Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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King Penguins

Although the longest essay I have written here so far, this is just a brief introduction to a very attractive series of books produced by Penguin from 1939 to 1959. Covering a vast array of subjects with (for the most part) excellent illustrations in both black and white and colour they make up a mini reference library all on their own.

20180626 King Penguins 01Starting a new series of illustrated hard back books just as war had broken out was clearly just bad timing for Penguin Books, they had been planned for months and the first two were ready to go for November 1939. That the series not only survived the subsequent paper rationing but flourished for a further 74 volumes until 1959 was nothing short of a miracle. Almost all the books have the same format, a monograph on the specialist subject which may also include black and white line illustrations or photographs, followed by a series of colour plates. The monograph averages about 30 pages; although Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley has only 18 and at the extreme opposite A Book Of English Clocks by R.W. Symonds has 74 pages of text. Likewise the colour plates were intended to be on 16 pages, this also varies but by no means as much as the texts as this was easily the most expensive part of each production so costs were closely monitored.

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Kings were inspired by the German Insel Bucherei printed by Insel Verlag, these beautiful art books had started in 1912 and by the time Penguin launched their Kings there were roughly 500 Insels already available and their catalogue would eventually reach 1,400 different titles. Fortunately for my bookshelves Kings stop at number 76 although there are a few variations to collect as well but my complete set of the first editions is shown in the picture at the top of this essay. One of the most striking aspects of that picture is the wide variety of covers and the design of these was seen as one of the most important aspects of the series. After all they have to draw the potential purchaser in, especially as these were initially priced at one shilling or twice the price being charged for the normal Penguin paperbacks. Unfortunately this didn’t last very long as the price very quickly doubled as it became clear that they were more expensive to do right that initially anticipated and Alan Lane wanted them to be done as well as Penguin could manage. This meant that they really had to look striking so the original house style on the first five was quickly dropped.

Only seventeen Kings were ever reprinted or revised, so with almost all of them the first edition is the only example available and on average 20,000 were printed of each title, although A Book of Toys sold over 55,000 copies. This means that Kings are not normally particularly rare; but are scarce enough to make the hunt trying to collect them all interesting. Some such as Magic Books From Mexico were recognised as niche interests from the start so the print runs were commensurately smaller. In the case of this book however even these apparently didn’t sell and there is a rumour that a large number of them had their plates removed and put under glass in the type of coffee table very popular in the 1960’s and 70’s.

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K1 – British Birds on Lake, River and Stream by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Nov 1939
K2 – A Book of Roses by John Ramsbottom – Nov 1939
K3 – A Book of Ships by Charles Mitchell – Sept 1941
K4 – Portraits of Christ by Ernst Kitzinger & Elizabeth Senior – Feb 1941
K5 – Caricature by E.H. Gombrich & E. Kris – Feb 1941

The first five Kings produced under the editorship of Elizabeth Senior are highly distinctive, although the actual printing quality is not as good as it might be given the intention to emulate the Insel books. However as you can see from the dates of first publication this was not a time for finesse, wartime restrictions soon caused problems with the series meaning that a large proportion of K3, K4 and K5 were bound in soft card covers cut flush to the internal pages as well as the overlapping boards normally used for Kings. The Book of Ships in the picture above is one of these soft back editions and as can be seen is consequently slightly smaller than the other four. K1 is the first of these volumes to use plates from John Gould‘s famous work The Birds of Great Britain, the other being K19 Garden Birds. A Book of Roses (K2) also makes use of a famous earlier work for the plates, in this case Redouté‘s Les Roses. The other three volumes use 16 colour plates from a mixture of sources and along with these there are several black and white images within the text. K1 and K2 only have the 16 colour plates along with a single black and white portrait of Gould and Redouté respectively.

