Affordable Treasures and Pleasures #5 – The Folio Press Fine Editions (1987 – 1991)

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

Although The Folio Society (FS) has sporadically published special editions over their long history, their current serious and sustained foray into fine press and letterpress editions began with the introduction of their Letterpress Shakespeare series in 2006.  Their stated aim was admirable: “To design an edition so pure, so simple, that the beauty of the text could be fully appreciated – an edition that would be as timeless as the text itself.”  Over the course of the next eight years they would complete this project, publishing all of Shakespeare’s plays and his poems and sonnets.  For this reader, the Letterpress Shakespeare venture has been an unqualified success.   The books are large, elegant and well crafted with thoughtful, uncluttered design.  Most importantly, these are true private press books in their most important aspects: letterpress printing, beautiful type (16-point Baskerville) which is hand set, mould-made paper of high quality, and a well designed page with generous margins.  Quality of materials is excellent, what one would expect from a private press book.  Bindings are one-half Nigerian goatskin with marbled paper over boards, the leather tanned in Northamptonshire and the bindings then assembled by hand at the Lachenmaier bindery in Germany.  The marbled papers were initially created by Ann Muir (now deceased) and subsequently succeeded by Jemma Lewis, both superb.  The paper is a mould-made Zerkall with deckle edges on two sides and top edge gilt.  Finally, each volume is accompanied by a smaller companion volume from the Oxford University Press edition containing introduction to the work, commentaries, and appendices, all supervised by Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells.  My only quibble as a private press book collector is that the editions are quite large, numbering 3750 copies per edition, without the exclusivity, i.e., snob appeal, of a typical private press book.  Conversely, this has enabled the Folio Society to initially offer these books in 2006 and 2007 at an exceptional price, $350 per volume if memory serves me correctly.  Not surprisingly, the Letterpress Shakespeare series has been an unqualified “hit” , offering elegant editions at great value.

Emboldened by their initial success, The Folio Society expanded the scope and range of their Limited Editions offerings.  Over the past decade they have included classic works issued in fine full leather bindings, facsimiles of landmark twentieth century private press books (especially the Golden Cockerel Press), meticulous labor-intensive facsimiles of ultra-rare, one-of-a-kind books of historical interest, and classic works in which a new set of original illustrations have been commissioned from a mix of promising young artists and renowned book illustrators, a hallmark of The Folio Society books from the beginning.  The latter have been especially successful , with works such as Candide and Fifty Fables of La Fontaine (illustrated by Quentin Blake), The Wind in the Willows, Wm. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with superb illustrations by Niroot Puttapipat selling out quickly.  To a long-time FS book collector (myself) the success of the wide-ranging FS collection of Limited Editions, many costing between $1,000 to $2,500, is unprecedented.  Frankly, I did not think the FS readership would purchase limited editions books in this price range.  What was the basis of my initial skepticism?  This brings me to the raison d’être for this Books and Vines article, the ill-fated and mostly forgotten Folio Press Fine Editions series of books published between 1987 to 1991.

The Folio Press Fine Editions was FS’s first attempt to publish high quality letterpress books on a sustained basis, books that would be comparable to fine private press books published by much smaller publishers and printers costing hundreds of dollars. Quoting from Folio 60, the FS’s bibliography book covering 1947 – 2006: “The series was initiated to celebrate the Society’s 40th anniversary.  The aim was to produce slim volumes to the highest standard, using mould-made paper and letterpress printing, bound (with gilt top edges) and, where appropriate, illustrated in the private press tradition.”  The first book in this series was On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & Other Poems by John Milton, with engravings by Brian Hanscomb.  The “other poems” includes such major works as: L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Lycidas, and Comus, A Masque.  The book measures 25 x 16.5 cm (9 7/8x 6 1/2 inches), was printed letterpress with hand set type on Zerkall mould-made paper, with binding of buckram spine, hand-marbled Rackenmarmor Swedish paper over boards, with matching buckram label and gilt lettering, bound by Hunter & Foulis Ltd., of Edinburgh, Scotland.  The book was introduced with little fanfare or introduction by FS and it was priced at approximately one-hundred dollars (then 65 GBP)  at a time when most regular FS offerings were priced at between $25 to $40 dollars.  I distinctly remember many of the FS faithful complaining that these books were “overpriced” and “too expensive”.  Coming from the other end of the spectrum as a collector of private press books from the twentieth century’s major presses, e.g., Arion Press, Golden Cockerel Press, Shakespeare Head Press, etc., I thought these books were a steal and were vastly underpriced, perhaps deliberately so to encourage sales in this fledgling enterprise.

