I had a phone call from John Murray on Friday. He said he’d been reading my blog about our new facsimile of South Polar Times. ‘In case you’re interested,’ he said, ‘I’ve got some original glass plates here we inherited from Smith Elder (the publishers of the original facsimiles).’ Of course I was interested, so I called in to see him yesterday. I worked at John Murray for over ten years before joining Folio, so mounting the steps of 50 Albemarle Street always stirs up a cocktail of memories and awakens the ghosts of authors I was lucky enough to meet – John Betjeman and Kenneth Clark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and the redoubtable Dame Freya Stark. (Dame Freya always wore her hair low on one side because – it was said – her ear had been bitten off by a camel.)
Here is a photo of the plates, which clearly had been made by Ponting himself from his original negatives. The reflection at the bottom of the picture is of the idiosyncratic dome in John Murray’s waiting room.
Just round the corner in Berkeley Square is Maggs Bros, the venerable antiquarian bookseller: it is an extraordinary place, more like a scholarly library than a shop. I was there a few weeks ago talking to Ed Maggs about Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, which we are considering for a Limited Edition. Ed showed me a remarkable copy of the book (‘so rare that most collectors have never even heard of it’ he said), one of only six copies of the 1921 edition specially printed on large paper for T.E. Lawrence, in lieu of a fee for his introduction to that edition. The book bears the signatures of both Doughty and Lawrence.
Ed was hopping with excitement about his new boat, a beautiful 50-foot gaff ketch. We spent last weekend sailing in the Solent, putting the Betty Alan through her paces.
Last year we inaugurated a new Book Illustration Competition in conjunction with House of Illustration, which was won by Matthew Richardson - one of his illustrations for Camus’ The Outsider is shown here. We have just announced the second annual competition and I’m delighted that Marina Warner and Angela Barrett have agreed to be guest judges.
Our new edition of the Golden Cockerel Troilus and Criseyde is nearly ready for press, and we have been carefully checking proofs against our copy of the original. We were interested to find that a few of the engravings are different from the versions included in the definitive edition of Gill’s engravings published by Christopher Skelton in 1983 – presumably they were revised by Gill for re-use in the Canterbury Tales, which appeared later. Here are three examples.
Peter Suart came in on Friday to sign his etchings for the new Gulliver’s Travels – the final stage of a project which has been in the pipeline for well over a year. Meanwhile I was polishing my letter to members announcing the publication. I came to the phrase ‘many believed that Gulliver’s Travels was a true – if exaggerated account’ and thought – surely not! By serendipity, my lunchtime stroll that day took me past the Royal College of Surgeons, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and I popped in to the Hunterian Museum. Among the fascinating items in that sometimes gruesome collection is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the famous Irish giant – here it is, together with a contemporary print (I particularly like the small gentleman on the right).
Also on display is a portrait of another small gentleman, the famous ‘Count’ Jozef Boruwlaski who had reached the height of just 28 inches by the age of 22; he lived to the grand old age of 97 and is buried in Durham Cathedral. With such extreme examples to hand, and with explorers returning to British shores with incredible tales of wondrous discoveries around the globe, it is indeed conceivable that some people took Captain Gulliver at his word. (By the way, an unexpected fact about Count Boruwlaski is that he had a brother of six foot four!)
I took the proofs of his Cicero illustrations down to Tom Phillips in Peckham and he was mightily impressed. Lying around his studio were various early ideas for his Rilke project. This one includes the first line of the Duino Elegies, in his own translation. Tom told me on no account to miss looking at the old waiting room in Peckham Rye station – ‘one of the finest rooms in England’. Here’s a photo, showing the shell of what must once have been Venetian grandeur. Thankfully, its restoration is now under way.
Went to a fabulous performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico the other night. I was reminded of a project I have long cherished – to publish properly printed and bound opera libretti in parallel text. Those supplied with CDs are invariably printed in tiny type and the booklets tend to fall apart. Some libretti – such as those by da Ponte for Mozart, and Hofmannsthal for Strauss – are literary works in their own right and should be read as such. One could illustrate them with classic set and costume designs such as Alfred Roller’s for Der Rosenkavalier.
Comments on this – and any other ideas raised in this blog – are more than welcome!
Last Wednesday I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum
in Cambridge to check the proofs of vellum leaves from a psalter by William de Brailes. I was accompanied by Lorenzo, the amiable Italian printer, who will be seeing the job through the press. This will be the first ever manuscript facsimile actually printed onto vellum, and places unusual demands on the repro process. We had already checked three stages of digital proofs, and now we were seeing the images printed on vellum for the first time. I am glad to say that the match was remarkably good, and I think the effect will be totally convincing once we have added the gold and the blind tooling. Here is one of the leaves (gold still to be added) showing the Tree of Jesse, and an arty photo of the splendid Founder’s Library, in which we were working.
Our Letterpress edition of Shakespeare has now been in production for five years, and we have decided to reward the loyal members who have bought all the volumes in the series by sending them a facsimile of the only page of Shakespeare’s work that survives in his own handwriting. This forms part of the play Sir Thomas More, to which Shakespeare contributed a charged encounter between More and the rioting citizens of London. The fragile manuscript resides in the strongroom of the British Library, and it was there that we checked our first proofs. Seeing Shakespeare’s own writing, evidently written at speed (Sir Thomas More’s name is given as moore, moor and even moo) gives a great sense of closeness to the man himself. Meanwhile, we have commissioned Professor John Jowett, who edited the definitive Arden Shakespeare text of Sir Thomas More, to write a brief account of the genesis of the play, and create a version of his transcript to accompany our facsimile leaf. Ironically the refusal by the Master of the Revels to license the play was indirectly responsible for its survival, since the play was never printed. When plays were printed, the original manuscripts were thrown away, but this one lay forgotten on a shelf somewhere before its importance was recognised as late as the 1870s.
Last week we received the dummies of one of next year’s Limited Editions – Japan: described and illustrated by the Japanese, a deluxe publication from the 1890’s, containing over 500 hand-tinted original photographs. Our binding has been designed by Neil Gower based on one of the original editions. Some months ago, we bought a set of these scarce volumes to reproduce from, but some of the images were badly faded. The John Rylands Library in Manchester possesses another copy, in which many of the photographs are much better than ours, so we have been comparing one against the other, found that not only does the condition of the photographs vary enormously from copy to copy, but so does the hand-colouring (a red sash in one copy is green in another); sometimes even different negatives were used. So we have selected the best from both copies.