The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1934 (George W. Jones) & 1946 (Arthur Szyk) editions from The Limited Editions Club

Geoffrey Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales is not only the first great classic of the English language, it remains one of the greatest works in all of literature. To have not read The Canterbury Tales is a true injustice to civilization itself, as for such a work to be bequeathed to us and remain unread by anyone considering themselves cultured is an affront to decency itself! Okay, seriously, not only is this work a great view into an age long since past, it is a truly entertaining book to read. As written in the Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club (LEC), “all of humanity moves through its pages.”

The stories are full of an inimitable humor, at once friendly and shrewd. The points are often made casually, often with bludgeon strokes, but they are always human and illuminating. 

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales between 1386 and 1389, during the Hundred Years’ War (the first print version of The Canterbury Tales was published by William Caxton in 1478). Similar in approach, wit and importance to Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, written about 40 years earlier, The Canterbury Tales is a set of stories within a story. The ML gives some background:

He {Chaucer} conceived of a single narrative poem describing what happened, on the road to Canterbury, to a group of thirty-one pilgrims bound for the shrine of the martyred St. Thomas Becket. Each pilgrim was to tell two tales on the way out, and two on the way back. But the labor proved to stupendous. Chaucer actually completed twenty-one tales, all in verse except two, which were in prose.

Like The Decameron, part of its importance (and charm) is its use of local vernacular. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, as opposed to Latin or French, which is what most did at the time. I made the following comment when reviewing The Decameron, but it certainly holds true here: Despite being written over 600 years ago, the stories retain their relevance, humor and morals. Only time separates us from these characters who, through these stories, become as real as our friends and neighbors. 

In yet another similarity with The Decameron, The Limited Editions Club (LEC) published two editions of The Canterbury Tales, the first in 1934 printed by George W. Jones at The Sign of the Dolphin in London while the second, most famous for the illustrations by Arthur Szyk, was published in 1946.  This article will take a look at both editions, starting with the 1934 edition.

George Macy called the 1934 LEC of The Canterbury Tales a superlatively beautiful book.” I wholeheartedly agree. Designer George W. Jones’ work here is eminently readable. Macy tells us that Jones “is responsible for the loveliest color printing, from half-tone plates, in English history” and that he “prints with superb craftsmanship.” Not to mention, Jones is the “designer of some of the loveliest types used in modern printing shops,” including the Granjon used here. We are told:

The Granjon face was an instant success when it appeared. It has dignity; it has a true beauty in the shaping of each letter. Yet it is unobtrusive; one of those types which you do not notice at all unless you take such feverish  interest in it…

The paper, 100% rag paper made especially for this edition from Malling Mills in England, is “deeply toned, with a lovely laid chain pressed into it.” It is soft, strong and a great canvas for this type. Each page is printed in two colors: the type in black and a border in pale brown. This basic coloring, together with the initial lettering that Jones dug out of an old type-specimen book and had colored with delicate blues, greens and yellows, gives the pages a sensuous beauty while avoiding monotony. There are no illustrations, and these decorations do not make you miss such. Macy tells us:

In the first place, we are willing to indulge in an argument with anybody to the effect that it is as impossible properly to illustrate Chaucer as it is impossible properly to illustrate the Bible. In the second place, Mr. Jones wanted to demonstrate how beautifully he could make a book without pictures.  

Mr. Jones succeeded at such a demonstration!

One other point making this edition special. The LEC provided for a new translation to be done especially for this edition. It was done by Frank Ernest Hill, and to this reader, it is excellent. As the ML proudly exclaims, this translation is “not bowdlerized.” It makes no attempt to smooth over stories that some moralists may find offensive.  We are told that Chaucer’s own advice to those who grew morally censorious over his frankness, was that “they might easily turn over the page and read another tale.” Oh to wish today’s delicate little snowflakes that suffer deeply from perceived “micro-aggressions” would learn that simple little lesson!

About the Edition (1934)

  • New translation for this edition by Frank Ernest Hill
  • Printed by George W. Jones as The Sign of the Dolphin, London
  • Linotype Granjon, designed by George W. Jones, in 16 point size
  • Each page printed in two colors: type in black and border in pale brown
  • Initial lettering in in blue, green and yellow
  • 100% rag paper, made especially for this edition, from Malling Mills in England
  • Binding is backs covered with a rough natural linen, the sides decorated with Chaucer’s own arms in color
  • 2 volumes, each, 7 1/2″ by 12 1/4″, 680 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by George W. Jones

Pictures of the Edition (1934)

(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 Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Slipcase Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Slipcase Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Books in Slipcase
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Books in Slipcase
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Book Spines and Covers
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Book Spines and Covers
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Spines
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Spines
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Side View
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Side View
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Frontispiece and Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Frontispiece and Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Frontispiece
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Frontispiece
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Decorative Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Decorative Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Decorative Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Decorative Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text Contents
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Sample Text with Decoration #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Sample Text with Decoration #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Sample Text with Decoration #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Macro of Sample Text with Decoration #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #4
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #4
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #5
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #5
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #6
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #6
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #7
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #7
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #8
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #8
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #9
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Sample Text with Decoration #9
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Colophon
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1934), Colophon

The 1946 LEC Edition

The 1946 LEC edition of The Canterbury Tales is definitely the more valuable of the two LEC editions, mostly because of the marvelous illustrations from the great artist/caricaturist/miniaturist Arthur Szyk. Szyk, (pronounced “Shick”) was born in Poland, and was Jewish.  In 1940 he settled permanently in the United States.  His war caricatures were extremely popular (see here). Szyk was a traditionalist, clearly influenced by medieval and renaissance styles, which are favorite artistic periods on mine. So, if Mr. Macy was going to renege on his “impossible properly to illustrate Chaucer” statement, there was no better choice that Mr. Szyk!

