The Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part I – The Cresset Press Gulliver’s Travels (1930), Illustrations by Rex Whistler

{Ed. Note: This is the first of what will be an on-going series looking at the greatest of all private press illustrated books of the last 120+ years. This article is provided by Books and Vines contributor Dlphcoracl.}

There are several reasons for collecting and reading private press books.  First and foremost, the best of them are works of usable art which contribute greatly to one’s enjoyment of a reading through a great work of literature.  They have a visual and tactile pleasure which reflects the ingenuity of the book design, the quality of the materials chosen and the care in crafting the book.  For many, the unique set of commissioned illustrations that are a part of these books (Doves Press excepted) play an integral role in the decision to purchase and the enjoyment derived from them.  They bring a book to life, adding a visual interest to the intellectual stimulation of reading a timeless work. From the thousands of illustrated private press books printed during the modern private press movement (1890 to present) a handful have achieved legendary status, books in which the artist and illustrations become inseparable from the book itself, a perfect marriage if you will.  Many of these books have been included in the classic Grolier Club publication A Century For the Century by Martin Hunter and Jerry Kelly (2004, David R. Godine publisher) in which one hundred notable private press books from the twentieth century were featured, discussed and photographed.  Examples include:

  1. The Tragedie of Hamlet, Cranach Presse (1929-1930).  Illustrations by Edward Gordon Craig.
  2. Moby Dick, Lakeside Press (1930).  Illustrations by Rockwell Kent.
  3. The Four Gospels of Lord Jesus Christ, Golden Cockerel Press (1931).  Illustrations by Eric Gill.
  4. Urne Buriall and the Garden of Cyrus, Curwen Press (1932).  Illustrations by Paul Nash.

Unfortunately, the price for purchasing any of these (and similar) private press books in collectible condition has increased considerably in recent years and is now beyond the means of many book lovers and collectors. This series of Books and Vines articles is an attempt to remedy this, providing Books and Vines readers and subscribers an opportunity to see what these books are about and why many have obtained iconic status. This new, hopefully long-running, series will introduce you to superbly illustrated books that are personal favorites, including books which are somewhat unrecognized as masterpieces of the art of book illustration that are still (in many instances) relatively affordable.  Meanwhile, Books and Vines readers can revisit several of the articles written over the past five years (has it been that long??) to see discussions and photographs of several books I would have certainly included in this series, notably:

  1. The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, Gregynog Press (1932).  Illustrations by Blair Hughes-Stanton.
  2. Faust, Erster Teil (Part One) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Julius Schroder Verlag, (1920).  Illustrations by Sepp Frank.
  3. Epithalamion: A Poem by Ida Graves, Gemini Press (1934).  Illustrations by Blair Hughes-Stanton.
  4. The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney, Janus Press (1984). Illustrations by Clair van Vliet.
  5. The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Pennyroyal Press. Illustrations by Barry Moser.
  6. The Story of Cupid and Psyche by Lucius Apuleius, Rampant Lions Press (1974).  Illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

That said, I will kick off the series with an indisputable classic of twentieth-century book illustration considered by most serious collectors and fine & rare booksellers as one of the twentieth century’s private press high points: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, from the Cresset Press, London, 1930, with illustrations by Rex WhistlerGulliver’s Travels is well known to nearly all of Books and Vines readers and there is no need to expound further on it.  Rather, I will briefly discuss the Cresset Press and devote most of this article to a remarkable and very under-appreciated artist, Reginald John (“Rex”) Whistler, with, of course, a generous sampling of photographs of the book.

The Cresset Press was founded in 1927 by Dennis Cohen with the intent of specializing in “expensively illustrated limited editions of classical works.”  As summarized in his obituary by The Times in 1970:

“He (Cohen) paid scrupulous attention to the matching of fine hand-press-work with enterprising illustrations, commissioned a number of the best wood-engravers of the day for editions of ‘The Apocrypha’ or ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’…. When the market for books like these collapsed in the thirties, the Cresset Press turned to general publishing.”

