The Odyssey, by Homer, Published by Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton (1932)

A few months ago, Books and Vines highlighted a magnificent typological work of the early twentieth century, the 1931 Limited Editions Club (LEC) editions of Homer‘s Iliad and Odysseyboth designed and printed by one of the 20th centuries master typographers, Jan van Krimpen. This work was recognized by Martin Hunter and Jerry Kelly in their look at the best finely printed books of the twentieth century, A Century for the Century. There is another fine press edition of Homer’s Odyssey, printed just one year after van Krimpen‘salso recognized in A Century for the Century, which is even more highly thought of. In fact, the privately published 1932 edition by Bruce RogersEmery Walker and Wilfred Merton, reviewed here, is considered one of the finest of all fine press books.

The Bruce Rogers/Emery Walker Odyssey is nearly universally regarded as one of the most beautiful fine-press books of the twentieth century. Joseph Blumenthal, another great twentieth century typographer and book historian, no stranger to fine press fans (especially through his Spiral Press), says of this edition;

I believe the Bruce Rogers ‘Odyssey’ is indisputably amongst the most beautiful books ever produced. It is difficult to describe a work of genius. In the ‘Odyssey’ without tricks or accessory decoration, with a classic austerity akin to the timeless proportions of the Parthenon, with only type and paper and ink, with consummate skill, Rogers created a masterpiece.

Bruce Rogers (1870-1957) is usually regarded as the greatest and most influential book designer America has produced. After leaving the publishing house of William Edwin Rudge in 1928, Rogers went to England with the intent of producing what was to become this edition. Printer and historian Emery Walker (1851-1933), a major player in the Arts and Crafts movement, played a significant role in inspiring William Morris to create the Kelmscott Press. Walker is most famous in the fine press world for his co-ownership role of the Doves Press (which had a huge influence on twentieth century private press movement) with bookbinder T. J. Cobden Sanderson. Rogers and Walker, who had previously worked together a decade earlier, along with Walker’s business partner Wilfred Merton (1888-1957) and the financial backing of Colonel Ralph Isham (1890-1955), embarked on a four year effort to produce a new edition of Homer’s Odyssey with a new modern prose translation.

The Translation

{Ed. Note: In discussing the translation, a huge call out to Jeremy Wilson for this article which is based on an unused introduction written for the edition of Lawrence’s Odyssey translation published by the Limited Editions Club in 1981. The article is a fascinating and informative read, especially the correspondence between Lawrence, Walker and Rogers.  Mr. Wilson, along with his wife Nicole, are the proprietors of The Castle Hill Press imprint, a scholarly and high quality publisher who focuses on the writings of Lawrence, including his voluminous correspondence. Mr. Wilson wrote the forward to the Castle Hill Press edition of  T. E. Lawrence: Correspondence about the Bruce Rogers ‘Odyssey’, the book of which is the ultimate source for those interested in this work (it can be purchased here). The summarization below is from my perusal of these sources, any errors are certainly mine, not Mr. Wilsons!}

Who would they get to do this new translation? Why none other than who we know today as Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence. Yes, the Rogers/Walker Odyssey is not only one of the great private press books of the last century, but it is also the first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s translation! Rogers was a admirer of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom from which he had the inspirational foresight to pair Lawrence with Homer. With Lawrence’s knowledge of classical Greek (learned in school), his having worked as an archeologist, and his nearly mythical ‘man of action’ military background in the the Arab Revolt, Rogers thought there would be no better man to do such a translation. Lawrence accepted the commission to do the translation, though did worry about his ability to do so, telling Walker:

I am not a scholar. If I read Greek, it is for pleasure. I fear my version will inevitably try harder to convey my pleasure, than to be an exact mould of the Greek. Yet accuracy is a good thing, in its way. Will you try to find a hide-bound scholar, and ask him to snout through the sample chapter for literal errors? I’d like to avoid howlers.

It is amazing that Lawrence could accomplish this commission despite working on this translation in his ‘free time’ while serving in the Royal Air Force (RAF). In that context, even the nearly four years it took to do the translation seems paltry. Jeremy Wilson, in an excellent article at T.E. Lawrence Studies says “it was a task to which he gave great care, sometimes taking an hour over the rendering of a single line.”  In one letter Lawrence states:

Last night I spent five hours doing five lines – not doing them, for they were already on paper, but re-grouping and re-tensing and re-mooding them, to make them stand up: it’s deadly hard. There cannot be any of my own exciting little adjectives or words: for I am translating Homer, most word-for-wordly, and Homer has been too long the possession of the educated world for any surprise to remain in him.

When finally finished, Lawrence wrote of his work on the translation:

…upon which I have spent almost as long as Odysseus and travelled further . . . which has furnished me with luxuries for five years and so wholly occupied my hours off duty that I have had no leisure to enjoy them.

