This week it’s the turn of another beautiful book published by the private press Design For Today and this time it is two books in one as if you buy the signed limited edition of the first one hundred copies, as I did, you get the hardback book along with a cut out and make toy theatre which includes a script so that you can perform the play. The total run of books is just 650 so 100 with the toy theatre and 550 without. I suspect that the toy theatre edition has probably sold out as my copy is number 85, but the standard edition appears to still be available on the Design For Today website, although the page relating to it is out of date as at the time I’m writing this it still refers to it being available for pre-order only.
The illustrations have been done by Clive Hicks-Jenkins who also illustrated another book I have from Design For Today, Hansel and Gretel retold by the current Poet Laureate Simon Armitage which I reviewed back in June 2019, his style is immediately distinctive and fits both these books beautifully. The words are by poet and translator, Olivia McCannon and don’t follow any previous version of Beauty and Beast that I am aware of which is one of the joys of the book in that you have no idea where the story is going. The book is wonderfully designed by Laurence Beck so this is definitely going to be an image heavy blog, I apologise in advance for the slightly distorted pictures but I really didn’t want to force the spine flat simply to get perfect pictures.
The text above is part of Beast’s thoughts as he carries the unconscious Beauty into his castle, as she has fainted at first sight of him. As you can see this is framed within a proscenium arch to echo the toy theatre that is also part of the production and has similarly been designed by Hicks-Jenkins. Pages are sometimes with black backgrounds and otherwise white, there are also many full page and double page illustrations, this truly is an art book showcasing the poetic words by McCannon. As I said above this is an original tale involving Beauty having to go to Beast after her father took a pomegranate fruit from Beast’s garden and then signing a contract to forfeit her in return for being allowed to leave Beast’s enchanted castle.
One unusual feature of the book is that so many of the images were done by Hicks-Jenkins before the text was written, sometimes many years before the book was even thought of, and are inspired by his reaction to the Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête‘ which Hicks-Jenkins first saw back in 1964 and which had a huge impact on him. The words and pictures were tied together between covid lock-downs here in the UK and in her introduction McCannon gives thanks to Joe Pearson, owner of Design For Today, for “keeping faith with a project that kept wanting to change”. Whilst the text is relatively short the amount of pictures and the need to combine them all into what is a truly lovely book must have been a highly complex exercise.
One of the double page spreads, in this case depicting Beauty travelling back to her father via interconnecting mirrors. Beast allows her to do this because her father is ill but she agrees that she must return within a week. Needless to say once she is back home the week passes so quickly that she overstays leading to the final tragedy of the story when she does finally return to Beast’s castle only to find him gravely ill from the despair that she may have left him forever. Unfortunately her two sisters see her travel back via the mirrors and realise that they too can go there, but they want to rob Beast of his treasure. Whilst they attack the castle and realise that it is well defended, Beauty cries over Beast, realising at last that she truly loves him.
Sadly Beast dies but Beauty resolves to stay at the Castle, the treachery of her sisters having repelled her from her original home. I loved the book, as have all the people I have shown it to so far. But as I mentioned at the beginning mine is one of the 100 copies that come with a toy theatre in its own folder that is contained with the book in a lovely slipcase made by Ludlow Bookbinders. I haven’t made the theatre but I am considering scanning and reprinting it onto card so that I can keep the original pages whilst also enjoying the theatre. I share with Joe Pearson a love of Pollocks toy theatres along with the scarce Penguin Books items that were designed to be used with them. You can read my short history of toy theatres in Britain based on a couple of the Penguin examples here. But for now here are some pictures of the flattened toy theatre that came with this lovely book, if I do get to make it then I will replace these with the replica.
Front cover of the folder
Rear cover showing some of the cutouts and the scenes that can be performed.