All of the finest Cresset private press books were published within their first five years (1927 to 1932). Books and Vines readers may recall reviews of Cresset’s publications of the aforementioned The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1928), The Apocrypha (1929), Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1930), and D.H Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1930). All of these are outstanding works, well worth collecting. However, Gulliver’s Travels is their masterpiece.  Presswork was done at the Shakespeare Head Press run by Bernard Newdigate, probably the finest printer in the UK at this time.

Rex Whistler was born at Eltham, Kent, Great Britain on 24 June 1905 into a middle class family.  He showed an aptitude for art at a very early age and enrolled at the Slade School at University College London in 1922 at age 16 where his precocious talent was fully realized.  He drew the attention and encouragement of famed Professor of Fine Art Henry Tonks who later commented to Sir Osbert Sacheverall Sitwell, 5th Baronet, an English writer and critic, that Whistler was one of only three or four people he had known with a natural gift for drawing.  Tonks later wrote:

I have never met anyone like him.  He amuses me because he has a certain gift of humor, I cannot describe it, very subtle, that touches some recesses of my mind, all hidden under a very respectful manner.  Directly he is launched – he will be an amazing success.

Tonks and Whistler both shared a somewhat retro interest in their art that ran counter to the times.  They were not attracted to the Modern Art or the Modernist movement of the times and their art looked backward toward the Rococo masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher.  Professor Tonks also had a keen interest in reviving the British tradition of grand mural painting and, believing that Whistler’s interests and talents were aligned with his, strongly recommended that he be awarded the commission to paint the murals in the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) ‘Refreshment Room’ .  Whistler worked on this project from 1926-1927 creating a fantastical series of murals entitled: “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats”.  As described on the Tate Britain website:

The story was ideally suited to a restaurant, recounting the expedition of a group of seven people who set out in search of exotic meats.  They leave on bicycles, carts and horses from the ‘Duchy of Epicurania’, and travel through strange and wonderful lands encountering unicorns, truffle hounds and two giant gluttons guarding the entrance to a cave.  The story ends with the travelers returning to a joyful homecoming and the diet of the people, which had previously consisted of dry biscuits, is transformed.

What sets this series of murals apart from the ordinary are Whistler’s subtle touches of wit and satire and his ability to give his landscapes a fantastical, other-worldly appearance that is almost believable.  When the restaurant reopened and the wraparound series of murals were unveiled to the public they were an immediate success, leading to other important commissions.

Whistler’s undergraduate years at Slade School were also critical to his commercial and artistic success through his association with Stephen Tennant, a classmate at the school.  Tennant, from a wealthy aristocratic family, was socially prominent and travelled amidst a London avant-garde circle of artists and writers known as the “Bright Young Things“.  He befriended Whistler, introducing him to his socialite friends for whom Whistler would receive commissions for portraits and mural paintings at their lavish private residences and mansions.  Tennant was being treated for tuberculosis at this time and Whistler accompanied Tennant on a trip to a Swiss sanitarium for further treatment.  The portion of the trip through Italy and Rome was influential in Whistler’s development as an artist, providing first-hand exposure to classical art and landscape.

The murals at Tate Gallery were designed with input from author Edith Olivier, part of Stephen Tennant’s circle of influential and wealthy friends, and Whistler developed a close working relationship with Olivier, a woman thirty years older.  He spent considerable time at her home at Daye House in Wilton (part of Wilshire) which further developed his sense of landscape and architecture.  Following his success at Tate Gallery, Tennant and Olivier provided Whistler a steady stream of clients for mural painting and portraits amongst their circle of wealthy friends.  This was his most important and reliable source of income throughout the 1930’s – Whistler would paint murals in seven private mansions over the next decade culminating in his murals for the Marquess of Anglesey’s dining room at Plas Newydd in Wales from 1936 to 1938.  This is now part of the National Historic Trust (UK) and is open to public view.  Go here to get a glimpse of Whistler’s varied mural work.

