Reading Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) is, to me, a nearly perfect way of being entertained. Throw in a nice bottle of Burgundy (which is the only libation to drink with Dumas!), and the world becomes perfect bliss! His stories are captivating, full of romance, action, adventure and drama. It is little wonder why he remains one of the most widely read of all French authors, and that his works have been translated into more than 100 languages. Dumas was extremely prolific with his best known works being The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne. The Black Tulip, the focus of this review, was written in 1850 when he was already world-renowned. As the Limited Editions Club (LEC) Monthly Letter (ML) states, “While this is neither his most famous novel nor his best, it is one of his simplest and one of the most charming.” Charming is an excellent one-word description of the story. The Black Tulip is, simply put, an extremely enjoyable read. The ML gives some context of the work:
…beginning it as though it were to become one of his historical novels. In fact, he begins the romance with a vivid account of a violent historical incident, the brutal murder at the Hague, in the year 1672, of the brothers John and Cornelius de Witt. But once he has carried the reader through this exciting, bloody episode, he abruptly deserts history and concentrates on the private, interwoven stories of three little tulip bulbs, and a young man named Cornelius van Baerle, and the girl he loved whose name was Rosa and who was the beautiful daughter of a probably-not-beautiful jailer. For Dumas, as he got into the writing of ‘The Black Tulip’, found himself fascinated by the account of the craze that swept over Holland during the middle of the seventeenth century, the craze for tulips.
Charming is also a good word to describe the design of this 1951 LEC edition. It was designed by Jan van Krimpen, one of the typographic and design greats of the twentieth century. He is well known to Books and Vines readers through his work on the LEC’s 1931 Homer (where his type design Romanee is used) and the LEC’s 1934 Daphnis and Chloe (where his Lutetia is used). For this edition of The Black Tulip, van Krimpen uses his Romulus type. On the use of Romulus, the ML tells us:
He designed the letter shapes in the early thrities…the Monotype Corporation in England proceeded to cut it for use on the monotype machines in the year 1936. Mr. van Krimpen writes…”unfortunately, the Romulus has a sloped roman instead of a normal italic. The roman itself I think not too bad; but I rather hate the sloped roman which, when an italic has tone used extensively, gives the whole a certain apomictic appearance”…. But we do know that this type called Romulus has the quality of crispness which seems to be characteristic of Ducth letter-shapes; and it has slender loveliness which is also characteristic of most Dutch types…Upon the pages of this edition of ‘The Black Tulip’, the Romulus is widely leaded, meaning that there is a considerable space between the lines; and there is a true simplicity, a kind of typographic nobility, to the design and plan of the pages.
I agree with this sentiment. It is simple and noble, is a pleasure to read, and works well with the tone of the illustrations. As was discussed in the aforementioned van Krimpen work of Homer, the ML reminds us that he:
…is a man who believes that, in matters of taste, the simple is the best, that there is no point in complicating a design in order to satisfy a fancy taste. This theory, that the simple is in the best taste, is fused unto the edition of ‘The Black Tulip’ which he has planned for us.
Towards this “simple is best” end, besides the glories of his Romulus, the book is wonderfully sized to fit into the ‘charming’ category, 5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″. It is bound in Richardson’s Oasis morocco, niger goat-skin in the natural color, with the cover stamped in gold leaf on an “intrusion” of black leather shaped to form La Tulipe Noire. It also is elegant and beautiful, while being very simple. The fine rag paper was especially made for this edition at Pannekoek mills in Holland and is described in the ML as “alabaster-tulip white; it is wove, meaning that there is no laid chain in the paper.” There are 33 illustrations from drawings by Frans Lammers. These drawings were engraved in wood by Gilbert Pillion, and printed from the engravings. The ML calls them “wonderfully well drawn, they are pleasantly romantic.” The illustrations are narrative-based, and while far from the top-tier in the LEC canon, they do fit into the simple and charming intent of this edition. The edition was printed at the famous and historic printing house of Joh. Enschede en Zonen in Haarlem. There is a very good introduction done for this edition by Ben Ray Redman, whose writing and reviews in the first half of the twentieth century often graced the New York Times, Harper’s, American Mercury, and the Saturday Review of Literature. The translation is that of S.J. Adair Fitz-Gerald.
