Anthony Aris 1946–2015

Anthony book portrait smallAnthony Aris (27 March, 1946 – 14 October, 2015)

After more than a year of illness, Anthony Aris passed away in his home, on the 14th of October.

Anthony will not only be sorely missed by his family, but will always be remembered with great affection by his numerous friends in the Tibetological community as a man of extraordinary gentleness and warmth, intelligence, wit and culture.

Anthony was born on the 27th of March, 1946. He went to Worth Abbey School in Sussex, and studied Anthropology at Durham University in the late 1960s. Subsequently he travelled in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Visiting his twin brother Michael, who had been invited to Bhutan in 1967 as the tutor of the children of the royal family, Anthony, too, fell in love with what in those days was a truly remote and hidden land. During his travels he met Marie-Laure Labriffe, whom he married in 1975.

It is above all as a publisher that Anthony made a lasting contribution to Himalayan and Tibetan studies. It has been said of him that he had a passion for books and determination to produce them to perfection. His brother-in-law, Adrian Phillips, has kindly provided the following account of how Anthony’s remarkable career started:

After leaving Durham University, Anthony gained his first experience in publishing when he went to India and worked for Hal Kuloy on his publications there.

When he returned to England, Anthony asked us to help him gain experience in book selling. He first worked for Dillons (London University Bookshop) and left them for Kegan Paul, the oriental booksellers in Museum Street. There Anthony took charge of their gallery of oriental art and learned to buy and sell at auctions and to organize  exhibitions. When Kegan Paul closed their shop, Anthony joined our family publishing company, Aris & Phillips Ltd in Warminster, commissioning and editing books for us on Asia, such as Philip Denwood, The Tibetan Carpet (1974) and Heather Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art (1975).

At this point, Aris & Phillips were approached by Kodansha International of Japan to market their great series of illustrated volumes of Oriental Ceramics. We mutually decided   that Anthony should concentrate on oriental art, for which he had a flair…  Anthony took on the sales and marketing of the Kodansha volumes personally and this gave him a solid base from which to commission his own titles on his real interest which was Tibet and the  Himalayas. We effectively divided the world at the Persian Gulf with Aris & Phillips concentrating on the West and Anthony on the East.

Anthony founded Serindia Publications in 1976, continuing to cooperate with Kodansha as a dynamic distributor of their high-quality books on East and Central Asian art. This contributed to making Serindia a successful and, in Marie-Laure’s words, ‘animated’ publishing business for twenty-five years, resulting in a great number of exquisitely produced volumes in many different fields of scholarship related to Tibet, Bhutan, and the Himalayas in general. Anthony eventually sold Serindia Publications, but it continues to flourish along the lines that he had established.

In an obituary in the Thimphu newspaper Kuensel on 17 October, Anthony’s Bhutanese friend Karma Phuntso wrote:

We often give credit only to the author of the book and overlook the work of the publisher. Yet, it is often the publisher who makes a substantial difference in how the book looks…and in the overall ranking of the book and its subject in the eyes of the readers. Anthony Aris was a publisher par excellence, who made such difference to the books he published.

Among these publications – too numerous to list here – there is one which merits particular mention, not only for its sumptuous production, but also for its intrinsic importance, namely Tibetan Medical Paintings, which appeared in 1992. This publication contains the high-quality reproduction of seventy-seven paintings, copies of a unique set of medical paintings commissioned in the seventeenth century by the regent of Tibet, Sangyé Gyatso. In fact, if Anthony had not taken on the publication of these paintings more than twenty years ago, the recent book by Janet Gyatso, Being Human in a Buddhist World. An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet, published just a little more than half a year ago, could hardly have been written, as it refers to these paintings on almost every page. This is just one example of how Anthony’s engagement with the Himalayas and Tibet sowed seeds which will long continue to yield a rich harvest.

