The Limited Editions Club (LEC) Monthly Letter for Vathek, An Arabian Tale, tells us:
There are books in the vast archives of the great world’s literature — and they are among the most delighting of all books–in which there is so much beauty that they have not been lost in the dark oblivion of forgotten books, yet they have not emerged into the limelight with bathes the generally read classics of the world’s literatures. So soft is the dusk in which they are shrouded, there is a romantic and special pleasure awaiting him who comes upon one of these books, to read it with delight for the first time. For these are books which all well-read men have heard of, and yet few well-read men have read them.
So true, and Vathek is certainly a perfect example of such a gem. Delightful to read, you owe it to yourself to lift the shroud and experience this special pleasure! Vathek was written by William Beckford in French and published in 1786. Beckford was a mere 21 years of age when he wrote this! A non-authorized English edition was published before the French original by Reverend Samuel Henley, in which Henley gave no credit to Beckford while claiming it as an original translation of his from Arabic. History has given credit where credit was due. Vathek is a Gothic novel with its supernatural elements wrapped with an Oriental story line, characters and setting, which was very popular at the time. The story follows the tribulations of Vathek (a Caliph based on the historical Al-Wathiq, though completely fictionalized), who seeks supernatural powers. His quest for such includes his renouncing Islam and, with his mother, engaging in a series of less than honorable behaviors. He ultimately fails, instead finding himself in hell.
William Beckford (1760 – 1844) inherited one of the largest fortunes in England when he was ten years old. He became an art collector, traveller and builder (see here and here). While Beckford lost or squandered much of the fortune he inherited, he did bequeath us Vathek.
Valenti Angelo came to the United States from Italy (where he was born) as a small boy. He grew up in California, and as a boy worked in a photo-engraving establishment. He became an artist, and by his thirties he was famous as a decorator of books, working in the printing house of the Grabhorn brothers. In his six years at Grabhorn, he did some spectacular work, including The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, and one of greatest of all fine press books, the Grabhorn/Random House Leaves of Grass. He then moved to New York, and began doing work for George Macy and The Limited Editions Club (LEC). There are many stories about the sour relations between the Grabhorns and Macy (starting with the publication of Robinson Crusoe by the Grabhorns for LEC in 1930, from which both design changes and money topics caused consternation). Mr. Angelo found himself in the middle of this acrimony since the Grabhorns did not appreciate his leaving for LEC (and Edwin Grabhorn implied that Macy had appropriated the illustrations for a planned Grabhorn edition of The House of the Seven Gables). In any case, Angelo ended up illustrating eleven books with LEC, starting in 1934 with the six volume The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night from Richard Burton, and ending with Twice-Told Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1966.
Mr. Angelo clearly was hugely successful in the art of book illustration. He illustrated 250 books in his career. He was an accomplished engraver and printer, particularly adept doing linocut. However, beginning with his work for the Grabhorn’s The Book of Ruth (in 1927) he become fascinated with illumination, and some of his greatest works for the LEC were those in which he painstakingly hand-illuminated the editions, including this edition of Vathek.
The Monthly Letter describes the medieval art of illumination:
In the days before books could be readily reproduced from movable printing types, a book collector had to commission a writing-master to write out his books for him; and the writing-masters were usually cloistered monks. They had special processes from which they made imperishable inks with which to do their writing; they write the words upon vellum, of which the best quality was mae from the skin of unborn lambs: that being a nice thought NOT to cogitate upon. But they looked upon writing itself as a dirty job to be got over, their real opportunity for self-expression came after the words were written and they could put in some decorations. They mixed inks of lovely vermilions and piercing blues, and worked up highly decorative initials. Then they took jars of liquid gold, and illuminated the initials with it.
The Monthly Letter describe the illumination process used by Mr. Angelo:
Gold is prepared in small tablets. With a thin brush, wet at the tip, Angelo used these tablets for the illumination of the miniatures. He dipped the pointed brush in the gold. Then, upon the pages, he brushed the design in gold. Then he burnished (with a large soup bone!) the precious metal as it hardened on the page. Because every copy is illuminated by hand in this fashion, every copy in some small degree differs from every other copy.
It is hard to imagine the back breaking work this waste accomplish for a print run of 1500 copies, yet Mr. Angelo accomplished it (as he also did for both the LEC’s The Rubaiyat and The Kasidah; he also hand-illuminated a deluxe edition of The Song of Songs for Macy’s Heritage Press). The small 4″ x 6″ book is beautiful, full of hand-illuminated gold and silver illustrations and ornamental borders, and with every page printed in four colors. A nice touch is the paragraphs being marked off with a little Persian ornaments drawn by Valenti Angelo and especially cut by A.G. Hoffman into metal type. The binding is nicely done in morocco, stained a Persian orange, and stamped with an arabesque pattern from Valenti Angelo, in a shiny black solander case, stamped with the title in gold.
About the Edition
- Planned in the fashion of a small illuminated Persian book by Valenti Angelo
- Ornamental borders and illustrations, illuminated by hand in gold and silver, by Valenti Angelo
- Every page printed in four colors
- The border of each page is printed in a rich Persian yellow, over which a design by Angelo is printed in a rich Persian orange
- Within this, a rule is printed in a rich Persian blue
- The text is black
- New translation by Herbert Grimsditch (down for the Nonesuch Press in 1929)
- Introduction by translation by Herbert Grimsditch
- Text composed in Garamond types by A.G. Hoffman at the composing room of Kurt Volk in New York
- Paragraphs are marked off with a little Persian ornaments drawn by Valenti Angelo and especially cut by A.G. Hoffman into metal type
- Printing done at Aldus Printers
- Binding is morocco stained a Persian orange, and stamped with an arabesque pattern from Valenti Angelo, in a shiny black solander case, stamped with the title in gold
- 4″ x 6″, 160 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Valenti Angelo
Pictures of the Edition
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