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.

Screenshot 2015-07-09 14.04.42

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…”

Books as Art: The Private Press Movement at Salisbury House

We have a ten-page typed document in our files with a hand-written note atop the first page reading: “Guide to Salisbury House, by Carl Weeks. Prior to or at the time of ISEA possession.” It is a first person narrative describing many of the important objects in the Salisbury House public spaces. Interestingly, it is not actually Carl Weeks’ telling of the tale, as the unnamed narrator often refers to “Mr. Weeks” when discussing the acquisition, provenance or assessment of particular pieces.

There are elements in the narrative that we now know to be apocryphal or erroneous, so the document often has to be taken with a grain of salt from an historian’s perspective. But some of the anecdotes related therein are so unexpected or unusual that we feel they accurately reflect Carl or Edith Weeks’ very unique perspective on their own collections, perhaps representing oft-repeated anecdotes that our anonymous tour-guide of 1955 heard and found memorable. One such anecdote quotes Carl Weeks as saying:

“There have been three great books printed. The first great book was the Gutenberg Bible. Since a Gutenberg costs about $150,000 Mr. Weeks didn’t buy one, but he did have a leaf out of one of them . . . The second great book to be printed was the Kelmscott Chaucer. One was sold the other day for $1,600 that does not compare with the copy in this library. The third great book was the Oxford Bible, and this is the only copy in existence that has the leaf in it that tells how many were printed: 200.”

Pigskin cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer

Pigskin cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer; click all images to enlarge

Obviously, no one would argue the import and greatness of the Gutenberg Bible, which represented a fundamental change in man’s ability to widely, consistently and quickly reproduce the written word in a (relatively) affordable fashion. Our library contains what is known as a Noble Fragment of a Gutenberg Bible, purchased after a collector dismantled a damaged copy in 1921 and put the intact leaves on the market individually. We also have a 1920s full-sized reproduction of the two-volume, 42-line 1455 edition of the Gutenberg Bible, and it is plain to see that it was clearly a grand and imposing object of art in its own right.

But why would Mr. Weeks have selected the Kelmscott Chaucer and Oxford Bible as peers in greatness to the Gutenberg Bible? (Note that these aren’t their full and proper titles, but I will continue to use them for ease of discussion). Especially given how common their texts are: you can get a copy of the Bible or a copy of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer in pretty much any bookstore, in relatively cheap pressings. So why do these particular editions rise to the status (in Mr. Weeks’ estimation) of the Gutenberg Bible?

Title page from the Kelmscott Chaucer

Title page from the Kelmscott Chaucer

The answer to that question lies in the very high regard that Carl Weeks held not only for books, but also for the art of bookmaking. He was an avid reader, so he viewed books as repositories of information or entertainment, certainly, but he also saw beyond the words into the physical elements that make up the book as an object. He valued the inks, the papers, the typefaces, the binding, the illustrations, the design, and all of the myriad small details that can turn even the most mundane of texts into something sublime.

The library that Carl and Edith Weeks built is filled with books that stand alone as works of art in their own right. And Carl and Edith were particularly fortunate to have been collecting such books during the absolute height of what is now known as the private press movement, when many small, independent publishers were producing extraordinarily high quality books in tiny press runs for discerning collectors, like the Weeks Family.

Kelmscott Chaucer, "The Knyght's Tale"

Last text page of the Kelmscott Chaucer

When viewed through the distinctive cultural lens deployed by private press aficionados, then, Mr. Weeks’ choice of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) and the Oxford Bible (1935) become more understandable, because in many ways, they mark the alpha and the omega of the private press movement itself.

The private press movement is generally considered to have been launched with the founding of Englishman William Morris’ Kelmscott Press in 1890. Inspired by John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris believed that beautiful objects could counteract the negative cultural impacts of the modern, industrial world. He and his many disciples eschewed the cheap, poor-quality, mechanical book production methods that prevailed in their era, and chose instead to return to traditional or classical design, paper-making, printing and binding techniques.  They viewed bookmaking as a manual skill, uniquely suited to human hands, and they considered the products of their presses to be works of art, not just convenient vehicles for the transmission of information.

The Book of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (to give the Kelmscott Chaucer its full and proper title) was illustrated by by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, edited by F.S. Ellis, engraved on wood by W.H. Hooper, and printed by William Morris, and it is generally considered to be the apex of Kelmscott’s work, and one of the most beautiful books ever printed. It was completed in May 1896, a mere six months before Morris’ death. Carl Weeks bought his first copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer from rare book seller Philip C. Duschnes of New York for $600 in March 1942, then in November 1944 traded his version back to Duschnes for an extremely rare (48 copies only), $1,300 version bound by T.J. Coben-Sanderson (more on him below) in pigskin. We still have this version in the Salisbury House Library.

Morris and Kelmscott’s influence was immediate and far-reaching, and the private press movement expanded rapidly in Great Britain and the United States through the first three decades of the 20th Century. The Salisbury House Library is home to many fine, limited edition works from a variety of influential private presses, including such titles as:

  • The five-volume Doves Press Bible (1903), printed by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, who bound the rare Kelmscott Chaucer in our colletion
  • Many books, periodicals and pamphlets published by Roycroft Press of East Aurora, New York, which was founded by Elbert Hubbard, about whom I have written before
  • Nonesuch Press’ The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (1935)
  • Numerous works illustrated, written or designed by Eric Gill, now best remembered as the creator of the hugely influential Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, many of them issued by Golden Cockerel Press
  • The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1932) and The Lamentations of Jeremiah (1933) from Gregynog Press, which was founded by Welsh sisters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies
  • The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius (1927) and Ecclesiazusae (1929) from Fanfrolico Press
  • Ashendene Press’ The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, commonly called Ecclesiasticus (1932)
Front cover "alpha" on the Oxford Lectern Bible

Front cover “alpha” on the Oxford Lectern Bible

Bruce Rogers was a particularly prominent figure in the private press movement, achieving acclaim as an illustrator, typographer and printer both for his small press works, and for the high-quality production aesthetic he brought to retail publishers such as Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside Press and the Cambridge and Harvard University Presses. Rogers also later designed books for the Limited Editions Club, to which Carl and Edith Weeks subscribed for 21 years, leaving us a rare complete collection of this legendary publishing house’s offerings.

Back cover "omega" of the Oxford Bible

Back cover “omega” of the Oxford Bible

From 1929 to 1931, Rogers worked at the Oxford University Press in England, and it was here that he received the commission to design a new lectern Bible embracing the best facets of the private press movement. His masterpiece, formally known as The Lectern Bible for Oxford University Press, was completed in 1935.

There were only 200 copies printed of the largest version of this two-volume Bible, one of which was purchased by Carl Weeks for $600 in March 1944, also from bookseller Philip C. Duschnes, who noted that it was a “special copy bound by Wiemeler of Germany”. We can see a tiny impression of the name “Ignatz Wiemeler” in the gold trim inside the back cover of the Oxford Bible, and his exquisite binding work leaves the massive book surprisingly easy to manipulate, its form clearly supporting its function as a working text for church use.

By the time that the Oxford Bible was published, the private press movement was rapidly dwindling as the worldwide demand for such luxury items crashed during the Great Depression. Fortunately, some of the greatest works of that beautiful, brief creative moment — including some of the most magnificent books ever printed — still live with us here at Salisbury House, a lasting testament to Carl and Edith Weeks’ acuity and refinement as book lovers and collectors.

Title Page of the Oxford Bible

Title Page of the Oxford Bible