A couple weeks ago, Book and Vines took a look at a work from one of America’s greatest twentieth century book designers, John Henry Nash, that being the 1939 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne. We now take a look at a work from a contemporary of Nash, and one that arguably was the greatest of all American book designers (and typographers) of the twentieth century, that being Bruce Rogers. If you do a search within Book and Vines on Bruce Rogers, you will see his fingerprints on many works that have been highlighted on these pages (including Aesop’s Fables). His work presented in this article, the 1934 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of Utopia by Sir Thomas More, while not grand, is a good representation of the style and substance of Bruce Rogers.
Like the Nash Religio, this edition of Utopia by Rogers is all about typography and use of ornaments, both of which Rogers excelled at. The LEC Monthly Letter (ML) tells us:
For Mr. Rogers plays with type; it was he who introduced the recent vogue for making playful and attractive decorations out of ordinary printers’ ornaments. More than any other book designer in the world, he is able to keep the design of a book from seeming stodgy or old-fashioned or from seeming tricky or offensively novel; his books are solid and simple, made primarily to read, yet they always have a freshness and a beauty as great as any collector could desire.
Interestingly, what I like about this edition of Utopia, similar to Religio Medici, is that it does look appropriately old-fashioned; its freshness is driven by its very simplicity. For type, Rogers choose a Linotype version of Janson. The ML tells us that this type, created in the seventeenth century by Anton Janson, has come down through the centuries due to its “beautiful yet homely qualities.” Furthermore, Janson is:
…clear and crisp. Yet, while each letter is delicate, the letters are interestingly uneven in design. A bold and clear and lovely book face.
The simplicity of the page design does not mean it is plain. Far from it. Pages in books by Bruce Rogers:
…owe their beauty to the unusual inventiveness with which the type embellishments are arranged….Unusually wide margins, where the special glosses by Mr. Van Vliet are delicately placed. At the tops of the pages, the name of the book and the title of the chapter are carried in an unusually large size of Jenson, set by hand. The bold vigor of these running heads goes far toward lending an unusual charm to the page. The pages are, in addition, decorated with printers’ ornaments playfully arranged by Bruce Rogers.
The title page sticks to the simple theme, yet is majestic.
The actual words are simply, with great dignity, printed in black ink. But they are surrounded with a border printed in an ink verging on the terra-cotta in color. This border is built up out of hundreds of units…these units are grouped, rearranged, made to stand upon the page and form themselves into all sorts of groupings.
George Macy liked the title page so much, he jokingly told his subscribers in the ML:
If you do not find unusual beauty in this title page, please write us promptly, so that we can call a meeting of the house committee and consider putting you in bad standing in the Club.
This edition also uses a few woodcuts as illustrations. These woodcuts were pulled by Rogers from contemporary editions of the early Latin Utopia. I would agree with the ML when it says “Matched against the 17th century Janson type, they succeed in lending an antique flavor to this edition of Utopia.”
Special aspects of this edition are not limited to the involvement of Bruce Rogers. Printing was done at the Printing House of William Edwin Rudge, one of the great printing houses in twentieth century America. In addition, the book was bound in pure yellow vellum, with the title stamped in pure gold, and sides covered with hand-made paper of a soft brown color made by Frederic Warde. Yes, the same Fredric Warde who is also known as one of the great book designers of the twentieth century. For this cover, “he mixed brown ink with glue or flour until it attains a certain tenuous quality. He lightly brushes the ink unto the paper, so no two sheets are the same.” Any book with the involvement of Rogers and Warde, not to mention the Rudge printing house, is an education in itself.
There is more. The book uses La Garde paper made in France by the house of Marais, completely of rags, and died with an antique gray tone. The ML tells us it was one of the most expensive LEC used to that point. The paper feels substantial and strong, and adds to the antique luster of the edition. There is an introduction by H.G. Wells. The translation used is the first and original translation from Ralph Robynson in 1551 (the first edition published by More, in 1516, was in Latin). There is some editing by Emile Van Vliet, correcting obvious errors and inserting obvious omissions, adding marginal notes to define some of the more obscure words and phrases, and modernizing the spelling and the paragraphing. This along with the comfortable book size of 6 3/4″ by 10″ makes it easy to read.
In short, this edition is not by any means a spectacular, wow-inducing specimen. However, it is very nicely done in a fashion very much reflecting the greats who worked on this volume. It is a handsome volume of a seminal work of Western Civilization. It can usually be found for $150 (plus or minus $50) in near fine or better quality, a low price which can only be explained as a leading indicator of the decline and fall of modern sensibility and taste! If only I liked Utopia itself. It is not to say I disliked it, just I found the reading much more laborious than that of Religio Medici. More’s writing style is simply not as elegant or beautiful as Browne’s.
Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535), or Saint Thomas More to Catholics, was a philosopher, lawyer, writer and Renaissance humanist. He was a councillor to Henry VIII, but split with him when the King separated from the Catholic Church over his marriage to Anne Boleyn. This split resulted in More’s beheading in 1535. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935. More’s life makes for extremely interesting reading. His influence on later literature and philosophy is significant. While I agree with some of More’s thoughts (and disagree with plenty), I come into it with an aversion to any attempt at creating or trying to implement utopia’s on earth. History is replete with misery and death related to all such attempts. For the causal reader, Utopia is sometimes difficult to determine when satire is being used and when not. This is especially the case since many things within Utopia seem polar opposite of what More practiced (for example, Utopia is full of religious tolerance, yet More famously persecuted Protestants). In any case, what follows are a few samples of his writing to give you a feel for his style and way of thinking.
More argues against harsh penalties for theft, as long as circumstances where theft is the only real option for feeding oneself are present.
…for this punishment of thieves passeth the limits [of] justice, and is also very helpful to the weal public. For it is too extreme and cruel a punishment for theft, and yet not sufficient to refrain men from theft. For simple theft is not so great an offense that it ought to be published with death. Neither there is any punishment so horrible that it can keep them from stealing which have no other craft whereby to get their living. Therefore in this point, not you only, but also the most part of the world be like evil schoolmasters, which be readier to beat than to teach their scholars. For great and horrible punishments be appointed for thieves, whereas much rather provisions should have been made that there were some means whereby they might get their living, so that no man should be driven to the extreme necessity, first to steal, and then to die.
Death as a penalty for crime comes from man; is God’s law really subservient to mans?
For whereas by the permission of God no man hath power to kill neither himself nor yet any other man, then if a law made by the consent of man concerning slaughter of men ought to be of such strength, force, and virtue, that they which contrary to the commandment of God have killed those whom this constitution of man commanded to be killed, be clean quit and exempt out of the bonds and danger of God’s commandment; shall it not then by reason follow that the power of God’s commandment shall extend no further than man’s law doth define and permit?
Here, More argues that a ruler’s prime concern should be for his people:
…and that therefore the king ought to take more care for the wealth of his people than for his own wealth, even as the office and duty of a shepherd is, in that he is a shepherd, to feed his sheep rather than himself….And verily one man to live in pleasure and wealth, whiles all other weep and smart for it, that is the part not of a king but of a jailer.
…so he that cannot amend the lives of his subjects but by taking from them the wealth and commodity of life, he must needs grant that he knoweth not the feat how to govern free men.
Centuries later, communist and socialist thinkers picked up on some of More’s thoughts against property and wealth, such as:
Certainly, in all kinds of living creatures, other fear of lack doth cause covetousness and ravin, or in man only pride; which counteth it a glorious thing to pass and excel other in the superfluous and vain ostentation of things, the which kind of vice among the Utopians can have no place.
…nature, as a most tender of loving mother, hath placed the best and most necessary things open abroad, as the air, the water, and the earth itself; and hath removed and hid farthest from us vain and unprofitable things.
…out of the which in that all the desire of money with the use thereof is utterly secluded and banished, how great a heap of cares is cut away? how great an occasion of wickedness and mischief is plucked up by the roots? For who knoweth not that fraud, theft, ravin, brawling, quarreling, babbling, strife, chiding, contention, murder, treason, poisoning, which by daily punishments are rather revenged than refrained, do die when money dieth?
Though Jeffersonians would agree with the following:
But they think it against all right and justice that men should be bound to those laws which either be in number more than be able to be read or else blinder and darker than that any man can well understand them.
Lastly, there are bits of simple wisdom throughout, such as this gem:
…for as love is oftentimes won with beauty, so it is not kept, preserved, and continued but by virtue and obedience.
In short, Utopia is a classic work, certainly belonging in the library of anyone who fashions themselves a humanist, or a collector of classic works. Utopia is a popular fine press title, with many publishers producing beautiful editions of it (Kelmscott, Ashendene, Cranbrook, and Golden Cockerel, among others) . This one from the Limited Editions Club is the least expensive of the fine press options, and yet is a quite good edition. In fact, it is an excellent edition. Recommended!
About the Edition
- Designed by Bruce Rogers
- Translated by Ralph Robynson
- Introduction by H.G. Wells
- Edited by Emile Van Vliet correcting obvious errors and inserting obvious omissions, adding marginal notes to define some of the more obscure words and phrases, and modernized the spelling and the paragraphing
- Printed at the Printing House of William Edwin Rudge
- Linotype version of Janson (used for the first time in LEC’s Droll Stories) in fourteen point
- Printed on La Garde paper made in France by the house of Marais, completely of rags, and died with an antique gray tone (one of the most expensive LEC used)
- Bound in pure yellow vellum, with the title stamped in pure gold, and sides covered with hand-made paper of a soft brown color made by Frederic Warde
- 6 3/4″ by 10″, 168 pages
Pictures of the Edition
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