As what turns out to be a somewhat long, but very interesting aside, the ML discusses leather in the use of binding books. B&V readers have had many discussions on leathers used on books and on care for such, so will find this interesting. First, the ML gives an overview of the use of leather, circa 1951:
The English tanneries have brought the finishing of pigskin to perfection. The French are famous for leathers made from the skins of goats; such leathers are usually called morocco, and when these are made from goats which were alive in Nigeria, they are called niger morocco; but the French usually use Levantine goats, roll the skins to create a fine grain, and make what are known as French levant morocco. Cowhide is well finished in America, there being lots of cattle here! Sheep are universal; the lambs make the best leathers in America, but in Central Europe and in other places, the place for example where “Jerusalem parchment” is made, the skins of sheep are developed into vellum and parchment by native processes of splitting, drying and tanning.
All of the skins used in making leathers are washed, dried, tanned, cured. In the process of tanning, various chemicals are used. But every process is intended to removed from the skin the natural oils left in the skin by the animal that was wearing it; and a desperate attempt is always made, to remove all the natural acids. Whatever acid remains in the skins of course affect the leather as time goes by; therefore, if you want on your book a leather which will last forever and ever, you must find a piece which the tanner has rendered free of acid.
Before meeting their Maker, all of the animals of course get scratches and gouges upon their hides. Even when the skins are washed and cleaned and treated, the marks remain. There have been times, when we have modes of leathers on the covers of our books, when our members have protested that they received “defective leathers” despite our feeling that the scratch or the gouge, which caused the member to think his leather defective, only adds to the charm of a book’s cover.
Of course, that was all leading up to some bragging about the LEC’s use of niger goat for The Black Tulip:
Now, for the covers of all of the copies of this edition of ‘The Black Tulip’, we have obtained a supply of niger morocco. About the leather, we beg leave, and seize it, to quote from Frederick Moore’s ‘The Art of Making Leather for Books’: “This is the best leather in the world for book binding. Niger goat comes all tanned from Africa, from the country of Morocco where it acquired its name. It is tanned by a primitive method; it is actually acid free, is tough, durable, strong, long in the grain and practically permanent and everlasting. This leather is considered by all authorities as the best leather for permanent and durable bindings.”
The skins which we have obtained were in turn obtained in Morocco by Richardson’s, the British firm which is famous for the trade name, Oasis, on its niger moroccos; and then imported into this country by John Holt of New York. These skins have not been dyed to a special color, they are left in the natural tone. They seem to us beautiful.
As those who have sought for a copy of the LEC edition of The Black Tulip know, it can be hard to find one in near fine or better condition, as the binding has been notorious for having darkened or faded. The LEC was well aware it would happen in this case, and pitched such as a positive, as it would add to the charm of the book:
But we ask you tor remember this, since no dye has been applied to the skins, these natural niger morocco covers will discolor, will acquire a patina with time. If you keep your book in its slipcase, only the spine of the book will discolor. That discoloration will, we think, prove charming, just like the lovely discoloration, which cannot be initiated with dyes, of a meerschaum pipe. If you want the patina to be even, on all parts of the book (and this is what we think you should want), then you ought to leave the book out on a table, in varying positions, until the light and air will have brought about this charming discoloration evenly on the cover. This is something we can’t do for you!
Lastly, the ML gives some leather binding care advice, some of which certainly would be controversial today:
…keep the leather in good condition. How to do that? Well, when the sins were made, they were de-greased; and, with the passage of time, the skin will become drier and drier and drier. To preserve leather (listen hard!): You need only to keep it greased. There are a number of preservatives on the market, notably a concoction of vegetable oils called Leather Vita. But, to preserve your leather-bound books, you must only remember to keep the fibers from drying out: rubbing ordinary Vaseline, or any pure greases, into them will preserve them.
In short this is a charming story from one of the greatest of all French authors, packaged in an equally charming edition designed by one of the greatest of all typographers/book designers. Yes, this means it does belong in your library! Depending on how much ‘charm’ you are okay with on the binding, one can often find this anywhere from $50-$200.
About the Edition
- Designed by Jan van Krimpen and printed at Joh. Enschede en Zonen in Haarlem
- 33 illustrations are drawings by Frans Lammers, engraved in wood by Gilbert Pillion, and printed from the engravings
- Introduction by Ben Ray Redman
- Translation by S.J. Adair Fitz-Gerald
- Text composed in Romulus (designed by van Krimpen)
- Fine rag paper especially made for this edition at Pannekoek mills in Holland
- Bound in Richardson’s Oasis morocco, niger goat-skin in the natural color, with the cover stamped in gold leaf on an “intrusion” of black leather shaped to form La Tulipe Noire
- 5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″, 352 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Frans Lammers and Jan van Krimpen
Pictures of the Edition
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