Anthony was not only a professional and passionately engaged publisher, he was also a social entrepreneur, in the very best sense of the word. With his open and generous personality and great gift of listening, this came naturally to him. A short time before he passed away in 1999, his brother Michael had taken the first steps towards setting up a Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre in Oxford, with the financial backing of generous benefactors, in particular the Koerner and the Rausing families. Anthony brought this project to a successful conclusion, securing the patronage of the Prince of Wales. The Centre is now located at Wolfson College, which also hosts the Lectureship dedicated to Tibetan and Himalayan studies, created in the year 2000 with part-funding from the Centre. For a number of years a librarian was also funded from the same source, making the cataloguing of the Tibetan books in the Bodleian Library possible. In bringing all this about it would be very difficult to overrate the importance of Anthony’s patient, diplomatic, and dedicated efforts.

Anthony arranged for Michael’s photos from Bhutan to be given to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and later contributed his own photos from the Himalayan kingdom. The latter are still in the process of being catalogued.

Anthony’s career intersected in many ways with that of his twin brother Michael. For example, Michael was the convenor of the first international seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS), which took place at St. John’s College in Oxford in July 1979, and, together with Aung San Suu Kyi, he subsequently edited the conference papers, published the following year by the publishers Aris and Phillips, in other words by his brother Anthony and brother-in-law Adrian Phillips. This volume, Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, was, as the title indicates, a tribute to Hugh Richardson (1905-2000), the last British representative in Lhasa, a fine scholar and a close friend of Michael as well as Anthony. Michael eventually edited Hugh Richardson’s writings, collected in a volume of more than 750 pages, published by Anthony (Michael Aris, ed., High Peaks, Pure Earth. Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, London, 1998) – yet an example of how the interests and commitments of the two brothers coincided.

Michael’s deep personal involvement with Burma, through his marriage with Aung San Suu Kyi, is well known. Anthony, too, was a true friend of Burma, and was for many years engaged in providing support for Burmese students in exile. He also encouraged the publication of books on the struggle for democracy in Burma, such as James Mackay’s Abhaya. Burma’s Fearlessness (Bangkok, 2011).

Anthony was a master of the English language, his style in prose as well as speech characterised by elegant ease. This was simply an aspect of his profound and humanistic culture. One expression of this culture was his lively and wide-ranging interest in art, not only Oriental art, and in the course of the last year of his life he often visited art exhibitions in London, ranging from Turner to Henry Moore, from Viking art to contemporary abstract Iranian art.

On the occasion of his birthday in March 2015, Anthony was presented with a volume of sixty articles written by scholars from all over the world, paying tribute not only to his long career as a publisher, but also – and above all – to the man. This extraordinary book, published in record time, focusing on the theme of ‘healing’, provided Anthony with great pleasure during the final months of his life (Charles Ramble and Ulrike Roesler, eds., Tibetan and Himalayan Healing. An Anthology for Anthony Aris, Kathmandu, 2015).

On 22 October 2015, the first ‘Aris Lecture’ took place at Wolfson College. This is to be an annual event, in memory of Michael and Anthony. Anthony had wished to set this up to honour his brother, but was prevailed upon to accept the name it eventually was given as he could hardly deny that he himself had also played a significant role in promoting Tibetan studies in the UK. The lecture was given by Janet Gyatso, on the appropriate theme “Tibetan Studies and its Possible Futures”. Sadly, Anthony passed away in the week before the lecture.

Those – and they are many indeed – who had the privilege of spending time with Anthony and Marie-Laure during the last year of his life, always found a warm welcome in their home in Westbourne Gardens, and were not only treated to lunch, tea or dinner, a glass of wine or a ‘wee dram’, but above all to lively and wide-ranging conversation. Anthony was always a family man. His and Marie-Laure’s children Arabella and Roderick, and, not least, their grand-children were frequent visitors, surrounding Anthony with their love and care. After being installed in a hospice, he continued to receive his family and friends, deeply engaged with life and serenely awaiting the end, his last days spent in his home in Westbourne Gardens.

Per Kværne
University of Oslo