Sadly Elizabeth Senior was killed in an air raid in 1941 and editorial control of the series passed to Nikolaus Pevsner

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K6 – British Shells by F. Martin Duncan – June 1943
K7 – Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900 by James Laver – June 1943
K8 – Elizabethan Miniatures by Carl Winter – June 1943
K9 – The Microcosm of London by John Summerson – June 1943
K10 – The Bayeux Tapestry by Eric Maclagan – Dec 1943
K11 – Fishes of Britain’s Rivers and Lakes by J.R. Norman – Dec 1943
K12 – The Poets’ Corner by John Rothenstein – Dec 1943
K13 – Edible Fungi by John Ramsbottom – July 1944
K14 – A Book of Lilies by Fred Stoker – Dec 1943
K15 – Seashore Life and Pattern by T.A. Stephenson – July 1944
K16 – Children as Artists by R.R. Tomlinson – Dec 1944
K17 – The Leaves of Southwell by Nikolaus Pevsner – Dec 1945

After the fairly dull cover design of the first five with its fussy white banding round the spine it is a relief to see the variety produced in the next dozen. Half of them have that Insel Bucherei look with the title and author appearing on a reproduction of the paste down labels quite common on quality books from the previous 100 or so years. Unlike Insel books this is actually part of the printed design rather than an extra slip, but it does give a touch of class to the book. The first few are experimenting with alternate cover styles and Fishes of Britain’s Rivers and Lakes is a very attractive design by Charles Paine, I’m less impressed with the cover of Microcosm of London with it’s overly florid text done by Walter Grimmond. Having said that Microcosm is the first of the Ackermann editions in Kings. Rudolph Ackermann was a bookseller and printer in London in the early 1800’s and his books and prints sold well making him known for the quality of his images which captured not only cityscapes like this along with K59 Cambridge and K69 Oxford but also the images documenting the start of the railway age some of which are included in K56 Early British Railways and for further variation K46 Highland Dress, all plates of which were originally printed by Ackermann.

Other notable books in this block of twelve are K10 The Bayeux Tapestry with 8 pages of colour plates and 40 pages of black and white photographs which at the time were some of the best images available in print. K13 Edible Fungi is beautifully illustrated by Rose Ellenby who also did its pair K23 Poisonous Fungi. Like Elizabeth Senior, Nikolaus Pevsner got one of his own titles in this block with K17 The Leaves of Southwell which has 32 pages of lovely black and white photographs of the capitals and columns in the chapter house at the Minster of Southwell in Nottinghamshire.

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K18 – Some British Moths by Norman Riley – May 1945
K19 – Garden Birds by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – May 1945
K20 – English Ballet by Janet Leeper – Dec 1944
K21 – Popular English Art by Noel Carrington – Dec 1945
K22 – Heraldry in England by Anthony Wagner – Nov 1946
K23 – Poisonous Fungi by John Ramsbottom – Dec 1945
K24 – Birds of the Sea by R.M. Lockley – Dec 1945
K25 – Ur: The First Phases by Sir Leonard Woolley – May 1947
K26 – A Book of Toys by Gwen White – Dec 1946
K27 – Flowers of Marsh and Stream by Iola A. Williams – Nov 1946
K28 – A Book of English Clocks by R.W. Symonds – May 1947
K29 – Flowers of the Woods by Sir E.J. Salisbury – Apr 1947

Apart from the obviously wonderfully choice of getting somebody called Leeper to write a book about ballet this is a delightful mix of titles. K18 British Moths goes back to the first two Kings by using prints from an old classic book on the subject, in this case by Moses Harris from the mid 1700’s. K21 Popular English Art is an eclectic mix from  drawings of Windsor chairs to colour images of a jug, ship’s figurehead and even a pub interior all done by Clarke Hutton who like Noel Carrington who wrote the text is probably best known to Penguin collectors for their work on Puffin Picture books. Birds of the Sea is also illustrated by an artist in Puffin Picture Books, R.B. Talbot Kelly who created the PP52 Paper Birds which was a cut out book now rarely seen in one piece along with the beautiful PP65 Mountain and Moorland Birds.

