Cecil Woolf, publisher who was last relative to have known Virginia

'Anything, he believed, was possible if you could find the right book to advise you'

Tuesday, 18th June 2019 — By Jean Moorcroft Wilson


CECIL Woolf, the nephew of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, has died aged 92, the last person alive to have known Virginia personally; he was 14 when she committed suicide.

But he was equally proud of Leonard, who died when Cecil was 42 and whose London house he shared for nearly a decade.

He himself observed of Leonard, “How does one sum up a person as many-sided as that?”, a remark equally applicable to his multi-talented nephew, who was a man of many parts.

As his schooldays at Stowe revealed, Cecil had an exceptional mind, not only taking the equivalent of A-levels a year early, for example, but also gaining the top mark in the whole country in the English literature paper.

But instead of going on to a top university, as expected, he enlisted in the army at the age of 16.

Entering as a private in the tank regiment in 1943, he was quickly promoted to the rank of captain for his undoubted ability, fighting in the tail-end of the Second World War in Italy, where he learnt to speak fluent Italian – “it’s so like Latin”, he would explain modestly – and Palestine. Italy, Venice in particular, became for him the “great good place”. After demobilisation in 1947, Cecil joined the stockbroking firm of Woolf, Christie founded by two of his childless uncles, who wanted him to carry on the family business.

Though he rapidly mastered the various branches of the trade, he left after only a few years to start his own antiquarian book business, happily forfeiting the guaranteed money and security of the Stock Exchange for the challenges and independence he anticipated as a freelance writer and bookseller.

It was typical of this fiercely independent man that, although Virginia Woolf was becoming recognised as one of Britain’s greatest novelists by the 1950s and 60s, he never traded on his relationship to her, and remained modest and unassuming almost to a fault.

Likewise, though he had grown up in a house built by Cardinal Wolsey on James de Rothschild’s Waddesdon Estate and was directly related to James through James’s wife Dorothy, he never boasted of the fact or used it to his advantage.

And he never tried for popular fame, though he was gifted enough to do so; he preferred a less obvious route.

As a writer his bibliographies of Norman Douglas and Baron Corvo and his editions of Corvo’s novels, poems and letters are models of their kind.

Then in 1960, Cecil founded his own publishing house, inspired undoubtedly by the example of Leonard Woolf, whom he had helped at the Hogarth Press from an early age. His encouragement of young writers, like Leonard’s, became legendary.

Drew Shannon was one of many grateful authors who treasured Cecil’s help, while at the same time becoming a good friend: “I think every Woolfian who met Cecil spent the first bit of time in his presence overcoming the fact that he KNEW VIRGINIA WOOLF. But happily this was really the least of it, at least for me, and I quickly began to love the man for himself: for his wit, his charm, his ceaseless energy, his tack-sharp mind, his kindness and consideration. And, underneath his charm, there was his biting wit.”

“I will forever cherish the occasional whispered remark in my ear at many an event, remarks calculated to make me giggle and which required whatever poise I possess to keep myself straight-faced. And what might’ve seemed like name-dropping to the outsider was simply a catalog of his friendships and acquaintances. He’d say, ‘Jean, what year was it that we had Edward Heath over for dinner?’ (Yes, that Edward Heath.) Or, ‘I bumped into Quentin Crisp in Regent’s Park, and he said…’ Or, ‘TS Eliot once said to me…’ “And his priceless anecdote about Duncan Grant, looking long-haired and shaggy in the 1960s, wandering around Piccadilly; when questioned by Cecil about his appearance, Duncan spacily replied, ‘Well…my barber died’.”

After Cecil’s first marriage ended in the late 60s, he began a relationship with Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who became his second wife and partner in the publishing business.

Together over a period of 50 years they explored their shared and separate interests, Cecil’s obsession with the novelist John Cowper Powys inspiring the John Cowper Powys monographs, Jean’s fascination with the First World War poets, on whom (encouraged by Cecil) she would write a number of biographies, giving rise to their War Poets series; and their joint admiration for Leonard and Virginia Woolf spawning their Bloomsbury heritage titles.

Together they edited two highly topical books, Authors Takes Sides on the Falklands and Authors Take Sides on Iraq and the Gulf War.

Cecil’s meticulous attention to detail ensured books of the highest quality in both content and appearance.

He was running Cecil Woolf Publishers with Jean’s help until shortly before his death. Moving to Camden Town in 1979, Cecil became a familiar figure walking along the High Street in his tweed jacket and corduroys.

His burning sense of justice led him to fight long and hard for a number of causes, including the extradition of a local shopkeeper.

This prompted a letter from the home secretary but sadly failed to save the shopkeeper.

And he and Jean organised an exhausting but ultimately successful campaign to reopen Mornington Crescent tube station when it was threatened with closure.

At the reopening ceremony, hosted by Humphry Lyttelton, chair of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Cecil was mistaken for Lyttelton, whom he slightly resembled.

Coming late to fatherhood at 47, Cecil was as closely involved in the care and upbringing of their five children, Kate, Philip, Emma, Alice and Trim, as any father could be, introducing them to wonderful books on his nightly readings to them and leaving them with a passionate love of literature and ideas.

They were all devoted to him. Cecil was a man who chose his words very carefully and every one of them counted.

And although he thrived in the world of ideas, he was enormously practical: when he and Jean eventually found the “little ruin” in France they had been searching for at the extremely modest price they could afford, it was Cecil who plumbed and wired it, Jean acting as plumber’s and electrician’s mate.

Anything, he believed, was possible if you could find the right book to advise you.

A man of striking contradictions, he was at the some time one of the most serious yet most humorous and witty people imaginable.

Though stubborn, even at times pugnacious in a cause he believed in, he was also conspicuously kind, very gentle and always polite and considerate.

An essentially private, rather shy man in his younger years, he took to public speaking in later life with surprising enjoyment.

He talked with increasing pleasure of his early memories of staying with Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House, Rodmell, or at Tavistock Square, their last house in Bloomsbury, where he helped them pack books for the Hogarth Press orders in the basement.

It is not for his memories of a literary icon only that Cecil will be remembered by his family and friends, however, or even for his wonderful books, but for his originality as a person, his creativeness, his brilliance, his generosity, his kindness and his essential humanity.

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