Ron Costley, who died at the age of 75, believed that the art of the typographer was to ensure that there was no barrier between author and reader. This required a refinement of quality and readability, from which he learned a lot early in his career, when, in 1961, he joined Shenval Press in Frith Street, central London. There he was mentored by James Shand, whose thoroughness in specifying typography bolstered his press reputation of the time for beautiful literary editions.
When Shenval moved to Harlow, Essex, in 1973, Ron and his wife, Audrey, acquired the large Victorian townhouse near Bishop’s Stortford, where they lived for the next 40 years. The house was blessed with a long secluded garden on which Ron exercised his other great plant-based know-how, creating an exquisite sequence of exterior rooms combining unusual shrubs, flowers and fruits with carved wooden benches, letter plates and sundials.
After Shenval closed, Ron brought his ideas to Scolar Press in 1979, then an exquisite book design haven producing scholarly editions – its founder, Robin Alston, wanted students to have access to affordable facsimiles of texts. literary and historical – and reproducing beautiful books from the past. One particularly demanding project was a jewel-like manuscript by William Morris reproduced on vellum with gold leaf and colorful calligraphy.
Ron had beautiful calligraphy and his letters were handwritten in italics. Her friends treasured her annual Christmas cards, which took a familiar quote or poem and turned it into an elegant hand lettering.
Particularly lucky friends had a carefully crafted inscription painted on a fireplace.
During the 1960s, Ron’s friend Stephen Bann introduced him to artist and writer Ian Hamilton Finlay, who then lived in an isolated house with a dirt floor and no electricity in a field in the south of the Lanarkshire. Thanks to his vision, it will eventually become the eccentric, surreal and romantic garden of Little Sparta.
The couple had an instant relationship and for the rest of Finlay’s life they collaborated with many other artists and friends to achieve a magical landscape in the inhospitable climate and terrain of the Scottish borders. Ron’s love for gardening, lettering, and sculpture struck a chord with Finlay, and much of the flavor and beauty of Little Sparta today stems from Ron’s artistic flair: a key piece is the life-size flat metal sculpture of the race Apollo and Daphne, for which Ron drew the designs.
In 1983 he joined literary publisher Chatto & Windus, then moved to a rowdy Victorian house on the outskirts of Covent Garden, and formed an unlikely alliance with radical publisher Carmen Callil, who enjoyed Ron’s way with the design and charm with the authors. He redesigned the company’s colophon – its logo, showing two cherubs reading a book bearing the letters C and W, redrawn from a woodcut by Edward Bawden – and worked with designer Posy Simmonds to produce an enchanting edition of Young visitors to Daisy Ashford.
When, in 1987, Chatto was taken over by Random House, Ron left to join Faber & Faber as chief designer. The great independent literary house had a stellar roster of authors, especially in poetry and serious non-fiction. He was entrusted with the most important books and authors and befriended, in particular, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. Ron created the design for Hughes’ bestselling Birthday Letters (1998), as a tribute to his late wife Sylvia Plath. He would have convinced the poet laureate to rewrite a line or two to better suit the layout.
Aware and proud of Faber’s legacy, Ron has organized exhibitions of historical book designs for the benefit of publisher staff and visitors. He also advised young designers and advised colleagues on how to get the most out of a small palette of typefaces. Until his retirement in 2005, Ron oversaw a list which, in terms of design, was the prettiest and most readable of any London publisher.
He was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, where his mother, Kathleen (née Hardiman), had been sent to relatives to escape bombing during WWII. She and her husband, William, a mechanical engineer who worked on looms, were Kentish from Crayford.
Ron showed early artistic promises and attended the Bromley School of Art, where he studied painting and drawing, but not typography. There he met Audrey Springer, a student teacher, and they were married in 1967. They shared similar tastes in art, culture and food and their house strewn with books often echoed the laughter. and good company. Upon retirement, Ron continued to work on selected book designs, but his main concerns became his garden and his family.
He is survived by Audrey, his sons, Tom and Joe, his grandchildren, Zoe and Jay, and his brother, Raymond.