One of my favourite King Penguins comes next, K26 A Book of Toys by Gwen White, it’s one of the oddities in the range as it deviates from the plan of a monograph and plates being illustrated all the way through much more like a small hardback Puffin Picture Book with the handwritten text drawn directly onto the plates and not typeset; and what is not to like about a cover with dozens of toy penguins. K27 is let down badly by the quality of the printing of the colour plates, K28 is frankly a mess with far too much jammed into the book which would have been better expanded as a Pelican Book and dropped from this series but K29 rescues this block with some lovely if rather flat coloured plates.

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K30 – Wood Engravings by Thomas Bewick by John Rayner – Apr 1947
K31 – English Book Illustration 1800-1900 by Philip James – Sept 1947
K32 – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Dec 1946
K33 – Russian Icons by David Talbot Rice – Oct 1947
K34 – The English Tradition in Design by John Gloag – Oct 1947
K35 – A Book of Spiders by W.S. Bristowe – Sept 1947
K36 – Ballooning by C.H. Gibbs-Smith – Nov 1948
K37 – Wild Flowers of the Chalk by John Gilmour – Dec 1947
K38 – Compliments of the Season by L.D. Ettlinger & R.G. Holloway – Dec 1947
K39 – Woodcuts of Albrecht Durer by T.D. Barlow – Sept 1948
K40 – Edward Gordon Craig by Janet Leeper – Oct 1948
K41 – British Butterflies by E.B. Ford – Oct 1951

The first two of this block make a great pair, they have a similar design with high quality illustrations right through the text as well as the plates at the back and K39 Woodcuts of Durer goes well with the both of them. That brings us to another King Penguin oddity. K32 A Christmas Carol is almost a facsimile of the original first edition of this Dickens classic, it doesn’t count as a true facsimile as the font used is Monotype Modern, it being the closest available to match the original. The very interesting Russian Icons by David Talbot Rice is another book let down by the poor quality of the printing of the plates, it also has a correction slip pasted over credit for the cover illustration. William Grimmond is credited on the page with Enid Marx pasted over the top. The English Tradition in Design has 72 pages of black and white photographs, the cover of this book does tend to fade badly, probably more than any other King Penguin whilst Wild Flowers of the Chalk, Compliments of the Season and British Butterflies all go back to the original internal plan with a monograph followed by 16 plates which was now becoming a rarity in the series, even if only the last one had a suitable cover design.

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K42 – British Military Uniforms by James Laver – Oct 1948
K43 – A Prospect of Wales by Gwyn Jones – Sept 1948
K44 – Tulipomania by Wilfrid Blunt – Oct 1950
K45 – Unknown Westminster Abbey by Lawrence E. Tanner – Nov 1948
K46 – Highland Dress by George F. Collie – Aug 1948
K47 – British Reptiles and Amphibia by Malcolm Smith – June 1949
K48 – A Book of Scripts by Alfred Fairbank – Nov 1949
K49 – Some British Beetles by Geoffrey Taylor – June 1949
K50 – Popular Art in the United States by Edwin O. Christensen – June 1949
K51 – Life in an English Village by Noel Carrington – June 1949
K52 – The Isle of Wight by Barbara Jones – July 1950
K53 – Flowers of the Meadow by Geoffrey Grigson – June 1950

By now Swiss designer Jan Tschichold was firmly in control of the Penguin house style, he had started with tidying up the look of the major series and setting firm rules not just on typography but also strict design specifications, his influence can now be seen in the Kings. His re-imposition of the original plan of monograph with 16 plates continued with these dozen, just two don’t fit this general structure although the number of plates did get up to 22 for some. The two that don’t fit are K45 Unknown Westminster Abbey along with K48 A Book of Scripts, K45 is very similar in structure to K17 The Leaves of Southwell which makes sense as these are covering much the same field just a different building. A Book of Scripts is another King oddity, concentrating as it does on fine handwriting and to do this it needs lots of illustrations, it also is the only King Penguin to be revised/reprinted four times. Beyond that record it was later greatly enlarged and printed in February 1969 as a large format Pelican (A973) which also went to several reprints.

