Obituary: Frank Selby, 1918–2018, Founder of Rex Features
For many years there was an unbending 3pm routine at Rex Features, the London photographic agency: the tea lady would refresh the staff from her trolley before presenting its founder, Frank Selby, with his customary espresso, fuel for his favourite task of the day. While his wife Elizabeth tended the agency’s accounts, Frank edited the company’s latest batch of ‘light features’. These seemingly undemanding magazine stories provided the steady income stream that enabled this most British of picture agencies to promote and fund the work of countless young photojournalists seeking to make their way in the shark-infested waters of Fleet Street.
Frank Selby was born Ferenc Salusinszky on 12 January 1918, at home in Budapest, Hungary, in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His ancestors, Jewish shoemakers from Poland, emigrated to Hungary in the nineteenth century and by the time of Frank’s birth his father, Imre, was an established journalist at Pesti Naplót, the first Hungarian newspaper to feature photographs. As Frank grew up so did the newspaper group. New titles followed and breakfast talk at home was dominated by circulation figures. The family prospered, and in 1932 they bought their first motorcar, followed in 1936 by the latest Chrysler ‘Airflow’ model to travel to weekends at Lake Balaton, the resort of choice for elite Budapestis.
Having begun studies in Law at Budapest University, in 1936 Frank enrolled at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to read Economics. After a year there he returned to Hungary to take his first Law exam, but a family council decided that he should learn French and packed him off to a course in Lausanne. Finding Lausanne ‘one of the most boring places on earth’, he persuaded his parents to let him join his fun-loving elder brother in Paris, arriving there in early 1938. He found the French city much more convivial. After five months there he returned to Hungary to sit his second-year law exam, and took the opportunity to study photography.
Under Nazi pressure, his father had by then been forced to give up his position as editor-in-chief of the Az Est newspaper group. In January 1939 Frank travelled to England, intending to practise as a photojournalist. Once in London he worked for a while on assignment for Picture Post, but as a foreigner during wartime, he was soon made to give up that profession.
By February 1941 Frank felt that the war was really his war too, although Hungary was still a neutral country, and he joined the Pioneer Corps of the British Army. Around this time he anglicised his name, Ferenc transposing easily to ‘Frank’ and Salusinsky to ‘Selby’. Supplied with a phalanx of émigré European intellectuals – among Frank’s Company, 251, were Arthur Koestler and a member of the famous (Belgian) Goossens family of musicians – the Army set them to light engineering duties, building latrines, sand-bagging defences and building tank traps at Beckenham Farm, Cheltenham (later the site of GCHQ). The Company was later moved to Bicester to build grease traps and yet more latrines, but this move was fortuitous: London was easily accessible and on one visit in June 1942 he met the 17-year-old Elizabeth Guttmann, who worked for the Free French resistance organization at its St James headquarters.
Elizabeth had been born in Berlin, her parentage also Jewish-Hungarian; her father, Heinrich Guttmann, was a distinguished writer on industrial resources, with a personal interest in the history of photography. The family moved to Paris for her father’s work months after Elizabeth’s birth, and she spent the first six years of her life there. By 1931, Heinrich could see what was coming in Europe and eventually arrived in Britain in 1934 after periods in Switzerland and Belgium.
Frank and Elizabeth were married in 1948. They were then faced with the problem of earning a living in gloomy post-war Britain. Frank’s father had survived the war but died in 1946, and most of his remaining relatives were marooned behind the Iron Curtain. Because of the post-war political situation, Frank was unable to return to Hungary to visit his father before he died. Elizabeth’s wider family had fared badly, many members transported to Nazi death camps. Elizabeth’s father had been an assiduous collector of early photography and had sold his first collection to Picture Post. He now gave his second collection to Frank and Elizabeth, the latter having for some time already been helping to package and sell her father’s articles, illustrated with photographs. Rex Features Ltd was born in early 1954 when the couple accepted an offer to represent the Paris-based picture agency Lynx and made their first sales. Frank toured the newspapers and magazines of Fleet Street daily with a briefcase full of photos, while Elizabeth ran the office from the front room of their home in northwest London.
The company progressed through the 1950s, benefiting from its founders’ international connections to build a network of ‘correspondent’ agencies across Europe, America and Asia. At the simplest level, if your cat did funny things, Rex would showcase your cat in the World’s magazines and newspapers years before the invention of social media. A mixture of light features, hard news and showbiz proved successful, and when The Beatles arrived on the scene Rex was at the forefront of the 1960s revolution with its representation of photographer Dezo Hoffmann’s brilliant early pictures of the band.
The first premises rented by Rex were at King Street, Covent Garden, in 1963, followed by moves to Gough Square, just off Fleet Street (1967) and East Harding Street (1976). Days were dominated by the physical work of preparing photo stories for the market. Raw film was processed and edited; then the darkroom staff took over, producing vast quantities of prints and, from the mid-70s, duplicate transparencies in time to meet the deadlines of Fleet Street and for overseas distribution.