For The Canterbury Tales, Mr. Szyk provided numerous colored miniatures showing his completely mastery of color and detail. Mr. Macy summarized:

For the “exquisite detail” in these portrait-minitaures is amazing; and we use the word amazing in order to avoid the use of a stronger of more extravagant word. That man Szyk must have the patience of an angel, to be able to work hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, with such meticulous and loving care. The delicate tracery in each picture, the number of detailed lines in which he must draw into each picture on a minute scale, these would obviously exhaust the patience of any one not an angel.

The illustrations are reproduced by half-tone photo engravings by Pioneer-Moss and were printed on smooth coated paper done by Aldus Printers in New York. They are marvelous to behold, as you will see below.

The LEC set out to create this edition as a book that reminds one of a medieval manuscript. This was accomplished by the use of headlines, borders and initial lettering, all reflective of medieval styles. All of these have been drawn by hand by Charles E. Skaggs printed in “monk’s vermilion” and “monk’s blue.”

Furthermore:

The lettering is done in imitation of an alphabet which we provided him with, and which we took out of an album containing pages from monkish manuscripts of Chaucer’s time. Not only did Mr. Skaggs draw these headlines by hand for us, he also provided us with borders which are printed around the headlines and which are suggestive of the odd shapes of the tavern signs which studded England in Chaucer’s days.

To match the design goal, the Waverly type is printed in black, vermilion and blue inks on “delicately toned” 100% rag paper from Worthy Paper Company. The binding by Russell-Rutter is a spine in white sheepskin, morocco-grained, stamped with title in gold, with the sides covered with a pattern paper printed in colors to follow an “intricate and apposite design,” reflecting the time period of the work, drawn by Arthur Szyk (the same paper is used for the slipcase). The ML tells us:

We got Mr. Szyk to draw two “units” which could become part of the pattern, one unit being a design in which are included the British lion and the British Rose, the other unit being a design in which is shown Geoffrey Chaucer on a horse. Both of the units were painted by Mr. Szyk in the style of miniatures. Both units were then worked up by us into “an overall pattern” which was lithographed in five printings.

The 1946 edition uses the  Frank Ernest Hill translation first done for the LEC in 1934. For this 1946 edition, Mr. Hill further revised/updated the translation. The LEC gave this edition as a gift to all who were club members in 1934, since they had already received the above-mentioned 1934 edition of The Canterbury Tales! What a giveaway!

While the 1934 edition can be found in near-fine or better condition for around $200 or so, the 1946 edition runs anywhere from $500-800 and up and is extremely rare to find without damage to the delicate sheepskin spine. Both are superb editions, well worth owning and reading.

About the Edition (1946)

  • 1934 translation by Frank Ernest Hill, revised for this edition
  • Illustrations done as colored miniatures by Arthur Szyk
  • Half-tone photo engravings of the illustrations by Pioneer-Moss and printing on smooth coated paper done by Aldus Printers in New York
  • Printing of the text done by E.L. Hildreth & Co., Vermont
  • Type is Waverly, printed in black, vermilion and blue inks
  • Type pages decorated with initials, and title-headings, drawn by hand by Charles E. Skaggs, printed in “monk’s vermilion” and “monk’s blue”
  • 100% rag paper by Worthy Paper Company
  • Bound by Russell-Rutter in white sheepskin, morocco-grained, stamped with title in gold, sides covered with a pattern paper printed in colors to follow an intricate and apposite design drawn by Arthur Szyk (as is the slipcase)
  • 6 1/2″ x 10″, 576 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Arthur Szyk

Pictures of the Edition (1946)

(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 Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Slipcase Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Slipcase Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Book in Slipcase
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Book in Slipcase
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Spine and Covers
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Spine and Covers
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Spine
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Front Cover
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Side View
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Side View
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Title Page
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Frontispiece
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Frontispiece
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #1
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Sample Text #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Sample Text #2
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Sample Text #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Macro of Sample Text #3
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #4
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #4
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #5
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #5
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #6
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Text #6
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #5 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #6 (ending)
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Sample Illustration #4 (ending)
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Colophon
The Canterbury Tales, The Limited Editions Club (1946), Colophon

One thought on “The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1934 (George W. Jones) & 1946 (Arthur Szyk) editions from The Limited Editions Club

  1. George Macy went “two for two” with his LEC editions of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. Both editions are splendid albeit in very different ways. The 1934 edition designed by George W. Jones is restrained and elegant. However, I agree with Chris that the later 1946 edition featuring the colorful miniatures of Arthur Szyk is indeed quite special . Szyk’s illustrations (in general) may not be to everyone’s liking but in this edition of the Canterbury Tales they work marvelously, capturing much of Chaucer’s whimsy and sardonic humor. The binding of 1/4 sheepskin and stylized gold leaf lettering with Szyk’s patterned paper over boards & matching slipcase is of a quality not typically seen in LEC bindings. For me, this is one of George Macy’s most successful LEC publications.

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