Largely this gives an idea as to what Kings could have been if there had been more money, better quality printing and greater control on the design from the beginning. The problem was the price that they now had to be sold at. From 1940 to 1949 they had been either 2 or 2½ shillings, by 1952 the price had rocketed and they were just under 4½ shillings and two years later they had reached 5 shillings. They are truly lovely books though, watercolours by Kenneth Rowntree show Wales at its best with K43, Edward Bawden took on the English village (K51) in his distinctive style whilst Barbara Jones not only beautifully illustrated K52 The Isle of Wight but unusually also wrote the monograph. Tulipomania uses plates by Alexander Marshall from a collection from the 1650’s and now in the Royal collection in Windsor. These are some of the most vibrant flower paintings in the King series and makes this a highly desirable book in its own right. The other great joy of this dozen is K49 Some British Beetles illustrated by Vere Taylor.

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K54 – Greek Terracottas by T.B.L. Webster – Apr 1951
K55 – Romney Marsh by John Piper – May 1950
K56 – Early British Railways by Christian Barman – May 1950
K57 – A Book of Mosses by Paul W Richards – July 1950
K58 – A Book of Ducks by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Apr 1951
K59 – Ackermann’s Cambridge by Reginald Ross Williamson – June 1951
K60 – The Crown Jewels by Oliver Warner – June 1951
K61 – John Speed’s Atlas of Tudor England and Wales by E.G.R. Taylor – June 1951
K62 – Medieval Carvings in Exeter Cathedral by C.J.P. Cave – May 1953
K63 – A Book of Greek Coins by Charles Seltman – Nov 1952
K64 – Magic Books from Mexico by C.A. Burland – Feb 1953
K65 – Semi-Precious Stones by N. Wooster – May 1953

Jan Tschichold only lasted a couple of years in his role at Penguin but in that time he completely revolutionised the house style. His replacement was the German Hans Schmoller, he took Tschichold’s templates and refined them further. In this batch we can see the continuation of the original Insel inspired cover designs with fake paste-down label on the majority. The cover of K61 John Speed’s Atlas is based on an old copy which is highly appropriate for this collection of county maps from 1627, the title reflects the usual name for this group of maps although they were not actually by the great Tudor English cartographer but rather his Dutch contemporary Pieter van den Keere. The cover of K63 A Book of Greek Coins is another Walter Grimmond design, he did fifteen in all and only two (K59 Ackermann’s Cambridge and K64 Magic Books from Mexico) come close to looking like the original plan. A further oddity of K63 is one of the coins on the cover, which are intending to show the development of the Britannia figure all the way from an original Greek version to the present day. Grimmond includes a penny with the date 1952 in the bottom left as that was the printing date of the book, however no pennies were actually minted that year as there were plenty already in circulation.

K55 Romney March written and illustrated by the artist John Piper is a very attractive volume, although his sketches illustrating the section on churches in the area are for me more compelling than the 16 colour plates at the back. Also sticking strictly to the 16 plates rule are K57, K58, K60, K64 and K65 with K58 A Book of Ducks and K65 Semi-Precious Stones being particularly fine. K62 Medieval Carvings in Exeter Cathedral continues the style set by the other three books in this sub series of medieval carvings (K17, K45 and K72) all of which have a large collection of black and white photographs, by in this case having 64 pages of them. One extra oddity that should be covered at this point is the soft back Mexican reprint of K64 by Ediciones LARA produced in 1966 to coincide with the Mexico Olympics, although not printed by Penguin it was fully authorised by them as stated  inside.

