The Black Sun Press and Harry Marks at Salisbury House

They were christened the “Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein – the extraordinary creative generation in the 1920s and 1930s, including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Igor Stravinsky, Isadora Duncan, George Gershwin, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, and many others.  Most of them lived around Paris and southern France, most were expatriates, and many became the core of what is known as “Modernism.”  Particularly among the writers, many were American.  One major port of call for the Lost Generation was the Parisian English language bookstore Shakespeare & Co. run by an American woman named Sylvia Beach.  Beach is best known as the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Library and Rare Documents Collection at Salisbury House provides a fascinating survey of significant works to emerge from the creative energies of Paris during the 1920s and 1930s.

A young and wealthy American couple, Harry and Caresse Crosby, joined the expat crowd in Paris by the early 1920s. He was a nephew of J. P. Morgan, and both were aspiring, but marginally talented, poets.  The Crosbys were regulars at Shakespeare & Co.  Most of their early work consisted of love poems written to each other.  This photo of a bust of Harry by his wife was the frontispiece of the Black Sun Press edition of Poems for Harry Crosby written by Caresse after Harry’s death.

Harry Crosby bust

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents 

Realizing that they had little chance of getting their poems published elsewhere, the Crosbys decided to use their own money to publish them themselves in finely-made and hand-bound editions.  This was the start, in 1925, of the Editions Narcisse, which soon became The Black Sun Press.  This title page is typical of many subsequent books, with the combination of red and black ink.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents

 

The frontispiece was a drawing by Lawrence – and, in the Salisbury House copy, with Lawrence’s signature – as shown below.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

The Crosby’s had found an eccentric, but perfectionist printer named Roger Lescaret who printed almost all of their books (their office was upstairs from his shop.)  His work was matched by the perfectionism of Harry and Caresse – their books have the effect of “elaborate care rather than wasteful expense, of delicacy rather than elaboration.”

The second player in the Black Sun Press story at Salisbury House was, naturally, Carl Weeks: the builder of Salisbury House and the collector of its magnificent library.

The third major player in the story of the Black Sun Press was their United States distributor – Harry F. Marks.  Marks was a New York book dealer (with, by 1925,  a shop on West 47th St.) who was known for fine bindings and high-end “sporting books”, i.e. erotica.  He openly listed such books in his catalogs, yet he was never arrested – probably because of his affluent and respectable clientele.  He also dealt in the avant-garde literature of the time, as did his close neighbor, the Gotham Book Mart.

Marks was one of the two favorite book dealers of Carl Weeks, (the other being the New York dealer Philip Duschnes) and Carl was a favored customer who was offered many rare items, many of which still reside in the Salisbury House library.

Harry Marks had attempted to get a signed agreement with the Crosby’s making him the sole US distributor of the Black Sun Press books, but they would not sign such an agreement.  They did, however, provide him with nearly complete print runs of many of their books and even printed Marks as the source for many books as shown in this page from the 1931 Poems for Harry Crosby.  Note that this copy has a signed presentation from Marks to Carl.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

One of the Black Sun books from 1929 that is discussed in more detail in another blog entry is James Joyce’s Tales Told of Shem and Shaun. That book includes a colophon (an inscription at the end of a book usually with facts about its production) showing its availability at Marks’ bookshop

What follows is a survey of the other Black Sun Press books in the Salisbury House library in rough order of publication date.

One of the early Black Sun books from 1928 was  Letters of Henry James to Walter Berry.  James was, of course, the well-known novelist and Walter Berry was an American lawyer living in Paris who was a good friend of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Edith Wharton.  He willed his library to his cousin – Harry Crosby.  The Salisbury House copy of the Letters is unique in preserving the original holographs of two of the letters from the book – number three and number ten; the first page of number ten in Henry James hand is shown below.

Walter Berry 1

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy was published in 1929 and again the colophon shows Marks as the US dealer.