Interspersed within his fantastical worlds there are hints of a darker side.  Unexpected shadows and clouds may appear in his landscape.  In remote corners of his large scale murals one may find his name or initials on an urn or tombstone and a small skull may be seen on a mural or painting well away from the central action. These themes became more prominent after he enlisted at the start of World War II, foregoing a safer assignment as an Official War Artist to become a member of the Welsh Guards.  He trained with their Armoured Division but continued painting throughout his enlistment.  His landscape paintings, scenes of army life, and portraits of military comrades assumed a new realism with a darker edge and hue, less frivolous and escapist.  Intense and powerful portraits of Jock Lewes (a founder of the Special Air Service), Richard Whiskard, a fellow tank commander, and Master Cook J.W. Isaacs suggest that his art was about to assume a new direction, foregoing his numerous inconsequential jobs for greater concentration and artistic development in oil painting.  Unfortunately, after months of training Whistler was killed by a German mortar at Normandy in 1944 (he was 39) during his first day of combat as a tank officer and this aesthetic shift remains speculative, at best.

Despite his precocious talent and prodigious artistic gifts, Rex Whistler is barely known or remembered today.  Undoubtedly, his premature death contributes greatly to his lack of recognition but his all-encompassing gifts and talents are partly responsible as well.  Because he began his professional and commercial career in the 1930’s during the height of the Great Depression, Whistler was not selective and accepted commissions for posters, greetings and Valentine cards, dust jackets for books, and advertisements as readily as he accepted commissions for grand murals, portraits, and theater sets.  Born into a family in modest economic circumstance Whistler was keenly aware of the need to support himself and his aging parents.  Scattering himself too thin artistically has unfairly lessened his stature as a “serious” artist, both now and during his lifetime.  Additionally, his finest work remained private, hidden from public view and critical scrutiny behind private mansion walls.  Only now, after three of the historic houses he painted murals in were placed under the National Historic Trust, has the public slowly become aware of Whistler’s marvelous gifts.

Fortunately for book collectors, his illustrations for the Cresset Press Gulliver’s Travels show Whistler at his formidable best.  The illustrations harken back to the 17th and 18th centuries and his humorous, witty drawings are surrounded by Rococo frames.  Whistler’s drawings are matched by the Cresset Press’ decision to complement them with a type reminiscent of John Baskerville’s 18th century types.  In a sense, Whistler’s illustrations are a smaller version of his finest work as a muralist and theater set designer.  As one gazes at and admires the extraordinary detail, subtle touches, sly wit and humor of his illustrations one cannot escape the sense that all of this came easily to Whistler.  Cecil Beaton, a close friend who was part of the “Bright Young Things” social group and himself a multi-faceted artist who excelled in English fashion, portrait photography, interior design and, later in his career in the United States, Broadway stage design and Hollywood film design, summed it up best:

So great was his facility that other people might well labour for months to achieve the results he flicked off expertly in a few twists of his pen.

The Cresset Press Gulliver’s Travels is yet another of the most sought after twentieth century private press books that is rarely found in collectible condition.  The original binding is one-half turquoise green morocco (goatskin) with vellum over stiff boards by Wood on London, with five raised bands on the spine, top edges gilt, paper uncut.  The leather on the spine is nearly always badly faded, dried, with cracking / “starting” of the external hinges.  The vellum is often stained and soiled and despite the thick heavy boards, the drying and retraction of the vellum often results in bowing and curvature of the boards.  I have never seen a copy of this book in truly fine condition and the price for a near fine (NF) copy is typically thousands of dollars, one example of which can be seen here.