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K66 – Birds of La Plata by W.H. Hudson & R. Curle – Apr 1952
K67 – Mountain Birds by R.A.H. Coombes – Nov 1952
K68 – Animals in Staffordshire Pottery by Bernard Rackham – Sept 1953
K69 – Ackermann’s Oxford by H.M. Colvin – Mar 1954
K70 – The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper – Nov 1953
K71 – Egyptian Paintings by Nina M Davies – May 1954
K72 – Misericords by M.D. Anderson – Oct 1954
K73 – The Picture of Cricket by John Arlott – May 1955
K74 – Woodland Birds by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Nov 1955
K75 – Monumental Brasses by James Mann – Nov 1957
K76 – The Sculpture of the Parthenon by P.E. Corbett – July 1959

The final batch of Kings took a long time to come out certainly compared to the rapid fire production of earlier years. K66 Birds of La Plata is the only bird book in the series not to feature British birds but rather those of South America following an interest Sir Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin) had developed during his time in that continent at the end of WWII whilst trying to launch Penguin Books there. K70 John Gilpin has also strong links to Lane as it is a heavily reduced in size version of a book he had privately printed as a limited edition Christmas gift the previous year. To emphasise the unusual nature of K66, K67 Mountain Birds is actually called British Mountain Birds inside.

Again 16 colour plates is the norm with only John Gilpin (as a reprint of an existing book), K72 Misericords with lots of photographs (as noted above to match others in the sub series) and the final two books K75 Monumental Brasses and K76 The Sculpture of the Parthenon not matching that pattern. K71 Egyptian Paintings is a little disappointing, the colours are very muted in the reproductions and don’t have the vibrancy of the original tomb paintings. All three bird books are lovely things and would with their compatriots through the Kings make a very attractive collection on their own with the advantage that with the exception of K66 La Plata they are all quite easy to find. K75 Monumental Brasses was a surprise when I first got a copy, I was expecting more black and white photographs but instead this book is illustrated with drawings that have been coloured a pale yellow and very nice they are too as they are certainly clearer that photographs might have been. This is particularly true of the final book in the set; K76 is a sad end to a great series, the photographs are poorly printed compared to previous works and the text is hardly a gripping read

The animation below showing some of the wonderful plates from various King Penguins was done for a talk on the Gentle Art of Penguin Collecting given by myself and Megan Prince at The 2018 Hay Independence celebrations. I hope this inspires a collector or two out there to take a look at the 76 King’s almost 60 years after the last one was printed, they are well worth dipping into.

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First Folio: 1

Mention the words First Folio to most book collectors and their initial thought will go to the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623; and indeed I will come to that in a later blog as I have a copy of the Norton facsimile. Hence this essay being entitled First Folio: 1, the facsimile will be covered in First Folio: 2 in a few weeks time.

So what is this one about then? Well in 1946 after being demobbed from WWII Charles Ede was looking for a way to make a hobby into a career. He had discovered the beauty of the pre war private presses whilst still a schoolboy, publishers such as William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. During the war he had started a collection of Kelmscott, Nonesuch and Golden Cockerel Press fine editions but these really were the preserve of the book buyer with a significant disposable income and well beyond the means of most people. What he had spotted was what he believed was a gap in the market, even if his friend, Christopher Sandford, then running The Golden Cockerel Press thought the gap was too small for anyone to make a business from it. What if somebody could print fine editions of books but at a price that more people could afford? In a quote I particularly love as it ties my two largest book collections together Sandford said

But life is full of wonders, and people like you do get away with things – like Lane and his Penguins – so thumbs up.

So Ede went for training at the London College of Printing and by October of the next year The Folio Society was born.

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The first title was a collection of short stories by Tolstoy, my copy has some damage to the dust jacket where somebody has clearly put a cup down on it but as you don’t often come by Folio’s first book with dust jacket I added it to my collection nevertheless. The tales included are:

  • The Raid
  • Two Hussars
  • Three Deaths
  • Polikushka
  • Two Old Men
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyitch

The idea was that books would be published at the rate of one a month and sold through standard booksellers, neither of which turned out to be the case. The first few titles did get sold that way but the retailers weren’t really interested in a new small publishing venture, so building on the idea of the Society part of the name Charles Ede by the end of 1947 decided to turn it into a club and sell only to members which added to the exclusive aspect of the books.

 

The first few years were hard and the Society survived by doing other things beyond the original plan such as private editions and selling manuscript pages along with fine art prints but slowly the subscriber base grew especially when the concept of a free presentation volume for members who agreed to purchase a minimum number of books each year was introduced in 1950.