Laurence Stern end

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

 

Harry Crosby died on 10 December, 1929 in New York in a probable murder-suicide with a woman with whom he was having an affair.  He had combined his sun-worship with a fascination with death for many years.  Now, Crosby would probably be diagnosed with PTSD from his traumatic experiences as an ambulance driver at Verdun in World War I.  Caresse, Harry’s wife, continued the publishing activities of the Black Sun Press for many years after  her husband’s death.

In the Salisbury House collection, Sun, Tales Told of Shem and Shaun, Secession in Astropolis, New Found Land, Einstein , Imaginary Letters, and A Sentimental Journey show the Harry Marks addition to the colophon in nearly identical style.

One of the interesting questions about the Harry Crosby, Harry Marks, and Carl Weeks connections is when Carl started collecting the Black Sun Press.  One answer, albeit a little confusing, comes from a dedication from Harry Marks to Carl in Sleeping Together, one of the parts of the 1931 first volume of Harry Crosby’s posthumous Collected Poems.

As Carl’s adjacent note (left of the bookplate) points out, this is from 1931 (and “introduce” is clearly present tense) and yet it seems likely that Marks was selling Black Sun books to Carl long before then, but who knows?

Harry Marks inscription to Carl in Sleeping Together

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

Secession in Astropolis by Eugene Jolas is an experiment in mythic and abstract language somewhat in the style of Finnegans Wake, but without the genius.  It is interesting in that it establishes another important connection in the close-knit modernist group in Paris; Jolas was the founder and editor of the literary journal transition.  This was probably the most influential little magazine in Paris, publishing nearly every major name in early 20th century English literature, including the first major serialization of James Joyce’s Work in Progress (later published as the book Finnegans Wake.)  It is hardly surprising that Harry Crosby was involved there too – as an associate editor and financial backer.  Sleeping Together was reprinted in transition #19/20 in a memorial section after Harry Crosby’s death. The Gotham Book Mart was the sole US distributor of transition.

One of the other major publications in 1929 was The Escaped Cock by D. H. Lawrence.  This book involves a very complicated story, discussed in more detail below.  1929 also saw the publication of another book by Harry Crosby, The Transit of Venus.

1930 saw the publication of a number of important books as well, including a finely printed edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with color illustrations by Marie Laurencin.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

Ezra Pound’s Imaginary Letters was also published in 1930 and Salisbury House has one of the fifty limited copies signed by Pound.

Ezra Pound signature

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

Other Black Sun books from 1930 in the Salisbury House library include New Found Land by Archibald MacLeish, Harry Crosby’s Shadows of the Sun, and Crosby’s Aphrodite in Flight.  The last is his memoir of learning to fly an airplane.  The last in this general survey (but much less than half of all the Black Sun titles) is the 1936 edition of the Collected Poems of James Joyce.  This is notable for the very fine 1930 Augustus John portrait of Joyce used as a frontispiece; the Salisbury House copy was also signed by Joyce.

Joyce Collected Poems image and signature

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

At this point, it’s time to return to the 1929 first edition of The Escaped Cock by D. H. Lawrence, with this frontispiece by Lawrence.

DH Lawrence Black Sun Press frontispiece

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

This novella is a different interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus; it was later re-published as The Man Who Died.  Salisbury House has three copies of the first edition and is fortunate to have the complete hand-written manuscript of the novel. The travels of this manuscript – from the hand of Lawrence to the library of Carl Weeks – are the first mystery of the book.  The first page is shown below.

 

DH Lawrence manuscript

Salisbury House Library & Rare Documents Collection

The idea and title for the book derive from a toy rooster escaping from an egg displayed in a shop window in Grosseto, Italy.  Lawrence saw it in 1927 and remarked to a friend that it inspired the title.   The book was written in two parts and both parts were eventually sent by Lawrence on September 2, 1928 to his long-time family friend Enid Hilton.  On May 20, 1929 he instructed Enid to send it to Caresse Crosby, but NOT as a gift.  After the book was published, Lawrence complained to Caresse about the low price she had asked for the print run for – who else – Harry Marks, and about the large profit margin Marks was making.