When the Milton book of poetry arrived I was pleasantly surprised.  The book was indeed comparable to a fine private press book with top-notch materials, fine printing, and beautiful harmonious book design.  I thought this series would be a huge hit with FS subscribers and eagerly awaited subsequent offerings in this series.  Was I ever wrong!!  The series never captured the fancy of the FS faithful, the books sold poorly and after nineteen books The Folio Society discontinued their letterpress series of small volumes in 1991.  The following books were published (in chronological order) as part of the Folio Press Fine Editions:

1987

  1. On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems by John Milton
  2. Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd
  3. The Tower by W.B. Yeats
  4. Poems by Charlotte, Emily, Jane & Anne Bronte

1988

  1. These Things Are Also Spring’s, poems by Edward Thomas
  2. The Life of Dr. John Donne, late Dean of St. Paul’s Church, London by Izaak Walton
  3. The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley-Holland
  4. Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Babington Macaulay

1989

  1. William Barnes, Dorset poems, with translations by Pauline Tennant
  2. The Wonderful Year, Thomas Dekker
  3. The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
  4. Poems of War by Wilfred Owens

1990

  1. The Poor of the Borough (Peter Grimes) by George Crabbe
  2. Love Poems by Robert Graves
  3. The Aspern Papers by Henry James
  4. Poems from the Greek Anthology, translated by James Michie

1991

  1. De Profundis by Oscar Wilde
  2. Motley and other poems by Walter de la Mare
  3. Barrack-room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling
  4. Woman In White, poems by Emily Dickinson

Although The Folio Society could have done a better job in introducing this important new letterpress series to its subscribers, the primary reason for the demise of this venture should be quite apparent.  It is difficult to find a more quirky, uninspiring list of works than the nineteen books I have listed above.  Aside from a few books of major importance, the majority are of little interest to FS readers or anyone else for that matter.  It is almost as if someone in The Folio Society’s senior management team subconsciously wished that their new letterpress series would fail miserably.  However, this still does not explain why the Limited Edition books that The Folio Society has published over the past eight years have been a resounding success despite costing substantially more than the books in the Folio Press Fine Editions series.  My theories (and I welcome thoughts from FS readers and subscribers in this regard):

1. Marketing.  The Folio Society has adapted swiftly and successfully to the challenges posed to fine press book publishers in the 21st century by the onslaught of eBooks, eReaders (Nooks, Kindles), Apple iPhones, streaming media on the internet, Netflix, etc.).  It is no longer a small quaint British publisher with a “mom and pop” feel, a secret society of sorts amongst avid readers and book collectors.  It is now a well-oiled marketing machine, greatly expanding its reach and aggressively advertising its new publications and ventures.

2. Better communication with its reader base.  The Folio Society now routinely polls its subscribers and readers with regard to their interests and tastes as well as the acceptable price points for future books and ventures under consideration.  More importantly, it actually listens to these responses and acts upon them.  In effect, many of their current elaborate and costly Limited Edition offerings, e.g., the Temple of Flora, Travels in Arabia Deserta, the Wind in the Willows, the Night Thoughts facsimile with William Blake’s watercolor illustrations, the Golden Cockerel Press facsimiles,  have a built-in subscriber base because they have polled their readership in advance and can already gauge interest in these publications before the actual printing and publishing.  This was the fatal flaw in the Folio Press Fine Editions series and it is a lesson the Folio Society appears to have learned well.  My supposition that expensive books costing hundreds and occasionally thousands of dollars would be rejected by the FS reader base has proven to be incorrect.

