Martin Heller, publisher and author, was born in 1931 during the brief First Republic of Czechoslovakia and left the restrictions of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in1962. He made London his adopted home, where he enjoyed a distinguished career as a publisher of illustrated books and an author. He died, surrounded by family, on 15thOctober 2016.

Born Milos Pokorný, he grew up amidst the German occupation of World War 2. His working life began after the communist coup of 1948, notably at Artia, the state-run organization that controlled access to the publishing and print industry in Czechoslovakia. As liaison manager, he had close contact with international publishers, including Paul Hamlyn for whom he oversaw and helped facilitate a large-scale book programme at Artia.

His repeated refusals to be drawn into the darker side of the Cold War prompted his defection to the United Kingdom. Armed only with his skills as a linguist and expertise in print production and design he found a job at Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press. He simplified his name and became Martin Heller, taking the surname from the author of Catch 22.

He moved on to the British Printing Corporation in 1965. As General Manager, he initiated some of the classics of the partwork genre including Cordon Bleu Cookery, History of the 20th Century, History of the Second World War and Animal Life. These weekly magazines, sold at kiosks for up to two years, were a very significant part of the publishing industry at the time, running to 2000 or more pages and reprinting regularly for years.

In 1970, together with George McVicar and Brian Innes and with financial backing from Istituto Geografica de Agostini, he founded Orbis Publishing which initially concentrated on partworks covering subjects ranging from cars, wildlife and gardening through to science and the paranormal. As the company grew he established an illustrated book publishing division. The Echoes of the AncientWorld series showcased the photography on ancient civilisations of his old friend, Werner Forman and extended to fifteen volumes, an undertaking that could hardly be repeated commercially today. Book publishing became increasingly important. Amongst the many books were titles he guided himself and of which he was particularly proud including The Bible and its Painters, Vincent by Himself and Gericault. Authors included A.L.Rowse, Magnus Magnusson, Andrew Morton, Bruce Bernard, Dan Klein and Mary Gilliat.

Orbis became an important part of the UK and international publishing community and Martin was invited to become an early member of  the Motovun Group Association where he found kindred spirits and co-publishing partners. As director of the MGA  board for many years he took the lead on various publications for the group.   His commercial success was noted in Czechoslovakia and around 1978, he was invited to return as an important potential client. He did so and was reunited after nearly two decades with friends and family, most importantly, his daughter Helenka.

Following his earlier success with military history at BPC, Martin was aware that there was another military and political story to be told. In the early 1980s he commissioned John Davies at Edinburgh University to write a new and very different account of the Second World War from the Russian point of view, their Great Patriotic War. Great progress was made with VAAP, the Soviet literary agency for unfettered access to hidden archival material In the East. However, the subject proved too sensitive for VAAP and the project had to be abandoned, but not before Martin had opened doors into secret archives in Moscow, Warsaw and elsewhere that researchers and authors were able to plunder after the events of 1989 for some of the most successful books of the post-soviet period.

Orbis Publishing was acquired by Macdonald Publishing in 1986 and Martin appointed Deputy Chairman. In 1988 he left Macdonald’s and returned to partwork publishing most notably, Story of Scotland which achieved sales of over 3 million copies.

Though he gained a firm reputation as a popular publisher, his own interests were more intellectual and wide ranging, from art through to music and history. Through Opus Publishing, his last publishing venture, he produced books such as The Impressionist Revolution and, in later years, Czech subjects, writing often as Milos Pokorný. His most recent book was Prague Castle: Crossroads of History which combined his love and understanding of art and architecture with a broad history of Czechoslovakia.

Those who knew him remember him as a singular character of great distinction, and erudition, yet with no little humour, communicated with a spoken English more correct and precise than many born to the language.

He is survived by his wife Barbara, son Antony, daughters Margot and Helenka, and grandson Joseph.  He is remembered with great affection by all and not least by his extended Czech family.

Charles Merullo


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