After Harry Crosby’s death in December, 1929 (and probably after Lawrence’s death in March of 1930), Frieda Lawrence (David’s widow) wrote in 1930 to Caresse Crosby asking for the return of the manuscript, saying, in part, “I won’t give you another word of Lawrence’s to print if I don’t get the ms. of The Escaped Cock. Yours in disgust, Frieda.”  I can find no mention of any further Black Sun books by Lawrence and it is clear that Frieda did not receive it from Caresse, because she expressed surprise in a letter of Dec 1, 1934 to Carl Weeks on finding that Carl had it!  Carl had likely purchased the manuscript from  Harry Marks.

Therein lies the mystery – how did Harry Marks get the manuscript?  One possibility is that Caresse sold it to Marks, possibly out of anger at Frieda, but the biography of Caresse does not show her as vindictive and, despite the death of her husband, she didn’t really need the money.  Another story is part of the Salisbury House oral tradition, but seems a bit far-fetched.  IF Harry Crosby had taken the manuscript with him to New York, and IF the dinner party that had been expecting Harry Crosby (including Harry Marks, of course) when they were informed at the theater of Harry’s suicide had rushed to the suicide scene, and IF Marks had “liberated” the manuscript as part of cleaning up the crime scene – then Harry Marks had it.  If I were a gambler, I’d bet on the first possibility.

The second oddity with this book is the fact that Harry Marks, somehow, eventually obtained the copyright for The Escaped Cock and published it with that copyright.

 

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Document Collection

Salisbury House has an unique archive relating to this edition, consisting of a marked-up copy of the Black Sun edition showing the changes that Marks made to the colophon in preparation for his edition.

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We have seen that there is an intimate connection between the Lost Generation in 1920s and 1930s Paris, The Black Sun Press, Harry Marks, and Carl Weeks.  Some of the connections are a bit murky, but that only adds to the extraordinary Library and Rare Documents Collection at Salisbury House.

 

A Detective Story at Salisbury House

One of the intriguing aspects of the collections at Salisbury House is the opportunity they present for research about the many interesting objects in the house.  A case in point is a very unusual prayer rug displayed in the first floor west hallway, outside the Dining Room.

The rug is a “saf” or “saph”, which is a family prayer rug – in this case, with six niches for a man and his five sons or other male family members.  In use, the points of the arches would be pointed toward Mecca.  Safs are fairly uncommon, and this layout of side-by-side niches is only one of the possible arrangements of the niches.

 

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Prayer rug at Salisbury House

 

The rug has been hanging in this location since at least 1928.  It is listed in a 1928 appraisal inventory as 16th Century with “thousand knots gold field,” but with no location of origin specified  On the other hand, the standard object inventory for the house lists it as from Hamadan in western Iran, but dating from 1880.  That is almost 3 centuries difference – which is correct?

In addition to the design, I originally became interested in the rug when I noticed that the construction is extremely unusual. Nearly all Persian rugs are constructed over the entire surface with the so-called Persian knot with the ends of each knot forming the rug surface (Turkish rugs generally use a different knot).

 

Senneh

 

There are generally warp threads between the knots that help hold the rug together, but they are usually not visible from the front.  The construction of this rug is different in that only the figural design elements are knotted pile of this type, while the background is woven with a herringbone pattern of flat weave. 

In the image below, the raised pile design is in blue, faded red, and a line of light brown, while the woven background is clearly different.  Some of the lighter specks in the background are traces of metallic gold thread.  The rug clearly belonged to a wealthy man!

 

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Prayer rug detail – woven background and pile design

 

While on a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I noticed a so-called “polonaise” carpet which had many features in common with the rug in Salisbury House.  The palette was similar, the age was given as circa 1600 (nearly the same as one description of the Salisbury House rug), and the construction combined woven and pile elements.

