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Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, purports to be the account of a voyage by a surgeon and captain, Lemuel Gulliver. In fact, this biting satire on contemporary society was the work of the Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). A friend of the poet Alexander Pope and a member of the Scriblerus Club, which lampooned bad literature and scholarship, Swift was acknowledged as the greatest satirist of his age. He was the scourge of corrupt politicians and has been an inspiration for other writers from Voltaire to the present day.
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In Gulliver’s Travels the narrator visits a range of fantastic lands, bearing such outlandish names as Brobdingnag and Glubbdubdrib, and meets an array of peoples, from the belligerent Lilliputians to the gentle Houyhnhnms. Through these imaginary societies, Swift makes a veiled but unmistakable assault on contemporary institutions, including the legal profession, the press and the Whig government. First published in 1726 by a bookseller willing to risk the wrath of the authorities, Gulliver’s Travels was an overnight success, its first print run selling out within days. The writer John Gay wrote gleefully to Swift, ‘It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.’ The book has never been out of print since.
The humour, colour and lively adventures in Gulliver’s Travels have made it a favourite for generations, while its satire continues to resonate. The true brilliance of Swift’s vision is that his target is not just the establishment, but humanity in general. After listening to Gulliver’s description of human beings, the King of Brobdingnag declares, ‘I can only conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth’. By the end of the book, Gulliver heartily agrees with him.
Limited to just 1,000 copies, this publication from The Folio Society joins a series of newly illustrated collector’s editions of classic works. Peter Suart has created an extraordinary sequence of colour images, as well as numerous tailpieces. Each colour plate is tipped by hand onto a page printed with a golden border. The details of the edition are printed letterpress on the verso of a special limitation spread, and a hand-printed etching, signed and numbered by the artist, is tipped on the recto page. Each book is quarter-bound in vellum with vellum tips, and the spine is hand-blocked in 22-carat gold. The binding design, also by the artist, is blocked in three colours and gold foil.
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Every reader, young or old, is familiar with the image of the ‘giant’ Gulliver in the land of Lilliput: it is one of the most recognisable scenes in literature. But Lilliput is only one of the strange lands visited by Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece. After meeting the tiny but aggressive Lilliputians, Gulliver travels to the Land of Brobdingnag, where the inhabitants are giants 12 times his size. In his third voyage, Gulliver visits a number of strange worlds, including the flying island of Laputa, whose scientists conduct complex but pointless experiments. Gulliver’s final voyage is to the country of the Houyhnhnms, horses whose gentle civilisation is in stark contrast to the vile ape-like Yahoos, with their love of shiny rocks (diamonds), violence and greed. Gulliver comes to see all humans as Yahoos and returns home feeling disgust for them all, even his wife and children. He prefers to spend his time in the stable with his horses. Is Gulliver mad, or does he see humanity all too clearly?
Gulliver’s Travels is a complex, multi-layered work that can be read as adventure, satire, comedy and profound philosophical exploration of human nature and society. For this collector’s edition, The Folio Society approached the artist and writer Peter Suart, whose response is at once wickedly comic and engagingly cerebral. Each painting provides clues and sly allusions – a visual puzzle that will entertain and delight the reader. In total Suart has produced 17 watercolours, numerous pen-and-ink tailpieces and one very special etching for the opening limitation spread.
Each copy in the edition contains a limitation page, printed letterpress. Opposite is a hand-printed etching, tipped onto the page. One thousand etchings have been hand-printed by the Pauper’s Press, a process which required several months to complete. Each print has been signed and numbered by the artist. In this etching, Gulliver stands astride a broken bridge – the link between the vile Yahoo on his right and the noble Houyhnhnm on his left. Suart plays with tricks of scale – a giant’s finger and thumb appear to snatch Gulliver, just as he himself holds a tiny figure. The picture’s composition subtly alludes to the famous frontispiece etching in Hobbes’s Leviathan, a major inspiration to Swift.
Among the many useless inventions and misapplied science which abound in Lagado (a colony of Laputa) is a machine ‘whereby the most ignorant Person … may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.’ Through enormous effort, however, it creates only broken sentences. The words shown in this illustration are connected either with the themes of the book or with Swift’s life. The books of ‘broken sentences’ – shown bottom left – have titles such as ‘Goafer’s Truffles’, ‘Gaffer’s Trowels’ and ‘Gulf of Troubles’. Gulliver wears a suit made for him in Laputa. The pocket has been sewn upside down and the legs of the breeches are of different lengths: evidence of the Laputans’ lack of practical skills.
‘The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at work’
In Gulliver’s personal journey from naïve, hopeful young surgeon to misanthropist, few scenes are as telling as that in which he describes to the Houyhnhnms the state of England, and the various attributes of doctors, lawyers, ministers and aristocrats.
Suart’s cadaverous doctor is complete with bloodied fingernails and a young woman peering up his skirts with a magnifying glass. The figure signifying government has a gouty leg, a nose eaten away by syphilis, a bulging purse, and a further symbolic bulge. The effete aristocrat with dandified clothes keeps his hands in his pockets as if to show just how little work he does.
‘Our young Noblemen are bred from their
Childhood in Idleness and Luxury; that,
as soon as Years will permit, they consume
their Vigour, and contract odious
Diseases among lewd Females’
The Houyhnhnms decide that Gulliver cannot remain with them. Desperate to avoid ‘European Yahoos’, Gulliver builds himself a canoe and sets off to find an uninhabited island.
Here Gulliver wears the rabbit-skin clothing which he has made for himself: the rabbit’s ears are left attached to simulate a horse’s, his hair is worn in a ponytail, and the shoes are fashioned to look almost like hooves. A horse’s head surmounts his mast. Gulliver searches for land using a telescope the wrong way round – a witty nod to the many shifts of scale in the book, which also shows the distortion with which Gulliver sees the world. The mermaids represent Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh, Swift’s friends (and perhaps lovers), whom he nicknamed Stella and Vanessa – thus making explicit the identification between author and protagonist.
‘As I was looking about for a secure Landing-place, I saw a Sail to the North North-East’
At the end of the narrative, Gulliver returns home, but the company of humans disgusts him. He takes pains to conceal the whereabouts of the countries he has visited, in case they are invaded by colonisers.
Suart constructs a poignant image. On the wall is a picture of a centaur, emblem of Gulliver’s divided, impossible state; at his elbow is a little toy horse. He holds a bottle of lavender, to disguise the intolerable smell of his family, and a giant wasp sting, a poisonous souvenir of his travels. Through a closed window we see a touching embrace between Gulliver’s wife and child, a sunlit scene of physical affection in stark contrast to the grey isolation of Gulliver’s study.
‘To behold my Figure often in a Glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by Time to tolerate the Sight of a human Creature’
The binding design of this collector’s edition encapsulates Peter Suart’s ingenious approach to the book. It portrays Gulliver seated on a globe. The giant wasps refer to his adventures in Brobdingnag, while his hat placed atop a mountain is an allusion to his name in Lilliput, ‘the man-mountain’. The harbours of the two cities are carefully drawn to spell out the two letters G and T, and Gulliver holds a diminutive effigy upon his hand, who holds one upon his hand – a figure of infinite recession that reminds us not only of the scale, but also of Swift’s numerous personae within the story.
Peter Suart is an illustrator, writer, performer and musician. His latest project is a one-man show on the discovery of the plague bacillus during an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1894. He has illustrated several books for The Folio Society, including Nikolai Gogol’s Collected Stories and Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy. He divides his time between Sussex and the Far East.
Review by anon on 8th Nov 2012
"A fine edition, in which especially the illustrations are superlative."