One of the company’s keynotes was the recruitment and retention of loyal staff. From January 1966 Rex was joined by Allan Day, rated at the time and forever after as the best salesman in Fleet Street. Despite attempts to poach him, Day remained with the company as Sales Director until his retirement. So too did long-serving darkroom printer Albert Boulton, and Martin Hillier, who also joined Day’s sales team and later became a director of the firm. Rex Features was a business, but it was also a family of owners, staff and contributors who shared an instinctive understanding of the requirements for success. In 1976 the core staff were joined by the Selbys’ son John, and by son Michael in 1982 and later their daughter Sue; all played their part in a well-oiled machine. But even this might not have been enough without one key ingredient. Fleet Street was a tight-knit community where reputations were hard-won and easily destroyed, and the pressure of deadlines meant that many key transactions, often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of pounds, were agreed merely on a “hand-shake”: trust was at a premium, and this was enjoyed in buckets by Rex Features – a reflection of the instinctively honest, open character of both Frank and Elizabeth. Rex’s clients could trust that deals would be honoured, and contributing photographers that their sales proceeds would not be ‘skimmed’ and that they would be paid on time, with detailed accounting. This was a vital factor in recruiting a growing roster of suppliers, whether overseas agencies seeking UK distribution or young photographers trying to earn a living and build a career.
(The delicious home-cooked meals which the couple brought to the office every day in the early years to feed the staff also attracted plenty of photographers and newspapermen who would ‘accidentally’ drop in just around lunchtime, and indeed this became so widely known that at least one interviewee for a job actually asked whether he would get a meal as part of the deal…)
The photographer Herbie Knott first encountered Rex in November 1976 following a meeting with the formidable Sunday Times picture editor Steve Brodie, a blunt East Ender; casting his eye over Knott’s portfolio, Brodie asked if he had an agent. ‘Go and see Frank Selby, he’s straight.’ Within months, Knott was making regular sales through Rex; he and society photographer Richard Young are recorded as making their first contributions on the same day in January 1977. Knott recalls his early relationship with Rex: ‘Frank Selby never minded you making your own sales, he admired anyone with independent negotiating skills; but he would tell you off in no uncertain terms if he thought you’d undersold yourself. He taught you how to survive and the cheques arrived like magic, always on time, on the seventh day of every month. Sometimes the envelopes would enclose “tear-sheets” from strange magazines in far-off countries. There was a wonderful romance to this.’
In February 1979 a fire caused by an electrical fault at East Harding Street almost destroyed the business and necessitated many months of painstaking cleaning and re-filing of prints, slides and paperwork. Having moved later that year to new premises in Clerkenwell, where an in-house colour film processing lab was soon set up, the company became renowned for its efficiency and the quality of its in-house film processing and duplicating, and it beat many agencies to the worldwide pages of newspapers and magazines with coverage of the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Other early scoops included Herbie Knott’s image of Margaret Thatcher working late at night on the sofa at 10 Downing Street during the 1983 election.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 Rex Features expanded into new territory, with sales in Eastern Europe and Russia. With the start of Rex USA in the 1990s it became a truly global. Digitization was gathering and allowed the company to grow exponentially, with the younger generation effectively taking charge. Frank finally retired in the early 2000s, by which time Rex was the UK market leader with an unrivalled reputation among press professionals around the world. He and Elizabeth continued to take an interest in the business and were always proud to spot the growing number of Rex credits in the newspapers and magazines, although with his failing sight this became more and more difficult for Frank as time went on, a particularly cruel affliction for a man whose whole working life was in pictures.
In their private life, Frank and Elizabeth played bridge regularly until Frank’s eyesight made this too difficult. They walked every day from their middle age until Frank’s death. He drank a glass of red wine with his meals and always dressed stylishly, often sporting a cravat. The couple travelled the world and for many years had a second home in a tiny hamlet in the Dordogne, where they loved to spend time with their local friends. Frank was well known for his lively sense of humour.
On 12 January 2018, nearly 100 friends and family members from around the world gathered in London for a party to celebrate Frank’s 100th birthday, which he enjoyed immensely, helped by a 30-minute nap part-way through and a restorative whisky!
Frank was utterly devoted to Elizabeth, the love of his life for over 70 years, and the couple were united in everything, through thick and thin. On Saturday morning, 17 February 2018, immediately upon waking, Frank as usual kissed and cuddled Elizabeth and told her how much he loved her. As he headed for his morning shower, he collapsed and died in her arms.
Born 12 January 1918, Budapest. Died 17 February 2018, London.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (b. 1 April 1925), and his children Michael (b. 1950), John (b. 1953) and Sue (b. 1962), five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
– Herbie Knott –
For anyone who knew Frank wishing to join the family for a celebration of Frank’s life, there will be a short memorial, a time to remember and reminisce about how he touched all our lives, at 6 pm on Friday, 16 March in central London. To receive details of this, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org