The Tragedie of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, Janus Press/Theodore Press (1986)

{Ed. Note: Several comments from Claire Van Vliet (in quotation marks) are taken from an interview and article by Candace Page, published in the Burlington Free Press on March 2, 2013.   Ms. Page’s excellent article can be read in its entirety by clicking here.}

Claire Van Vliet, now eighty years old, is a master wood-engraver although she also makes prints, drawings and pulp paintings.  She spent her early years primarily in the United Kingdom and California before moving to Philadelphia in 1955 to work as an apprentice at Pickering Press.  The same year, Van Vliet founded the Janus Press and published her first artist book with her wood engravings, ‘The Oxford Odyssey‘.  The Janus Press functions, in large part, as a platform for her artistry, just as the Pennyroyal Press is a publishing vehicle for the artistry of another gifted wood-engraver, Barry Moser.  Ms. Van Vliet and the Janus Press moved to the Northeast Kingdom (i.e., the northeast corner) of Vermont in 1966 because of its remote, unspoiled location and proximity to nature and the outdoors.  80% of the Northeast Kingdom is covered with forest and both mountains and dairy farmland can be found in this region as well.  Well over a half century and one hundred-plus publications later, Van Vliet and the Janus Press remain in Newark, Vermont where she continues actively creating and publishing beautiful books.

The Janus Press books are distinctive and Van Vliet has been a pioneer in unusual and innovative book design and construction.  Many of the books are three-dimensional, with fold-outs, pop-ups, weaving, folding and atypical use of different materials, all done to enhance the reading experience.  Others feature an extraordinary range of color which may require putting a sheet of paper on the press multiple times to apply layer after layer of color. “I want the physicality of the book to create a physical message through the hands and eyes that makes the reader more susceptible to the text.”   Despite the physical demands of lifting heavy type cases and operate a hand-powered letterpress, books are still printed one page at a time, usually on a Vandercook press.  For larger and more elaborate books, Van Vliet works with a variety of local craftspeople in New England who will design and set the type, provide hand made paper to specification, bookbinding,  and construction of slipcases.

Van Vliet’s pioneering and innovative work in book design was recognized in 1989 with a  prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize (the so-called “Genius grant”).  Although Janus Press books are collected by libraries, museums and the National Library of Congress, she is not as well known amongst private press book collectors as I believe she should be, in part due to the selection of what the Janus Press has chosen to publish.  While Janus Press has frequently published works from esteemed literary figures such as Franz Kafka, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, John le Carré and Denise Levertov, Van Vliet has also published many authors and poets who are much less well known.  This is the persistent dilemma of a private press owned and operated by a single individual.  Do you publish works from widely known literary figures and/or classic works of literature and poetry that have widespread appeal or do you publish what moves you, works that you connect and identify with?  In Van Vliet’s case, it is clearly the latter and she has stated that she seeks out works that lend themselves to her innovative book designs, works that are especially enhanced by her creative approach to book design and bookmaking.

The most famous of the Janus Press works amongst private press book collectors is the publication of ‘The Circus of Dr. Lao‘ by Charles Finney (1984), with extraordinary use of color and different fabrics in assembling the binding.  That book was recognized in the classic Grolier Club publication ‘A Century for the Century, Fine Printed Books From 1900-1999‘ in which 100 of the most beautiful and influential publications of the twentieth century are discussed and illustrated.  If Dr. Lao is the Janus Press “magnum opus” this edition of King Lear is certainly not far behind. It is in every sense an exceptional livre d’artiste book,  one of the twentieth century’s finest private press  publications of a work by William Shakespeare. It is a collaborative effort involving several talented New England craftspeople, as you will see.

About the Edition

  • The text follows that of Shakespeare’s First Folio and was set and printed in 22-pt Spectrum with Times New Roman for titles
  • Claire Van Vliet created 39 wood-engravings for illustrations, 12 full-page and one double-page in black and white, printed at her Janus Press in West Burke, Vermont
  • The book features a hand sewn binding with 1/4 alum-tawed pigskin spine and exposed cords and birch board covers individually decorated and stained by Van Vliet with black and white rain striations, all wrapped in a black cloth folder chemise
  • An elegant handmade paper in a shade of pale grey was specially made for this edition by Katie MacGregor and Bernie Vinzani of Whiting, Maine
  • Fine letterpress work done by Michael Alpert at the Theodore Press,  Bangor, Maine
  • Housed in a sturdy pale grey slipcase covered with a linen finish gray buckram cloth made by Judi Conant of Guildhall, Vermont
  • Published in an edition of 160 copies

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

King Lear, Janus Press, Slipcase
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Linen-finish gray buckram slipase
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Book and Slipcase
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Gray slipcase with black cloth chemise, containing the book
King Lear, Janus Press, Book with hand stained birch covers and hand sewn spine, within the opened black cloth folder
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Book with hand stained birch covers and hand sewn spine, within the opened black cloth folder
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Front cover of book - birch board with hand-painted design by Claire Van Vliet
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Front cover of book – birch board with hand-painted design by Claire Van Vliet
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Hand-sewn spine with exposed cords and hand stained birch boards
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Hand-sewn spine with exposed cords and hand stained birch boards
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Title Page
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Title Page
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Page: Text page - Act One, Scene One
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Page: Text page – Act One, Scene One
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Text #2
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Text #2
Text page #3
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Text page #3
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Illiustration #5 (Goneril and Regan) with text
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Illiustration #1 (Goneril and Regan) with text
An agitated King Lear
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Illustration #2: An Agitated King Lear
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Illustration #8: King Lear braving the raging storm
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Sample Illustration #3: King Lear braving the raging storm
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Colophon
The Tragedie of King Lear, Janus Press/Theodore Press, Colophon

2 thoughts on “The Tragedie of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, Janus Press/Theodore Press (1986)

  1. I’ve only been able to see the odd picture of a Janus Press book and I have never seen one ‘in the flesh’, so this illuminating article is very welcome. This is a thrilling book with hugely expressive woodcuts, an innovative binding, fabulous materials and production values and what appears to be immaculate presswork – all supporting a text that deserves this treatment. I can see why collectors and fine press enthusiasts rave about Claire Van Vliet and the Janus Press. Your claim that this is ‘one of the twentieth century’s finest private press publications of a work by Shakespeare’ would be very hard to argue with.

Leave a Reply