George Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948)
Journalist, writer and publisher

GEORGE HOLBROOK JACKSON (1874-1948)In the autumn of 1900 two young men met by chance in a bookshop in Briggate and found they shared interests and ideas which set them apart from what they saw as the grubby commercialism of Leeds. This accidental meeting led to a creative friendship and partnership which was to have an exciting and challenging impact on the cultural and intellectual life of the city in the early years of the twentieth century.

One of the men, George Holbrook Jackson, 26 years old, had just arrived in Leeds from his home town of Liverpool. He had had some earlier clerical jobs while freelancing as a writer, but now he was working as an agent in the lace trade, living in Buckingham Mount, Headingley. A member of the Fabian Society, widely read and open to new ideas, he felt isolated in Leeds, which he saw as an intellectual desert. The young man he met in the bookshop (books were to become his lifelong passion) was a young schoolteacher, Alfred Orage, who had arrived in Leeds a few years before and was teaching in a Board School in one of the city’s slum areas. Alfred Orage was a member of the Independent Labour Party, an active political writer and speaker, a theosophist, and a friend of the charismatic ‘New Life’ philosopher Edward Carpenter. The two men began a conversation which Jackson said ‘continued for the next ten years’ and remained friends all their lives. The outcome of their discussions, reading, and ferment of ideas was the Leeds Arts Club, which they founded together in 1903.    

The Arts Club became one of the most exciting and vibrant centres of radical thought and experimental art outside London. It had premises in town with a library, arranged exhibitions of avant-garde painting, architecture and sculpture, and held regular discussions on literature, music, philosophy and drama (with an active playgoers’ group). Visiting speakers included George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, W. B. Yeats, Hilaire Belloc. It attracted the liveliest minds in the town, men and women, and provided a challenge to local conventionality. But successful as it was, by 1906 both Holbrook Jackson and Alfred Orage felt ready for a wider sphere of activity and they left that year for London, though they continued to keep links with the Club and often returned as speakers.

In London, with financial help from George Bernard Shaw, Jackson and Orage bought a struggling Christian Socialist weekly, The New Age, which they transformed into an influential arts journal, with distinguished contributors. But Jackson did not stay long as joint editor - he devoted his time increasingly to writing. In 1907 he published a biography of Shaw, then a book on William Morris, a range of other publications, and in 1914 The Eighteen-Nineties: a Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century which remains the standard work on the period. Meanwhile he took over another literary magazine, and established his own small press. Thus began a long association with printing, publishing and collecting books, about which he wrote extensively – he has an amazing string of publications to his name, mostly concerned with writing, reading, printing, and collecting books, though William Morris, Edward Lear and Shaw continue to figure as subjects. Up to his death in 1948 he did much to encourage a high standard of book production, and was a patron of the Pelican Press, which republished some of his work after his death.

Now his name is all but forgotten, both in Leeds where he helped to inspire a cultural revolution, and everywhere where his books used to be known and read. He was a master of the aphorism, and what has survived of his writing is a number of famous quotations – including ‘Never put off till tomorrow the book you can read today’. What would this bibliophile have thought of the e-reader?

Eveleigh Bradford
October 2011