To be frank part of the problem with the early years was that because of the ongoing paper rationing and the quality of what was available the first few books are not as good as Ede wanted, this is particularly clear with Tales by Tolstoy which was printed in Belgium to get round the shortage of paper but the actual printing as Ede himself noted in 1968 in the first Folio bibliography ‘Folio 21’

The printers, who only undertook the job as a favour, were not used to this type of work and the standard leaves a good deal to be desired.

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and as the above illustration from Three Deaths illustrates it really isn’t that good, the picture appears to be over-inked and lacks the lightness of touch that a line-blocked pen and ink sketch would have in later years. The paper also feels rough and not what you would expect from a fine edition.

The Folio Society did however manage to get out a total of three books in 1947 so the equivalent of one per month, something they were not to manage regularly until 1955 with 13 volumes and have never dropped below 12 in a year since then. The second was Trilby by George du Maurier which also became the first book from the society to be illustrated by the author, something that is still a rarity today.

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This book was much better quality than the Tolstoy edition, although also printed by Brepols in Belgium, and contains a 5 page appendix which prints for the first time in book form a section of the book which clearly describes the painter James Whistler and was presumably left out of earlier editions for legal reasons. The drawings by du Maurier are reproduced very well, this one is entitled ‘the soft eyes’

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The first Folio Society book to be printed in the UK was book number 3 Aucassin & Nicolette, translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon and this was a real oddity. The first two books were traditional editions in paper dust jackets, this is a lot smaller at 8.9 x 5.8 inches (226 x 148 mm) and the jacket is transparent plastic printed in black with the title and illustrator information.

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The plastic wrapper has often got lost over the years or the text rubbed off, mine is in very good condition, the poor appearance in the photograph is due to glare off the plastic. The black print on the slippery plastic continues on the inside of the wrapper and again is prone to damage.

 

The title page gives a feeling of the book which is my favourite of the first three and gives the first real hint of Folio as a fine press publisher, at 10s 6d it cost the equivalent of just over £20 today which for a 60 page book is quite a lot but it is a lovely edition. The printer was the Chiswick Press who would go on to print many editions for Folio.

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What is noticeable to those people familiar with the production of the Folio Society today is that books all have dust jackets, the familiar slip cases did not become standard until 1959 although they had started to appear in 1956 and dust jackets were still used throughout the 1960’s although mainly for the subscribers presentation volume.

These three books in my collection are all first editions in Folio, in fact none of them were ever reprinted, the first book to make it to a second impression was Shakespeare’s Sonnets, originally printed in 1948 and reprinted 3 times in the next 42 years before being replaced by a completely new edition.

Last year the society reached it’s 70th birthday and a couple of years before that finally abandoned the membership concept that served it so well along with the idea of a free presentation volume other than the occasional diary or notebook to encourage buyers to spend more. Nowadays the website is open to everyone and you can just have one book if that is all you require. At the last count I have over 425 Folio books and still happily add more each year, the only years where I don’t own at least one example of that years publications are 1967 and 2006, so beware the Folio Society is definitely addictive…

Penguin Drop Caps

In 2012 Penguin Books started a series of books for sale in the USA and Canada and it made use of their extensive back catalogue along with some newer modern classics in a handsome new style hardback binding. The tagline of the set is

It all begins with a letter

and the concept was to produce 26 titles where each letter of the alphabet was represented by the surname of the author. An interesting idea especially over the choice of names for some of the more difficult letters. What made the set a cohesive whole was the decision to have all the letters on the covers designed by one person, Jessica Hische, and for her to create an evocative set of designs. Adding the input of Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley we ended up with a rainbow of classic books which call to you from the shelves and look totally different to anything else I have. Good design has been the hallmark of Penguin Books from their beginning in 1935 and it’s good to see that tradition being respected in a modern set.