As Simon Loekle says,  “It is astonishing that a “true live” adventurer would translate the adventures of Odysseus” and that he was “at home in worlds lost to time is no less astonishing.” In Homer and the Arts of the Book we are told that Lawrence intended his work to be “a straightforward translation” of what he described as “the first novel of Europe.”  Time has shown that Lawrence succeeded, as it has been continuously in print since first published.  Mr. Wilson tells us why Lawrence’s Odyssey will remain important:

It was the first English translation that attempted to offer both the spirit and the narrative of the Greek original in a language accessible to ordinary people. Its achievement is a tribute to the vision of Bruce Rogers: ‘Here, at last, was a man who could make Homer live again – a man of action who was also a scholar and who could write swift and graphic English.’

It should be noted that Lawrence did not want his name on the work, and such was agreed to in 1928 when the commission was agreed to. This is why you do not see Lawrence’s name on the book in the pictures below. However, he did concede to provide a ‘translators note’, printed at the tail of the book, using the pseudonym of T.E. Shaw (the same name which he had used to enlist in the Royal Air Force in an attempt to remain anonymous).

The Edition

Turning attention back to the design of the edition itself, The University of Virginia Library exhibit called ‘Most Unforgettable II‘ says of Roger’s work in the Odyssey that “the key to the success of Rogers’ design was its utter simplicity, refinement, and grace.” That is a perfect summarization of what one feels when looking at the book. The type used is Centaur, designed by Rogers in 1914. In Anatomy of a Typeface, Alexander S. Lawson says:

Centaur has been one of the most widely praised roman types of our time. Even so conservative an observer as D.B. Updike said of it, in Printing Types, ‘It appears to me one of the best roman fonts yet designed in America — and, of its kind, the best anywhere.’

Rogers supervised the cutting of his Centaur type for the Odyssey. The completed typeface was released for general use in 1929 by the Monotype Corporation Ltd. (the italic was drawn by Frederic Warde, another great in the fine press world well represented in Books and Vines). The type is certainly slender, graceful and a joy to read, especially on the specially made Barcham Green pale-grey paper which here is watermarked with a Greek galley. The type just looks fantastic on the paper, a match that could not be more harmonious. Speaking of harmony, the paper’s tone is also a perfect palate for the 26 decorations of Homeric figures printed in black on round backgrounds of gold. These gold circular medallions, based on Rogers’s drawings of figures from Greek vases, each illustrate a scene from the Odyssey. The binding is black crushed Nigerian goatskin by W.H. Smith and Son Ltd, the spine titled and dated in gilt, with the top edge gilt and others uncut (the copy you see below was rebound by Shepherds Bookbinders, i.e., Sangorski & Sutcliffe, to match the original using Harmatan Niger #28 with 7 raised bands and hand-lettering, with Trajan brass letters, of the spine in gold leaf). The print, the paper and the illustrations, along with the binding, reflect a perfect marriage of these components into a holistic package of  “simplicity, refinement, and grace.” As an interesting aside, the resinous, varnish-based ink used in the printing contained oil of copaiba, as used in ancient formulas, which leaves a light pepper-like aroma which in some editions can still be smelled.

The Rogers/Walker Odyssey was published in England in November 1932 in an edition of 530 copies. What was a great idea in 1928, proved a slow seller in the Great Depression that enveloped the world when finally published. None-the-less, the first trade edition, also designed by Rogers (text set in Linotype’s new 12-point Janson), published by the Oxford University Press in 1932 for the American market, sold out of its first printing of 3,500 copies in four days, selling 12,000 copies in its first year. As for the limited edition of 530 copies, the Depression may have caused it to sell slowly, but eventually this became one of the most sought after private press books, which remains so today.  It is very difficult to find this edition in near-fine or fine edition and it usually runs some number of thousands of dollars (~$3500 – $7500).

About the Edition

  • Privately printed and published by Sir Emery Walker, Wilfred Merton and Bruce Rogers
  • The first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s translation
  • Bruce Rogers’ Centaur type
  • Printed on specially made Barcham Green pale-grey paper, watermarked with a Greek galley and printed with aromatic ink that, in some cases, still holds the spicy aroma
  • The title page and each chapter heading has a roundel of gold leaf, by Bruce Rogers, printed with a Greek vase design of Homeric figures, the printing of these took seven separate impressions
  • Original bound in black crushed Nigerian goatskin by W.H. Smith and Son Ltd, the spine titled and dated in gilt, top edge gilt, others uncut; mine rebound by Shepherds Bookbinders (Sangorski & Sutcliffe) to match original using Harmatan Niger #28 with 7 raised bands and hand-lettering of the spine in gold leaf (with Trajan brass letters to spine), along with Ruscombe Mill 1890’s Laid handmade endpapers.
  • 292 x 204 mm
  • Limited to 530 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Spine and Covers
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Spine and Covers
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Spine
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Spine
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Front Cover
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Front Cover
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Side View
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Side View
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Title Page
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Title Page
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Title Page Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Title Page Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Title Page Illustration
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Title Page Illustration
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Text #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Text #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro Text #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Text #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro Text #2
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #1
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #8
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #4
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustrations #10 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Illustrations #5 with Text
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro Sample Text #2
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro Text #3
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #10
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Macro of Sample Illustration #5
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Text #2
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Sample Text #2
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Limitation Page
The Odyssey, Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton, Limitation Page