There were differences, of course – the Victoria and Albert rug is not a prayer rug, it is silk rather than wool, and the background is a brocade rather than a weave.  Nonetheless, the similarities led me to contact the Victoria and Albert to see if they could clarify the background of the Salisbury House rug.

My email was very promptly answered by Dr. Moya Carey, Iran Heritage Foundation Curator for the Iranian Collections at the Victoria and Albert.  This was something of a surprise, in that Dr. Carey, a distinguished scholar of Iranian art, almost certainly experiences many demands on her time. After sending her some images of the Salisbury House rug, she sent me images of a 1986 museum catalog from the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, AustriaThis museum is known for its collection of oriental rugs.  The rug on the cover of this catalog is very nearly identical to the one in Salisbury House, as shown in the following image.  The Salisbury House rug is on the left.

 

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Salisbury House Rug ~ Vienna Rug

 

 

Based on the catalog description of the Vienna rug, the flat woven background is not in a herringbone pattern, but the rug has the same combination of woven and pile techniques.  Clearly, the palette and design are nearly identical.As far as the dating discrepancy, the Vienna rug is a late 19th Century carpet from Khotan, which is in what might once have been called Eastern Turkestan on the Silk Road, in what is now western China. 

The two rugs are so similar that there is little doubt that the Salisbury House rug is also from 19th Century Khotan.Thus, the 1928 appraisal was incorrect.  Even the experts can be wrong!  But the object inventory is also wrong about where it was made, although the date is roughly correct, if a bit too specific. 

In all, it makes a fascinating detective story!  Salisbury House is fortunate to have such an interesting and unusual rug.The rug on the Vienna catalog cover also has an interesting history, which can be found here

I would like to again thank Dr. Moya Carey for providing the definitive research that solved this particular Salisbury House detective story.

Evolution of a Fable: Finnegans Wake at Salisbury House

The Salisbury House library contains an amazing collection of works by James Joyce.  One of these works is his last book, Finnegans Wake.  What is even more amazing in the collection are the preliminary parts of the Wake that Joyce published as he continued to revise the work from around 1924 until the final release as a book in 1939.  This essay will discuss the evolution of a small part of the book through these preliminary versions.  Most of them are found at Salisbury House. Below is the signed half-title of one of these early fragments – Tales Told of Shem and Shaun (Black Sun Press, Paris, 1929).

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

Finnegans Wake is one of the most complicated works in literature; it consists of puns and portmanteau words in 27 languages, with the base being English.  An essay such as this can only discuss one tiny aspect of many recurring themes.  Mankind is represented in the book by a family consisting of a man, his wife, their daughter, and their twin sons, basically referred to as Shem and Shaun. The relationship and conflict between the two brothers is shown in many different guises throughout the book. One of the instances of this fraternal conflict is framed by the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper – or, as Joyce wrote it, “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  In this title, he was playing on the Danish “ondt” meaning “evil” and note that the grasshopper is hoping for grace.  We will follow this fable from its first short version published in 1928 through to the final book.

Folklore is one of the frequently used frameworks in the book.  Joyce calls it “fokloire”, playing on the Gaelic “foclóir” meaning “vocabulary” – Joyce’s book was intended as a world of all languages.  The fable derives from Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, which pits the frugal, hoarding ant against the profligate but ultimately starving grasshopper.  Joyce evens the match by letting the grasshopper have the last word.  The first published part of the fable was in transition (note the lower-case “t”), a prominent literary magazine in Paris (#12, March, 1928.)  This snippet remained nearly unchanged from first to last.

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Norman Hills Collection

In Joyce’s scheme, the Gracehoper represents Shem, Time, the ear, and Joyce himself.  The Ondt represents Shaun, Space, the eye, and Wyndham Lewis. Lewis, who had attacked Joyce in his book Time and Western Man, had a long-standing feud with Joyce. Among the many interpretations of the overall intent of the fable, Eric McLuhan views it as a conflict between ages of technology.  Other critics emphasize the opposition and interaction between space and time, or the stages of the cyclic theory of history of the philosopher Giambattista Vico.

