Barbarian Press recently published the latest in their ground-breaking Endgrain Editions (EE) series, Endgrain Editions Four: Simon Brett – an Engraver’s Progress. For those not aware of the Endgrain Editions series, it is a series of works dedicated to wood engraving with each volume showcasing selected works of a single engraver, printed from the original blocks, with an introduction and a catalogue of major works. The first of this series, on Canadian engraver Gerard Brender à Brandis, appeared in 2000. This was followed by Endgrain Editions Two, published in 2001, featuring the work of artist Abigail Rorer. Endgrain Editions Three: Peter Lazarov followed in 2003. All three editions are out of print and difficult to find on the secondary market. It seems remarkable that this EE series can keep getting better, but having just received the new EE of Simon Brett (hereafter referred to as EE4), I am astounded at the beauty of this edition. For the many Simon Brett fans out there, this edition is simply a must have, as it is for those fascinated with the many charms of wood-engraving.
For those few Books and Vines readers not familiar with Simon Brett, here is a brief overview from Barbarian Press:
Simon Brett is acknowledged as one of the masters of wood engraving of the past half-century. He was inspired to take up engraving in the early 1960s by his teacher Clifford Webb at St Martin’s School of Art in London, where he was principally studying as a painter. He illustrated a number of books in the 1980s and published them under his own imprint, Paulinus Press, winning the Francis Williams Illustration Award for the first, ‘The Animals of Saint Gregory’, in 1981. Since 1989, when he retired from teaching at Marlborough College, he has worked exclusively as a wood engraver, principally as a book illustrator.
Although his work has appeared in books from such publishers as David R. Godine [Pushkin’s ‘The Gypsies and Other Poems’] and in 26 images for the New Testament portion of ‘The Reader’s Digest Illustrated Bible‘, the widest selection is to be seen in books from the Folio Society, for which he has illustrated many classics, among them ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Clarissa’, ‘The Poems of John Keats’, ‘The Confessions of St Augustine’, ‘Legends of the Grail’, ‘Middlemarch’, and ‘Legends of the Ring’. Beyond this, his engravings have been commissioned by many fine presses in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada – including ours.
I would add that there have been more than a dozen solo exhibitions of Mr. Brett’s work over the years, and more than twice that number of shared exhibitions. He has illustrated at least 67 books by my count, around 20 of them for The Folio Society. The appendix in this EE volume lists all of the books he has illustrated along with a catalogue of all of his wood-engravings from 1961-2013.
I have always enjoyed Simon Brett’s work, though the extent of my enjoyment did not really sink in until a few years ago when I received the Barbarian Press Pericles, which remains one of my favorite fine press works of all time. Brett’s work in Pericles is simply stunning in its visual presentation and depth of reflection. It is about as perfect of an illustrated work as I have ever seen. In the Publisher’s Foreword to EE4, Crispin Elsted writes:
As in a string quartet or a sonnet, the essential texture and gesture and line in Simon’s work allows every nuance of expression and effect, combines the purest formal balance with extreme flexibility of display, shows the interplay of shadows to reveal the things which cast them — and does these things on an utterly human scale. His work has complexity, rich ambiguity, and extraordinary beauty, but always ends in clarity.
This perfectly sums up what I felt was displayed in Pericles, and is why I have been looking forward to EE4 ever since it was announced. My exposure to Mr. Brett’s work (through Pericles and a couple of other works) whetted my appetite to get much more familiar with the large body of his work that I was unfamiliar with. And what a large body of work it is — Simon Brett has done more than 1,000 wood-engravings in his career! In this latest EE, Barbarian Press has worked with Mr. Brett to choose over 130 of these engravings, proceeding to then print this selection directly from the wood. The selection highlights the entire range of Mr. Brett’s work from across his career. The book is arranged in sections not by chronology or even genre, but corresponding to “moods or archetypes“. This way of presenting Mr. Brett’s work nicely fits into his way of approaching illustrations and gives the reader a logical grouping from which to delve deeper into Mr. Brett’s style and vision.
Mr. Brett tells us in the introduction to this edition:
Subject-matter is important, part of the germ of an idea and of the final effect. But subject matter does not bring a work into being, sustain it, determine its quality or make it endure. These things depend on the visual fullness with which subject-matter is embodied, the directness of sense, the solidity of objects, both in the apprehension of the world and in the making of the work.
The visual depth that Mr. Brett accomplishes in his art shows an experienced, perceptive and wise eye that seeks the truth of that which he is to reflect. His astounding capability to be an honest medium through which such truth flows to the viewer of his engravings is a rare gift which our generation is lucky to have. Part of this capability is perhaps explained by his artistic philosophy when he tells us:
Visual truth is not concerned with opinion, but with what is…Art may be expressive and indeed expressionist, but to make it so is knowingly is to slant its truth and let emotion govern.
