The Burlington Magazine for over thirty years, from 1947 to 1978. Nicolson was the oldest child of English diplomat Harold George Nicolson and of writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West. Nicolson grew up at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent and attended Oxford University where he read modern history. Nicolson’s monographs on Joseph Wright of Darby and Courbet, and his research on Caravaggio and his followers, are still remembered as crucial contributions to art history.

In 1947, following recommendations of Herbert Read and Ellis Waterhouse, Nicolson became Editor of The Burlington Magazine.  The Burlington had been without an official Editor since before the war, when Ellis Waterhouse had been nominally in charge and the Magazine was, de facto, edited and produced by Edith Hoffmann.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 15.30.23During his long editorship, Nicolson consolidated the name of the Burlington as one of the most prominent scholarly periodical on art history. Its all-male consultative committee listed (illustrated left) important art historians such as Anthony Blunt, Kenneth Clark, John Pope-Hennessy, Rudolf Wittkower and Ernst Gombrich.

But Nicolson did not work alone. Although no other staff members than the Editor was then recorded on the Magazine’s masthead, a team of six people headed by the general manager Fred Hipkin, produced the Burlington each month, with working practices and printing techniques that differ greatly from the online communications and digital technologies of today. We are very grateful to Patricia Heatley for this insight behind the scenes at the Burlington of the 1950s.

* * * Patricia Heatley’s testimonial * * *

I joined the Burlington over sixty years ago, on 11 January 1954 aged 16 years, living in Wood Green N22 and travelled each day on the Piccadilly Line to Russell Square, walking through to Bedford Square, No. 12 on the corner of Gower Street, up to the 2nd floor. The main office overlooked the square and I worked in here with a Mr. Hobbis (Eddy) and the odd-job man (various) while the Secretary, Manager and advertising manager, Mr. Fred Hipkin, had his own office next door and I was his secretary – tea maker – no instant coffee then.

I was so amused and amazed when I took my first cup of tea into the back office where the Editor Ben Nicolson worked. I had not met such a person before. He was so charming to me and thanked me for the tea, and at the same time looked very crumpled and dishevelled. This apparently was ‘normal’. Having been to Hornsey Art College I was used to avant-garde, and when he laughed I cracked up just watching him. Sadly I was so shy and did not talk to him much, but liked him very much, even when his mother Vita Sackville-West phoned him he called her Mummy!

Ben’s secretary Margaret Brown worked for him in the afternoon and mornings for Oliver Millar. She and I were reservedly friendly. She was an excellent typist and could swear well.

So there were six of us producing the Burlington each month.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 16.19.42The printers and designers, Messrs Percy Lund Humphries had their offices below us and all copy and communication was designer in the offices but then sent via the 4 pm train from King’s Cross to Bradford, where it was printed. All corrections were done over the phone. Sometimes contributors and advertisers would visit the office to see Ben and Mr. Hipkin – and even me on occasions! This way I met many famous and special people. It was great.

The mainly black and white illustrations were reproduced on copper plates by Knighton and Cutts of Ham Yard, Piccadilly. The photos were picked up (large envelope on the mantelpiece over the fireplace in main office) by Alfie and returned on copper plates on wooden blocks by Alfie two days later. The Burlington mainly printed pictures in black and white as at the time colours could not be faithfully reproduced, which upset readers and advertisers alike.

Mr. Hobbis and I were involved with the subscriptions and addressing each month. We used an addressing machine which took stencils cut on typewriter for each subscriber. I was rather like a mangle on a washing machine.

Mr. Hobbis made up parcels to post more than one magazine on Publishing Day. Single copies sent by envelopes and had postage stamps on. I collected all postage stamps from Store Street Post Office, all stamps were calculated before-hand. It was my job to balance the stamp book every day!

In 1961 I left the Burlington when I got married, that is what women used to do then.

1954 until 1961 were very special years for me, being post war with the discovery of works of art being reclaimed by many folks from all walks of life from all over the world.

Sadly, I believe I am the only surviving member of this special team alive.

Patricia Heatley, January 2016


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