Joyce scatters various reference clusters throughout the fable, such as many names of insects and parts of insect anatomy.  There are many names of philosophers and words with repeated syllables recalling the stuttering of the brothers’ father.  It includes many references to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There are other clusters, but we now turn our attention to our main concern: the revision history of the text as reflected in the Salisbury House library.

The original three hand-written drafts of the fable were written quickly – probably beginning in February 1928, and published the following month.  This transition version is quite short (less than one half of the length of the final text), so the obvious main method of revision was additive.  There were many levels of revision added to the transition proofs.  The editor, Eugene Jolas, had the same problem with endless revisions that had plagued Sylvia Beach when publishing Ulysses and later, Harry Crosby.  transition had been publishing parts of Work in Progress (as the draft Finnegans Wake was called) starting with the first issue in April 1927 and would continue with portions of it in almost all the remaining issues. A small amount of this text had been published earlier in other magazines, but most of it was new and transition provided the first extended publication.

The next published version of the fable was in the Black Sun Press Tales Told of Shem and Shaun in 1929.  The editor, Harry Crosby, started work on this edition by asking Joyce if he would agree to him publishing part of Work in Progress.  Joyce gave him heavily hand-modified sheets of the transition version (known, but not extant.)  Crosby produced a number of proofs, and each time Joyce added more text.  One of the last of these proofs (probably the next to the last) is in the Salisbury House library.  The following image shows a major addition to it in Joyce’s handwriting.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The following image shows this hand-written addition as it appears in the final Tales Told of Shem and Shaun.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The revision process was slow and frustrating for Crosby, as shown by this note accompanying the proof in Crosby’s hand urging Joyce to finish the changes. The final Tales Told of Shem and Shaun and this note are also in the Salisbury House library.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The final version of Tales Told of Shem and Shaun includes a commissioned “portrait” of Joyce by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.  This abstract drawing is a very loose interpretation of a “portrait”, but it is widely reproduced in the Joyce literature.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The next published part of this fable, which the Salisbury House library also has, is a very brief excerpt from Tales Told of Shem and Shaun in the Imagist Anthology, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1930.)  This edition has no significant textual changes.

The next-to-final version was published as a small book entitled Two Tales of Shem and Shaun, (Faber and Faber, London, December 1932). This re-prints two of the three fragments from the earlier Tales Told of Shem and Shaun including “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  Although the text was re-set, I could find no textual differences between the two.  The cover of this book is shown below.

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Norman Hills Collection

The fable’s final version is in the book published as Finnegans Wake (Faber and Faber, London, May 4, 1939.)  It was followed very shortly also in May 1939 by the American first edition (Viking Press, New York.) The fable is on pages 414.19 to 419.20 (the number after the period of each is the line number.)  The text throughout the book has been greatly expanded from earlier versions with many additions of major blocks of text.  Some of these are within previously published fragments, but many are completely new. The following image shows the beginning of the song that ends the “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  This is from the first edition/first printing included in the Salisbury House library.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The subsequent publishing history of Finnegans Wake is quite brief.  Surprisingly, the book has remained in print for the last 76 years with no textual changes of any kind. This is partly because of the refusal of his heirs to allow any change as long as it was under copyright and because of the difficulty in determining what in the text constitutes an error.  One exception is a 16-page list of corrections compiled by Joyce before his death on January 13, 1941, though not published until 1945 (Faber and Faber, London, printed in the U.S.A.)  These corrections were incorporated into the text starting with the eighth edition in 1958.  None of these corrections affect the Ondt fable. The upper part of the pamphlet title page is shown below.