Clearly Mr. Brett allows visual truth to stand tall as his top priority. By not allowing his emotion to govern his perception, Mr. Brett’s art provides us a truth which can, paradoxically, greatly influence our emotion to the story he is helping to tell. Certainly other traits participate in Mr. Brett’s end product, and such traits as listed in the following quote are critical for an illustration or work of art to resonate with a viewer, but they must flow naturally from a rendering that remains true to the eye (emphasis below is mine).
Visual experience builds a palate in the mind, extends the capacity for response, is part of the education in feeling. The artist’s adventures are those of the eyes first and foremost, then empathy, mind, imagination, and the heart.
Is it any wonder why Mr. Brett is so successful at his art? His work speaks to the reader, complementing and extending, while not overshadowing, the work being illustrated. As in Pericles, the illustrations blend with the text adding visual context while illuminating a window of perception into the spirit of the author’s truth. As Mr. Elsted tells us:
When Simon Brett illustrate a book, he is a chorus guiding the reader toward understanding. He is both a perceptive and sympathetic commentator & an artist setting the story to glorious visual music.
It is a deeper understanding that Mr. Brett offers us in his work. What better compliment is there to an illustrator than to say his work opens up our mind’s eye to the text that the illustration depicts while stimulating our intellect in search of even deeper understanding?
Simon Brett has written an interesting and insightful autobiographical introduction to his work. Besides a wealth of other information he shares about himself, I particularly like the insights he gives about his artistic approach. For instance, he tells us:
Good engraving decorates a surface. I have always preferred an explanatory, ‘painterly’ surface to a perfectionist, calligrapher’s one; yet the surface is all one has. Good engraving decorates a surface. Errors not only destroy the form or the story, they mess up the pattern of the surface as well, the rhythm of strokes that translate the movements of the mind.
There is a Publisher’s Foreword by Crispin Elsted, which is entertaining and illuminative as is typical in Mr. Elsted’s writings. As mentioned above, the book includes a catalogue of major exhibitions, a checklist of books illustrated by the artist, and a list of his publications as author and editor. It also includes a complete chronological listing of all Mr. Brett’s engravings from 1961 to the present, two of which are the marvelous pattern block for the cover paper of this book, and its frontispiece, both specially commissioned (as seen below). The 130+ engravings are directly from the wood, expertly printed by Jan Elsted, on a wonderful canvas of Zerkall White Wove. The text is printed in Joanna, with Fry’s Ornamented for display, on Zerkall Cream Laid (printed in black and green). The ‘standard’ edition is bound in quarter Japanese cloth with a printed paper label and patterned paper by the artist while the ‘deluxe’ edition is bound in quarter green leather with a skived leather spine label with a patterned paper by the artist over boards (and is slipcased with a folder containing a signed and numbered strike of the commissioned frontispiece for the book).
As Mr. Elsted tells us:
…In Simon Brett our time has been gifted with an artist fully formed, whose work demonstrates a mastery only a few other engravers have achieved.
Very true indeed!
A future volume in Endgrain Editions will feature the work of Richard Wagener. Besides this, Barbarian Press is also working on The Ingoldsby Legends: a Gallimaufry, by Richard Barham, with late 19th century wood engravings by the Dalziel Brothers, and The Splendour of a Morning, a small collection of thirty-seven of C. P. Cavafy’s poems, translated by David Smulders, and illustrated with five engravings by Peter Lazarov. Lastly, they are also working on Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press. With this outstanding set of books out and coming soon, now would be a good time to subscribe and take advantage of the substantial discount, especially since all Barbarian Press books tend to sell out quickly. As mentioned above, all other EE’s are out of print and EE4, at a limitation of only 175, will soon follow… so move quickly!
About the Edition
- Designed and typeset by Crispin Elsted
- Printing of the engravings, all from wood, by Jan Elsted
- Published in an edition of 175 copies, of which 55 constitute the Deluxe state, and the remaining 120 the Standard
- Texts printed in Joanna with Fry’s Ornamented for display
- The Joanna types, in both founts and Monotype composition, were cast by Michael and Winifred Bixler at their letterfoundry.
- Printed in green and black on Zerkall Cream Laid
- With 134 engravings printed from the wood on Zerkall White Wove with several tipped double spreads of larger images
- Bound in quarter green leather with a skived leather spine label with a patterned paper by the artist over boards
- Bound by Alanna Simenson at Mad Hatter Bookbinding
- Slipcased with a folder containing a signed and numbered strike of the commissioned frontispiece for the book.
- The Standard Edition is as the Deluxe state, but quarter Japanese cloth with a printed paper label and patterned paper by the artist, and not slipcased
- 13½ by 10½ inches; 381 by 267mm
Pictures of the Edition
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