What does all of this have to do with Affordable Treasures and Pleasures for Books and Vines readers and subscribers??  Simply put, The Folio Society’s loss of yesteryear is now your gain.  These twenty elegant letterpress volumes are all but unknown to the vast majority of FS readers.  Unless you are an older FS member or an avid student of FS history this ill-fated series will not be on one’s radar screen.  These books can now be found on eBay or online marketplaces for fine & private press books (Abebooks, viaLibri, etc.) and almost always be purchased for between $50 to $100 (40 to 65 GBP), the same or less than the cost of current FS publications.  Comparable books from current private presses would cost between $300 to $400. If you are a reader of Books and Vines or a FS devotee who has lamented that you cannot afford the beautifully designed, finely crafted private press books seen on both websites, this is your opportunity.

For my part, I purchased all of the nineteen titles that I could muster a remote interest in, ten slim volumes in all.  Over the course of the next month or two I will provide a detailed series of photographs of each book to illustrate how splendid this series was and to help you in your selection process.  For this initial article, we will highlight On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems by John MiltonThe Tower by W.B. Yeats, and The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, translated and introduced by Kein Crossley-Holland.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems by John Milton
About the Edition
  • The “other poems” includes such major works as: L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Lycidas, and Comus, A Masque
  • Engravings by Brian Hanscomb
  • Type is monotype Caslon (12-pt) with Castellar for display
  • Printed letterpress on Zerkall Rough Antique Laid mould-made paper
  • Binding of buckram spine, hand-marbled Rackenmarmor Swedish paper over boards, with matching buckram label and gilt lettering, bound by Hunter & Foulis Ltd., of Edinburgh, Scotland
  • The book measures 25 x 16.5 cm (9 7/8x 6 1/2 inches)

Pictures of the Edition (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems by John Milton)

(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.)

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Covers
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Covers
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Title Page
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Title Page
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Contents
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Contents
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #4
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #4
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #4
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #4
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #5
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity & other poems, The Folio Society, Sample Text #5

 

The Tower by W.B. Yeats
About the Edition
  • Introduction by Bel Mooney
  • Typography by Sebastian Carter
  • Set in Joanna type
  • Printed letterpress by Napier, Jones Ltd, London
  • Paper is Zerkall Rough Antique Laid, mould-made
  • Bound by Hunter & Foulis Ltd, Edinburgh with sides of Rackenmarmor Swish hand-marbled paper and buckram spine and label

Pictures of the Edition (The Tower by W.B. Yeats)

(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.)

The Tower, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
The Tower, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
The Tower, The Folio Society, Cover
The Tower, The Folio Society, Cover
The Tower, The Folio Society, Macro of Cover
The Tower, The Folio Society, Macro of Cover
The Tower, The Folio Society, Title Page
The Tower, The Folio Society, Title Page
The Tower, The Folio Society, Contents
The Tower, The Folio Society, Contents
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3
The Tower, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3

 

The Anglo-Saxon Elegies

As their name implies, the Anglo Saxon Elegies were written during the Anglo-Saxon era or the Old English period, dating approximately from the fifth century, following the Germanic tribes’ conquest of Britain, until the conquest by Wiilliam of Normandy (the Norman Conquest) in 1066.  Although the Anglo-Saxon era had a rich poetic tradition very little of it has survived in written form, with barely 30,000 lines of text preserved in modern day.  Four main poetic manuscripts from this era have survived:

  1. The Junius manuscript
  2. The Exeter Book
  3. The Vercelli Book
  4. Most famous of all, the Beowulf Manuscript (British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv), also known as the Nowell Codex.

The Anglo Saxon elegies are a grouping of eight short poems taken from the Exeter Book, lyrical poems often referred to as “wisdom poetry’.  They are similar in their gloomy tone revolving around a sense of loss, either personal or of the surrounding physical world, followed by grief and consolation.  Taken as a whole, the Anglo Saxon elegies provide insight into the harsh world from which they arose, reflecting the difficult lives and time of the people and their daily struggles in the Anglo Saxon era. The Folio Society book is bilingual with modern English translation on the verso page and the corresponding Old English opposite on the recto page.  Unlike the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which can be read enjoyably with a few stumbles by a modern reader, the Old English is incomprehensible and, to this reader, bears no obvious resemblance to the modern English language.  To my untrained eye and ear, when Old English is read aloud and pronounced phonetically it has a passing resemblance to the Welsh language.  Books and Vines readers who are natives of Wales may cringe and vehemently disagree, however.  The poems of “elegies’ are expertly translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, who should be a familiar name to FS devotees.  He began his FS career with an excellent translation of Beowulf in 1973 followed by a translation of the Exeter Riddle Book.