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Norman Hills Collection

In 2010, Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon edited The Restored Finnegans Wake, which included thousands of changes.  Most critics have not liked this version and their Penguin trade edition of it is no longer in print.  A hypertext version is supposedly in preparation, although it will likely meet the same fate.

James Joyce is widely considered to be the greatest prose writer of the 20th century.  Ulysses regularly appears as the head of lists of great 20th century novels.  The distinguished critic, Harold Bloom, has said that “if aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon, the Wake,…, would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante.”  Given the extraordinary literary value of Joyce, it is not surprising that Carl Weeks, as a collector living in the time of Joyce, would collect the major works, such as first editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  What is truly astonishing is the depth of the Joyce collection in the Salisbury House library, including early printed pamphlets, a corrected proof, and many secondary items that are found only in the best of Joyce research libraries.  Central Iowa is indeed fortunate.

Centaur at Salisbury House

This post is authored by Norman Hills, one of Salisbury House’s tour guides, and is the first in a series of posts written by guest authors who have special interests within the Salisbury House collections.

Why should we be interested in a typeface?  First, a typeface can be beautiful on its own, although we rarely notice a font unless it seems unusual or inappropriate.  In the case of Centaur, it is the finest of the early Venetian revivals, a typeface style which first emerged in the 19th and early 20th-century, and were derived from an acclaimed  15th-century Venetian printer, Nicholas Jenson. Centaur is a font with a beauty of line, proportion, and elegance that has been acclaimed since its release in 1914.

Centaur Broadside

From The Design of Books, Adrian Wilson. Printed by Taylor & Taylor, 1948

Second, and more important, is the use of a font in creating beautiful books.  Centaur is renowned for its first two major uses in books often cited as among the most beautiful created in the 20th century.  The Salisbury House library is fortunate to have copies of both of these books: the T. E. Lawrence translation of The Odyssey printed by Emery Walker in 1932, and The Oxford Lectern Bible of 1935.

Both the typeface and the design of these two books are the work of the American designer Bruce BR photoRogers.  Albert Bruce Rogers was born on May 14, 1870 in Linwood, Indiana.  In 1886 Rogers enrolled at Purdue University, studying art but taking a degree in Science in 1890.  In the next few years, he worked as an illustrator, designer, and printer.  Rogers worked at Riverside Press for fifteen years, starting in 1900, and he married Anna Baker that same year. His only child, Elizabeth, was born in 1901. While at Riverside, Rogers designed his first typeface, the Montaigne, which was based on the Nicholas Jenson type of 1470 as used in the printing of Eusebius and his printing of Suetonius.  This Venetian Renaissance Old Style font was also used as the basis for Centaur.  During the years 1912-1935, Rogers worked for a number of presses, including Emery Walker’s Mall Press and Harvard University.  He designed over 170 books during the course of his career, and he died on May 18, 1957

Rogers wrote in his Printer’s Notes about the development of Centaur:

“I had had the good fortune to come into possession of a copy of Jenson’s Eusebius of 1470, supposedly the first of the folios printed in his Roman  letter, and the only one I have ever seen in which his type appears in all its delicate crispness of cutting and casting—a marvel of accuracy for those times. When portions of the clearest page in my copy were enlarged to about five times the original size I was at once struck by the pen-like characteristics of the lower-case letters; so with a flat pen cut to the width of the heavier lines, I wrote on the photographic print as rapidly as I could, thus preserving the proportions, at least, of Jenson’s own characters.”

  Joseph Blumenthal in The Printed Book in America (p. 67) writes of Centaur:

 “The undertaking was sponsored, with some proprietary rights, by Henry Watson Kent, then secretary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New  York, where he had established an excellent press in the museum basement for announcements, posters, labels, etc. The types first book appearance was in Maurice de Guérin’s The Centaur which gave the type its name and which has become one of the most sought-after of the B.R. books. Hand-set by Mrs. Rogers, it was printed in an edition of 135 copies [in 1915] at Carl P. Rollins lively and idealistic Montague Press at the Dyke Mill in Massachusetts.

