Robert Norton dies

Robert George Norton
Born 24 May 1929
Died 8 March 2001, West Huntspill, Somerset

From whichever angle one looked at him, Norton was a big man. I first met him in the early 1960s when he arrived unannounced in the basement studio in Ebury Street which I shared with fellow typographer John Miles. I remember clearly looking first at the handle of the slowly opening door, then my eyes moved upwards to a huge hand appearing like 'The Monkey's Paw' up by the lintel. Only by lowering his head could the rest of Robert's impressive 6'8" frame come into view.

If one goes to the protestant cemetery in Lisbon one can see the inscribed stones of generations of Nortons, his father was a business man there, and also had a rather grand estate in Portugal. Robert's father served in the British army in the Great War and by altering his age, in the Navy in WWII when he was twice torpedoed; this probably set a bench mark that his son felt he should live up to. Family life in Portugal was described by Robert's mother, 'The Borrowers' author Mary Norton ('The Bread and Butter Stories'). Robert was a child there. This expansive life style was cut short by one of the frequent summer fires of the region; heroic but misplaced efforts by estate workers and villages saved the big house but destroyed the estate forest; the house was insured but the timber was not, the estate was ruined. Robert was sent to Christ's Hospital School.

He had a spell in mainstream publishing in London (Hart-Davis , then MacGibbon&Kee), and filled up his memory's bank with poetry, combining this with a fascination with games. For the rest of his life the day did not start until the Times crossword was completed, usually in the smoke of too many cigarettes.

From London he went to the US without a work permit and packed books in the United Nations HQ. He entered mainstream publishing at CUP in New York.; in New York he met his Boston bride Gail Scully. They went on to Jamaica and from Jamaica they went to together to London where he showed his hand in my life in Ebury Street. His journey to the States was accomplished with the style that marked all his life, in a storm, in a less than seaworthy boat, under sail. Back in the UK, finding his bearings took a little while and he helped out his close friend, Tim Wood, as a salesman for the then hot metal typesetting firm Wace, it was that that led him to our door.

Tim was a part time film stunt man, and Norton, always competitive, had some training in motor car racing; he had already in the States gained a light aircraft pilot's licence. All this in spite of his claim to have only one effective eye; I suspect it was this that had confined his military excursions to a spell in the Honourable Artillery Company.

He was equally adventurous in his business, seeing early the possibilities of film-based typesetting, he built up Photoscript by far the largest photo-composing house in Europe. This was bought up and quickly lost by the centuries old Sheffield type foundry, Stephenson Blake.


Norton moved into the emerging digital type setting technology in which he was qualified through his curiosity and grasp of mathematical and engineering principles to encourage manufacturers on the one hand, and type designers on the other. Here he could realise the potential of the systems that now underpin the media world. He tried his hand at designing typefaces himself. All this had only limited commercial success since work could not comfortably accommodate both his practical and romantic vision. As an instance he quickly saw how the new technologies could release service businesses such as his from a metropolitan base, so he bought a hundred ton, ('pine-on-oak' he would mutter) Baltic ketch, with the intention of sailing the Mediterranean whilst supplying the UK advertising industry's need for high class copy-setting by radio. Annual General Meetings for such enterprises took place in the Hotel l'Abbaye de Talloires on Lake Annecy, and at his brother's Abbadia near Perugia, the business of the Board was not marred by monkish austerity.

There were several such diversions before he took the timely step of joining Microsoft in Seattle as their type font development expert. By this time he was at more than twice the average age of all around him and by the time he retired just a few years ago, nearer three times more. This had its down side: the young supple and light weight in his offices took up with paragliding, Norton not to be left behind joined them in their practice jumps from their table tops, he broke his ankle.

Microsoft valued Robert and he contributed much to them, especially in screen fonts and sensible customer advice using the design expertise of Matthew Carter and John Miles. He was nearly seventy when he returned to England but still busied himself developing new keyboard systems, and then, realising a dream which he had held to since his first venture into publishing, he produced a dozen books, of the poetry he loved, of poetry that is useful in crosswords, of tactical moves in backgammon, favourite stories by Saki, and so on; all well designed, all in imprudently large quantities, all of which he was determined should be retailed at an impossibly democratic price. Parsimony Press was a 'mission' in the last eighteen months of his life when it was already clear to doctors, family and friends that due to emphysema and cancers, his life had long overrun the last 'full point'.

Robert Norton was the real life model of Alain-Fournier's 'Le Grand Meaulnes', someone around whom things happen.

Robert Norton leaves: his wife Gail, three daughters and a son. He was the current President of the Double Crown Club, and Past President of The Wynkyn de Worde Society. Norton was also a prominent member of the Association Typographique Internationale.

Colin Banks 12 March 2001



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