About the Edition

  • Translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley-Holland
  • Engravings by Hannah Firmin
  • Set in Bembo type
  • Printed letterpress by Napier, Jones Ltd, London
  • Paper is Van Gelder Old Dutch Mould-Made, antique laid paper
  • Binding by Hunter & Foulis Ltd., of Edinburgh, Scotland, with Moire Silk Spine and hand-marbled paper sides from Mitchell & Malik

Pictures of the Edition (The Anglo-Saxon Elegies)

(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.)

The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Spine and Covers
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Cover
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Cover
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Macro of Cover
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Macro of Cover
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Title Page
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Title Page
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Contents
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Contents
Colophon
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Colophon
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2 (English translation on verso page)
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3 (old English (Anglo-Saxon) on recto page)
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #3
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #2
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #5
The Anglo-Saxon Elegies, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #3

9 thoughts on “Affordable Treasures and Pleasures #5 – The Folio Press Fine Editions (1987 – 1991)

  1. Wow, these are stunning treatments of some great poetry. (All though I agree no all on the list are so appealing) All of the Milton and Anglo Saxon poems included are beloved and often read so I may just have to acquire these! I may have missed this somewhere but did these editions come slipcased?

    1. Boone:

      These slim elegant books did not come with slipcase. Although one year has elapsed since I wrote this article the books in the FPFE series remain unknown, unloved and very underpriced.

      dlphcoracl

  2. kermaier:

    The FS edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnets From the Portuguese’ is a jewel. Along these lines, i.e., FS books with elegant, distinctive bindings and interesting reading material, you may also want to consider:

    1. Lamas of the Western Heavens by Regis Evariste Huc (1982)

    2.Five Japanese Love Stories by Koshoku Gonin Onna (1958) – with beautiful wood engravings by Mark Severin, of Golden Cockerel Press fame.

    3. The Knight in Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli – a classic fable from Georgia (formerly of the Soviet Republic) with beautiful illustrations that fit perfectly.

    4. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1960 edition) – with stunning illustrations by noted
    Hollywood set designer and international fashion designer Cecil Beaton.

    Regarding the Folio Press Fine Editions series (1987-1991), I had to struggle a bit to convince myself to purchase eleven of the twenty titles in the series (note: I omitted the Lays of Ancient Rome by Macauley) but you have selected wisely. The Tower (WB Yeats) and Woman in White, the superb collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, are two of the high points in this series. I would strongly recommend adding ‘War Poems’ by Wilfred Owens as your next choice in this series.

    dlphcoracl

    1. Thanks for the recommendations — I will look for them as well! (Though I already have a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest from the Bowler Press, which is a gorgeous production, so buying another edition will be lower priority.)

      The 1972 FS edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is another jewel, closely emulating the layout, design and aesthetic of their Sonnets from the Portuguese, and printed on a very nice blue-grey, laid paper with the Abbey Mill watermark. The cover material isn’t as decadent as the brocade on the E.B. Browning volume, but if you like the one, I think you’ll like the other.

    2. By the way, I believe that “Koshoku Gonin Onna” is a transliteration of the Japanese title of the book; the author is listed as Ihara Saikaku.

  3. Fortuitously, I just recently stumbled upon these editions as well, while investigating some of the affordable treasures among the earlier FS publications. (I purchased quietly beautiful editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.)

    I’m waiting to receive my copies of the five titles that I found remotely interesting: The Tower, Anglo-Saxon Elegies, Poems from the Greek Anthology, Barrack-Room Ballads and Woman in White.

    The Folio Society can really put together a nice letterpress book, when they’re of a mind to do so! Too bad they didn’t select any more inspiring literature for this series….

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