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Of course a set like this appeals to the collector part of me, especially when they are not officially available in the UK as I like a challenge, but it also harks back to the very first Penguin Books I initially accumulated, then decided to collect, which was the early (first 125) Penguin Classics.  Buying a set of books forces you to purchase authors you may not have been intending to buy or even to have heard of and once the book is on the shelf it would be remiss not to at least give the book a go. The first title is a case in point; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not a title that has ever appealed but I have to say that much to my surprise I’m really enjoying it. I have also read Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Five Children and It, and Cannery Row so far and I’m looking forward to tackling authors I don’t know at all such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset.

The full list is as follows:

  • Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
  • Cather, Willa – My Antonia
  • Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
  • Eliot, George – Middlemarch
  • Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Hesse, Hermann – Siddhartha
  • Ishiguro, Kazou – An Artist of the Floating World
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret life of Bees
  • Lee, Chang-rae – Native Speaker
  • Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
  • Nesbit, E – Five Children and It
  • O’Hara, John – Butterfield 8
  • Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
  • Queen, Ellery – The Greek Coffin Mystery
  • Rushdie, Salman – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Steinbeck, John – Cannery Row
  • Tan, Amy – The Joy Luck Club
  • Undset, Sigrid – Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath
  • Voltaire – Candide
  • Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose
  • Xinran – Sky Burial
  • Yeats, William Butler – When You are Old
  • Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind

A to F came out in 2012, G to P in 2013 and Q to Z in 2014 although I only started to collect these books towards the end of last year (2017) so the last 5 have only recently arrived and I didn’t buy them in alphabetical order but rather which 4 or 5 a month I could find at a sensible price.  Their official retail price varies on the copies I have between US $23 and $30 although the Canadian prices fluctuate much more widely between $24 and $40. The cheapest I found one in the UK was around £10 and had to spend up to £17 to get the last few I was missing.

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The spines are also attractive and make a bold statement on the shelf next to me as I write this, as can be seen in the picture above the page edges are also coloured to complement the cover and the rear cover has a short quote from the book that Penguin have turned into a parlour game

Mine is from Great Expectations:

Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.

and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

Not the cheeriest of quotes but I’m not going to let them put me off reading all these as they are lovely books with a clear font (Archer) as you would hope from a series that takes lettering seriously and a pleasure to pull off the shelf and sit down with.

The Things We See

One of the joys of collecting Penguin Books is the wide variety of titles and series that they published over the years and especially exploring the ones that failed to take off.  There are more dead ends and random corners to explore in Penguins first 15 years of publishing than in a M.C. Escher painting. One of these was the well intentioned but ultimately seriously curtailed series The Things We See, book one of which is shown below.  They were assigned the letter code E to distinguish them from other Penguin series so E1 became Indoors and Out.

When I first started collecting Penguin, well before the advent of the internet and its ease of tracking down items around the world, I came to think of these as The Things We Don’t See as I so rarely came across one in a shop on my searches although they are not in fact that scarce and you can certainly pick up examples for £5 to £10 nowadays quite easily.

The Things We See was intended to be a departure from the normal Penguin style. Hardback books each of 64 pages, printed on art paper and significantly larger than their normal paperback production at 220mm tall x 182mm wide and looking at design of everyday objects. This had been touched on via several Pelican books (Penguins factual imprint) but the desire was to produce a series of high quality books on all aspects of the subject. Unfortunately they immediately hit several problems. The main one being the major paper shortage immediately after WWII in 1946 when the series was supposed to start along with the relatively high purchase cost at 3 shillings and sixpence, just over £7 today which sounds good until you realise that it is 3½ times the price of a ‘normal’ Penguin or Pelican at the time. A small number of Indoors and Out did make it on sale in 1946 as a special pre-issue publication but the majority arrived in 1947. It was intended as the introduction to the series and carried an impressive list of titles in preparation to give an idea of the intended scope:

  • Houses by Lionel Brett
  • Furniture by Gordon Russell
  • Radios and other appliances by R.D. Russell
  • Pottery and glass by A.B. Hollowood
  • Lettering and Printing by John Tarr
  • Advertising by Ashley Havinden
  • Shop Windows and exhibitions by Misha Black
  • Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood
  • Public Transport by Christian Barman
  • Private Cars by Humphrey Hague
  • Ships by David Pye
  • Aircraft by Christopher Nicholson

Other projected titles given, but with no author, so presumably not as advanced in production were Toys, Domestic Equipment, Shops and Cinemas, The Things We Wear. This would have given the E series an initial list of 17 titles however only 7 were ever printed, the ones in bold above being the remaining 6 to come out.