I elected to purchase a copy with a flawed binding with NF internal pages, the only defect being offset of an illustration on a verso page creating a shadow or “ghost” on the opposing recto page.  This is found in most copies and, as such, is barely considered a defect as nearly all copies demonstrate this.  Tissue paper inserts were not issued with the original books to prevent this. My copy was otherwise flawless internally without toning or foxing.  I purchased this book with the intent of immediately rebinding it.  I was not enamored with the original vellum over boards and, over time, the problem of the vellum drying and retracting, causing bowing and “saucerization” of the thick boards would again rear its ugly head.  I was able to perfectly match the original leather in both color and grain with  Harmatan Fine Leather Range #17 Green and elected to replace the vellum with Claire Guillot G03 hand-marbled marbled paper, both obtained from Talas of New York City.  The rebinding was done by Scott K. Kellar of Chicago.

About the Edition

  • 2 volumes
  • Illustrations and maps by Rex Whistler
  • Three-quarter green moroccovellum boardsraised bands, top edges gilt, uncut (here rebound as described above)
  • Handmade paper
  • 14 1/4 x 10 1/8
  • Limited to 205 copies, 10 of which specials in vellum

Pictures of the Edition

(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.)

Binding - Spine and marbled paper over boards
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Bindings – spines with gilt lettering
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Bindings - spines with gilt lettering
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Binding – front cover
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Binding - front cover
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Binding – Spine and marbled paper over boards
Title page illustration - verso
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Title page illustration – verso
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Title page - recto
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Title page – recto
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Map of Lilliput - verso page
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Map of Lilliput – verso page
Map of Lilliput - verso page
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Text #1
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Text #1
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Text #2
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Text #2
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #2
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #2
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, A Voyage to Brobdingnag - Table of Contents
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, A Voyage to Brobdingnag – Table of Contents
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Title page illustration of Vol. 2 - verso page
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Title page illustration of Vol. 2 – verso page
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Title page of Vol. 2 - recto page
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Title page of Vol. 2 – recto page
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Volume II: Table of Contents
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Volume II: Table of Contents
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Volume II Map
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Volume II Map
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #7 with Text
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #9
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Sample Illustration #5 (“The Lord Munodi takes him in his chariot to see the town of Lagado”)
Gulliver's Travels, Cresset Press, Colophon
Gulliver’s Travels, Cresset Press, Colophon

13 thoughts on “The Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part I – The Cresset Press Gulliver’s Travels (1930), Illustrations by Rex Whistler

  1. Dlphcoracl

    If you can continue giving great value recommendations such as ‘The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke’ (AP) then,keep them coming!

    Still top of my wish list is ‘The Odyssey’ (Bruce Rogers,1932).

    You and Chris are doing a great job!!


    1. “Still top of my wish list is ‘The Odyssey’ (Bruce Rogers,1932).”

      Isn’t it at the top of every book-lover’s list who hasn’t yet got it?

      Good hunting!


  2. Chris

    Very much looking forward to this “best of the best” series of Private Press classics,particularly to those which are relatively more affordable (and may well end up on my ‘to buy’ list).

    This Cresset Press edition of Gulliver’s Travels is a beauty,certainly more impressive,and of course,costly than the LECs.Wonderful illustrations.I will need to have a look for the trade edition thar OpieCole has referred to.


    1. Dlphcoracl

      Great photos on LT. I am replying here because I would prefer to have an exchange on the great private press books here rather than LT. If you recall you gave me some grea purchase tips last month (which I have executed!!). Knowing the great and extensive collections you and Chris have,I look forward to future articles on this series.


      1. Gary

        Thank you for your kind words. Nice to hear that you are pleased with the books you have recently acquired per my recommendations.

        i intend for this ongoing series of articles on ‘The Great Illustrated Private Press Books’ to have a bifurcated personality. On the one hand, books that are unquestioned high points of the modern private press movement (such as this one) will be a staple. However, I also intend to include books that are a bit ‘off the beaten path’, books with great illustrations that are not recognized as such and are not on the radar screens of many collectors, even relatively experienced and astute one. In other words, something for everyone!!

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