Richard Ollard -- Obituary Times (Lon) Jan 26 2007


The Times January 26, 2007

Richard Ollard

Editor and author who published the novels of Patrick O'Brien and wrote books on the Civil War, Pepys and naval history

Richard Ollard was one of the most civilised men of letters in postwar Britain. From 1948 to 1959 he was a lecturer in history at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Thereafter he was senior editor at Collins, a key figure in probably the strongest editorial team in British publishing. When he retired in 1983, already a leading authority on the English 17th century and the Royal Navy, he devoted himself largely to authorship.

A series of books followed at regular intervals, bolstering the reputation established by his already published works, not least his masterly 1974 biography of Samuel Pepys. His writing was recognisable for its elegance and clarity, giving pleasure to the general reader as well as winning praise among specialists.

For many years Ollard was also a key figure in the infrastructure of naval history, especially the Navy Records Society, where he was vice-president. His work as a naval historian was recognised in 1992 with the award of the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Medal.

Ollard was meticulous and exceptionally well-informed. He cherished high standards and had no time for the second rate, of which he could be witheringly dismissive. As an editor he was respected not just as a constructive and perceptive critic but also as a forthright champion of his authors. If he believed in a book, he would go to endless trouble to see it published.

Among the authors he published were Dame Veronica Wedgwood, the French historian Fernand Braudel (whose works Ollard read in French) and the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. Perhaps the author he took most pleasure in publishing was Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of Napoleonic War sea stories.

That Ollard should have been drawn to a writer whose enthusiasm for, and erudition about, naval history matched his own was natural. But what Ollard recognised from the start was O’Brian’s brilliance as a storyteller. At a time when it was received wisdom to regard C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels as the pinnacle of the genre and when historical novels were in any case regarded as slightly infra dig, Ollard immediately identified O’Brian as a writer of the highest class. Second only to O’Brian himself, Ollard can be said to have been responsible for one of the most extraordinary literary achievements of the second half of the 20th century.

Tall and rather bald, Ollard had about him an unmistakably donnish air. He was in many ways the embodiment of the kind of gentleman-publisher, latterly gentleman-author, courteous, scholarly and modest, that has all but disappeared. It was entirely appropriate that in 1998 he won the Heywood Hill Literary Prize, an award commemorating a lifetime’s contribution to the pleasures of reading. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Society of Antiquaries.

Richard Laurence Ollard was born in 1923 and grew up in Yorkshire. His father, a don at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, and a historian of the Tractarian Movement, was subsequently ordained and given the living of Bainton in the East Riding. He was also made a canon of York.

His mother was more artistically inclined and energetic than her desk-bound husband. It was she who gave the young Richard a love of outdoor life, above all of riding. Until almost his eighties, he rode whenever he could.

In 1936 Ollard’s father was made a canon of St George’s Chapel and the family moved to Windsor. By then Ollard was at Eton. In 1942 he joined the Navy as a rating, serving for a time in HMS Victory at Portsmouth. It was during his time on the lower deck that he met James Callaghan, establishing a life-long friendship. In 1943 Ollard was commissioned and sent to Ceylon as an intelligence officer, his prime duty being to translate intercepted Japanese signals.

After the war he went to New College, Oxford, where he had won a scholarship. If there was a disappointment to his academic career, it was his failure to gain a fellowship of All Souls. He would have made a natural don.

Nonetheless, as a lecturer at the Royal Naval College, Ollard seemed to have struck the ideal balance between his interests. Naval history had already become an abiding passion. His future wife worked in the neighbouring National Maritime Museum. It was a congenial existence.

His enforced departure from the Royal Naval College in 1959, a victim of defence cuts, was accordingly traumatic. A year of supply teaching followed before, in 1960, he was made an editor at Collins. There, whatever the occasional awkwardness of his relationship with the aggressive Billy Collins, Ollard thrived.

His success as a publisher was a result not just of his intellectual toughness and instinct for quality. He also took endless trouble with his authors, encouraging and supporting them. He was less at home with the commercial necessities of the business. Even talking up books to the firm’s own sales force never came naturally. Books, for Ollard, were to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than as commercial propositions.

Throughout his time at Collins he continued to write himself. His first book, The Escape of Charles II, appeared in 1966. It was followed, in 1969, by a history of the Restoration Navy and, in 1974, by his excellent biography of Pepys. A second edition followed in 1991.

Before he left Collins, Ollard published two further histories of the 17th century: This War Without an Enemy (1976), perhaps the best general history of the Civil War; and The Image of the King: Charles I and II (1979). He also wrote a history of Eton.

While the 17th century continued to provide Ollard with most of his material, including a further volume on Pepys in 1996, he was by no means confined to it. In 1991 he published Fisher and Cunningham: A Study in the Personalities of the Churchill Era.

At the end of the decade he also wrote a life of A.L. Rowse, a man whose persistent selfadvertisement might have been thought quite alien to the rather unworldly Ollard. In fact, the two were great admirers of each other. On Ollard’s part, it was a reflection of a life-long admiration “for those who didn’t hunt with the pack”. He also subsequently edited Rowse’s dairies, which were published in 2003.

After leaving Collins, Ollard moved with his wife, Mary, to a Dorset farmhouse.

His wife, two sons and a daughter survive him.

Richard Ollard, author and editor, was born on November 9, 1923. He died on January 21, 2007, aged 83


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