1947 was a good year for The Things We See as 3 more titles made it out that year. E4 Pottery and Glass was the next to appear as can be seen from the list of titles on the back which still has E2 and E3 as ‘in preparation’ and the list of titles has already been considerably cut back as it rapidly became clear that a) there was not enough paper and b) they weren’t selling very well. Only E1 was ever produced in hardback all the others are softback editions at the lower price of 2 shilling and sixpence, representing a 28% price cut; although this appears to have been a last minute decision as the old price is blocked out in black and the new overprinted on the inside flap of the dustwrapper. As can be seen on the rear cover of E3 Furniture; shown above; there is a long overprint removing the line

Titles already published:price 3/6 each

The rear of E2 Houses is the same as E3.  So what do the books look like inside? Well lets open E4 Pottery and Glass.

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They are very attractive photogravure printed volumes with lots of photographic illustrations, it is clear that these would have been expensive to produce so the dramatic cut in price cannot have helped the viability of the series as a whole.  That these books are still around was down to Penguins policy of just holding onto something until it eventually sold. Unlike a lot of publishers that would probably have pulped a lot of unsold stock to make way for new titles Penguin, under Allen Lane at least, very rarely did this. The next two titles to appear were E5 Public Transport in 1949 and E6 Ships in 1950, both still priced as 2 shillings and sixpence.

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These two are probably my favourites from the series, they are very readable and the illustrations invoke the era they come from so well

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Ships has a quote from The Architectural Press on the inside of the dustwapper, which turned out to be completely wrong:

To judge from the first few volumes the series called The Things We See ought to prove the most successful of all the contributions made by Penguin Books to visual education. Well designed, well illustrated and well printed they are remarkably cheap by any standard. Moreover the author of each has been given his head, within the limits imposed by considerations of space, and by bringing his heart too has produced a highly readable essay which is all the better for being in some degree a profession of personal faith.

Sadly there was only to be one more title produced and for that we had to wait another 3 years.  1953 saw E7 Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood and Susan Jellicoe. The latter author was not mentioned in the original plan for the book so possibly she was drafted in to make sure this book actually came out.  The price however had doubled to 5 shillings and the eye design cover was abandoned to make the book look more attractive to a post austerity public.

All the titles were relaunched with photographic dustwrappers over the top of the unsold stock dating back up to 6 years. Only E3 Furniture was actually reprinted with revisions for this relaunch all the rest were just what was still sitting in the warehouse so there must have been a highly tedious exercise in removing all the old wrappers and putting new ones on. Only Furniture and Gardens have photographic covers under the wrapper all the others retain the old eye cover.

20170130 The Things We See 08Several illustrations in Furniture were replaced as part of the revised edition and its price was increased to 3 shillings and sixpence alongside E1 Inside and Out which had never been reduced in price, the others stayed at the lower price.

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This is from the revised edition, only the birch bed (top left) was in the original 1947 book, the new pictures show a far more contemporary look in order to update the subject.

Presumably the books continued to slowly sell and the relaunch managed to clear some of the backlog of books making the effort of recovering all of the old stock worthwhile. Penguin meanwhile had other ambitious projects to handle by then and The Things We See was left to slowly fade away.  A sad end to what could have been a most interesting set of books.

Why not get hold of some, they are cheap enough, and enjoy, what is after all, a 70 year old series and therefore now significant in studying the history of design not just from their contents but also from the design of the books themselves. Three of the titles E1, E6 and E7 won design awards from the National Book League when they were published so were recognised as significant pieces of work even then.