Guerin Centaur Beinecke

At this time, the Monotype System was widely used for typesetting in Europe.  This consists of two machines, one for keyboarding and the other for type casting.  To use a font for most general purposes, a full set of capitals, lower case, and italics is needed.  Rogers agreed to make Centaur available for Monotype and arranged for a compatible italic designed by Frederic Warde.  The italic was based on the work of a sixteenth-century printer named Ludovico degli Arrighi and was called Arrighi.  Thus the full font was available by 1929.

  A comparison of Centaur with another commonly used font, Baskerville, will show some of the distinguishing features of the font.

Font Compare

Centaur is generally lighter, both serifs (small lines attached to the end of a stroke) on the “T” point left, the tail of the “Q” is more restrained, and the junction in the middle of the W is very different.  There is relatively little difference between thick and thin lines, the legs of the “M” are splayed, and the tail of the “R” is more sweeping. The center bar of the “E” is longer and the cross-bar of the “e” is slanting.  There are other similar details that differentiate Centaur from other fonts, although in some cases the differences are very subtle. Daniel Berkeley Updike in his Printing Types (1922) writes: “…it appears to me one of the best roman fonts yet designed in America, and, of its kind , the best anywhere.”  That evaluation still stands.

Turning to the major uses of Centaur, we can see Rogers’ mastery of book design, for which he is more widely known.  In the late 20s, he was considering a finely printed edition of the Odyssey, but he was not satisfied with any existing translation.  He was one of many people who had been reading with great interest The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia.)  Rogers conceived the idea of commissioning Lawrence to do a new translation.  Lawrence had long admired Rogers and was an avid reader of the Odyssey in Greek, but was initially reluctant to try such a difficult task. After almost five years of work, the Odyssey was published by Sir Emery Walker, Wilfred Merton, and Bruce Rogers in 1932 in an edition of 530 copies.  Each book or chapter was headed by a 24K gold and black medallion designed by Rogers.  Seven separate impressions in the press were required for each medallion.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Books Collection

With special grey paper and a simple black morocco leather binding, the result is said to be “among the most beautiful books ever produced” (Joseph Blumenthal).

 The Salisbury House library also contains the very rare second edition of the Lawrence’s Odyssey.  This is the American limited edition issued to establish copyright in an edition of only 34 copies signed by Bruce Rogers.  The book is much smaller than the first edition, does not have the chapter roundels, and does not use the Centaur font.  The Salisbury copy is number seven and one of 11 beautifully bound in full morocco, brown in this case (others were blue.)

Odyssey signature

The second masterpiece using the Centaur type is the Oxford Lectern Bible from the Oxford University Press, printed in 1935.  This Bible was produced at the request of King George V to commemorate the Canadian soldiers who died in Ypres, Francee, during World War I.  The type is a special version of Centaur, 22 points, set on a 19 point body to save space.  This is a very large book with the large size Batchelor hand-made paper in two volumes and bound in white pigskin.  This version of the Oxford Bible was a limited edition of 200 copies; there is a place for the number within the edition, but the Salisbury copy is unnumbered.

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The Oxford Lectern Bible is often considered to be the masterpiece of Bruce Rogers.  While he was working on the Bible, he also designed another highly regarded book, the Fra Luca de Pacioli, in 1933.  This also used the Centaur type and the cover is a well-known example.

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Rogers used the Centaur typeface rarely, reserving it for major books, usually with hand-made paper which could take a better impression than normal book pulp paper.  That trend has continued, although it is still used on occasion, as on the cover of this 1977 book of essays about James Joyce from the University of California Press.

Scan Ulysses Essays

These and the many other beautifully designed books of Rogers have established him as one of the finest, if not the finest, designers in America.  The April 3, 1939 issue of Time Magazine asserted that “Bruce Rogers is to U.S. book designing and printing what Frank Lloyd Wright is to architecture…”