Gertrude Hermes and the ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog (1988)

{Ed. Note: This article is from Books and Vines contributor Neil.}

Gertrude HermesOBERA (1901 – 1983) was an outstanding sculptor and wood engraver whose work spanned much of the twentieth century. In the opinion of Simon Brett, “her prints stand in the history of British Modernism alongside the paintings of Nicholson and the sculpture of Moore and Hepworth.” The story of Hermes’ association with Gregynog Press is interesting and sad. The story of her work done for a planned  edition of the great naturalist work from Gilbert WhiteNatural History and Antiquities of Selborne, has a reasonably happy ending for us, as it finally was published, albeit a half century late!

When William McCance and Blair Hughes-Stanton were appointed as Controller and Artist at the Gregynog Press in 1930, their wives, Agnes Miller Parker and Gertrude Hermes, recognised as distinguished artists in their own right, were contracted to act as Wood Engravers. Shortly after arriving at Gregynog, Miller Parker had embarked upon the blocks for the wonderful Gregynog edition of Esope’s Fables (published in 1931). Gertrude Hermes, however, found it hard to buckle down to her commission to produce wood engravings for Gregynog’s proposed A Natural History of Selborne. She had two young children to raise and she had to cope with the emotional turmoil of her husband’s trips to London for amorous encounters – Hermes appears to have spent a year of personal misery at Gregynog.

By October 1931 Hermes had moved back to London with her two children, leaving Hughes-Stanton at Gregynog where he was joined by his new love, the poet and writer Ida Graves. The shocked Gregynog Press board still expected Hermes to complete her blocks for Selborne in London. The initial idea was that there were to be around thirty blocks cut for Selborne and now that Hermes was settled back in London, the calmer atmosphere enabled her to start engraving.

The six large blocks that Hermes completed are some of the most refined and exquisite she made. They are less studies of the creatures and more exemplars of the natural world. She chose to illustrate this famous text of natural history in terms of design and imagination – very different to those who were followers of Thomas Bewick‘s style of natural history engravings. The titles of the engravings, ‘Spider and Bat‘, ‘Bird‘, ‘Carp‘, ‘Snake and Tortoise‘, ‘Deer’ and ‘Tree‘ are generic and are an indication of the of the type of creatures rather than a scientific representation of a particular species; Hermes described her ‘Bird‘ engraving as the ‘Hermes Bird……..never been seen at Selborne!‘ in a letter to McCance. The images in Hermes’ engravings could be described as heraldic with the creatures set in their own fields surrounded by borders. The patterns in the engravings are abstract, and in the case of Carp and the vignette to the left in Deer are visionary.

Gertrude Hermes’ delay in cutting the Selborne engravings and the collapse in the pound in 1931 that contracted the market for private press books proved fatal, and the planned edition of Selborne with her engravings was not published by Gregynog (who resolved ‘that the book be postponed until a more favourable time); although five of the engravings were shown at the Society of Wood Engravers exhibition in 1933. Apart from some engravings that Hermes cut for The Lovers’ Song Book (also not published by Gregynog!), her contract with Gregynog ended with the completion of the six blocks she had cut for Selborne. This did not deter her and she went on to produce a series of remarkable engravings in the 1930’s.

In 1998, David Esslemont, then controller at Gwasg Gregynog, recieved permission from the National Library of Wales to use the original Hermes blocks for Selborne and resolved to print them in a Gregynog edition nearly 60 years after the original commission. The book has an introduction to Selborne author Gilbert White by William Condry who also selected the excerpts from The Natural History of Selborne to accompany the engravings. James Hamilton contributes a postscript providing a background to the “distressing cycle of events” (with quotes from contemporary correspondence) that led to the book being abandoned.

About the Edition

  • Wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes being illustrations to Selborne, with extracts from Gilbert White
  • Set in 14pt Monotype Baskerville
  • Printed on Zerkall mould-made paper in Baskerville
  • Text printed on a Heidelberg cylinder press and the engravings on David Esslemont’s Columbian hand-press
  • 355 x 240mm
  • Bound by Smith Settle in quarter cloth with paper boards printed from a linocut by David Esslemont
  • 240 copies (25 in full-leather and the rest as this one), this is copy number 56

Pictures of the Edition

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Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Spine and Cover
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Spine and Cover
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Title Page
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Title Page
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Contents
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Contents
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #1
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #1
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #2
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #2
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #1 (Carp) with Text
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #3
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #3
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #5
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #2 (Spider and Bat)
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #6
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Illustration #3 (Snake and Tortoise)
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #4
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Sample Text #4
Gertrude Hermes 'Gregynog' Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Colophon
Gertrude Hermes ‘Gregynog’ Selborne, Gwasg Gregynog, Colophon

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