6 thoughts on “The Odyssey, by Homer, Published by Bruce Rogers, Emery Walker & Wilfred Merton (1932)

  1. Gary:

    From perusing their website, my impression is that the closing of the Curzon St. shop is more of an organizational thing. It seems as if Shepherds is making a series of changes and moves to consolidate their businesses but none of this appears to affect their bookbinding business. If anything, I think the binding aspect is being strengthened.

    For example the retail aspect of the branch at Rochester Row, where the Bindery and fine bookbinding takes place, has been split off and moved (consolidated) into their flagship location at Gillingham St. near Victoria Station. This frees the Bindery from any distractions related to the retail side of the business. Additionally, they have opened a new location called the Daffodil Barn in Wiltshire (near Pewsey) which is also dedicated to bookbinding, as well as giving course in bookbinding.

    It is difficult for me to know precisely what is happening without being a resident of the UK but nothing I have read appears to adversely affect their legendary Bindery.

  2. This is certainly one of my Top 10 or Top Dozen private press books of the twentieth century for many of the reasons Chris has described. Perhaps no other book in his storied history illustrates the genius of Bruce Rogers with regard to book design and illustration. In few books do the individual components come together so harmoniously, a case in which Aristotle’s dictum “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is perfectly realized. Put another way, I can think of several books in which the typography (the actual handset, letterpress printed page), the illustrations, the quality of the paper, the binding, etc., surpass these qualities in this book. However, you cannot begin to appreciate how much Rogers has “sweated the details” and made a dozen or so critical choices and decisions necessary to create a perfect book unless you actually hold this book in your hands and read it.

    One aspect of the particular book photographed Chris has glossed over which merits further discussion is that this book has been expertly rebound by Shepherds Bookbinders in London. Shepherds is a high end London shop with several branches that specializes in exquisite papers from all over the world as well as providing bookbinding supplies and materials to both amateurs and top-flight professionals. Several years ago, as the fabled British bookbinding institutions of Zaehnsdorf and Sangorski & Sutcliffe were about to go out of business, Shepherds purchased both companies and folded them into their firm, providing them with a financial backbone and stability necessary for them to survive. Most important, they did not alter or interfere with the personnel or craftsmanship and tradition of excellence both are fabled for.

    I mention this because several of the most sought after (“iconic”) private press books of the past 125 years have the dubious distinction of nearly always being found in less than collectible condition. Books that immediately come to mind in this regards are: the Grabhorn Press ‘Leaves of Grass’, the Golden Cockerel Press/Eric Gill trilogy of The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Four Gospels, the Cresset Press ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, etc. If found in fine or NF condition these books will command a stiff premium, disproportionately so in my opinion, costing thousands of dollars. An intelligent and VERY cost-effective alternative that is also aesthetically pleasing is to find these book in copies with dirty, stained, worn bindings with interior pages remaining in fine condition. Surprisingly, these books can be purchased for 50% to 70% less than the collectible copy of the same book. This book can then be sent to a top notch bookbinder such as Shepherds Bookbinders and a new binding can be created. One has the option of faithfully copying the original binding as in this case or creating a new binding with the assistance and design expertise of the Bindery Director, Ms. Alison Strachan.

    I have sent several books to Shepherds, in one instance upgrading an original binding from buckram to full Nigerian Oasis goatskin leather (the Bodley Head ‘Ulysses’) and in another instance creating a precise duplicate of the original binding (the Golden Cockerel Press ‘The Four Gospels’). With relatively straightforward bindings that do not involve inlay/onlay, elaborate decoration and gilt work, original design work, etc., the cost will be about 750 to 800 GBP ($1200 to $1400 USD). Given the cost and scarcity of top quality Nigerian goatskin leather and their world-class craftsmanship I found this to be VERY reasonable. The end result was a book far superior to the copies available from fine booksellers in the marketplace at a substantial savings when all was said and done.

    1. dlphcoracl

      I agree that this is a stand-out book.

      Interested to read your comments on Sheperds.I was in their Curzon St,London shop a couple of months ago and was told by the staff member that the shop would be closing for renovation and reopening as Maggs Bros,Booksellers (one of the oldest bookselling companies in the UK).I hope this does not spell the start of the end for such a great bookbinder.

      Gary

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