‘Aesop’s Fables’ is firmly ensconced as a member of Private Press Royalty – a work of literature that has been published by numerous private presses during the modern private press movement that began began in 1890 and always to pleasing effect. I have yet to see a poor or lackluster private press version of this work. However, two versions reign supreme, considered by most collectors as amongst the finest private press books of the twentieth century and the Officina Bodoni (OB) ‘Aesop’ is one of them.
Which, of course, begs the question: “What is the OTHER great private press edition of Aesop’s Fables?” It’s this one: The Fables of Esope – Translated Out of the Fresshe in to Englysshe by William Caxton from the Gregynog Press, Newtown, 1931, illustrated by the great Scottish illustrator Agnes Miller Parker. For newer readers of Books and Vines, an excellent article on Agnes Miller Parker (AMP) was written nearly two years ago by Neil Pallan in his review of the Gwasg Gregynog two-volume set of her wood engravings for the Gregynog Press, which included ‘The Fables of Esope’ and ‘Welsh Gypsy Folk Tales’. These books were printed by hand on handmade Japanese Gampi-Vellum paper and published between 1996 to 1997 using the original wood blocks (obtained on loan from the National Library of Wales), making these illustrations available in a superb format.
I would reaffirm what Neil Pallen stated in his earlier article and review, namely, the wood-engravings Miller Parker executed for these two Gregynog Press books and the Limited Editions Club edition of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1937) are the finest examples of her work in a private press book. Her work in subsequent publications, both for trade edition books and later LEC editions, were never reproduced and printed with quite the same expertise and fidelity.
After leaving Gregynog, Miller Parker turned away from private press work toward more commercial publishers with wider audiences. She illustrated a fable entitled ‘The Forest Giant‘ by Adrien Le Corbeau (real name: Rudolf Bernhardt) but achieved widespread recognition through her association with publisher Victor Gollancz. Gollancz paired the countryside writings of H.E. Bates with AMP and the results achieved widespread popularity and commercial success with publication of ‘Through the Woods’ (1936) and ‘Down the River’ (1937), the latter generously illustrated with 83 wood engravings. In 1940 Parker began illustrating a series of Thomas Hardy’s novels for George Macy’s Limited Editions Club (LEC) beginning with ‘The Return of the Native‘, published in the inexpensive Heritage Press format in 1942. This proved to be aesthetically unsatisfactory on multiple levels. Unlike the Gregynog ‘Fables of Esope’ or ‘Welsh Gypsy Folk Tales’, works in which Miller could stretch her imagination, Thomas Hardy was a master of descriptive prose and he provided readers with a vivid picture of his semi-fictional Wessex countryside, leaving little room for interpretation. Miller had little affinity or “feel” for the English countryside (surprising, because her work for Victor Gollancz was so successful) and its people and her illustrations often miss the mark. Worse still, the printers engaged for the Heritage Press publication were not up to the task and the extraordinary detail and subtlety of her wood-engravings are lost.
Nevertheless, Macy continued to commission Miller Parker to provide illustrations for additional LEC Hardy novels, encouraging her to visit Egdon Heath and make a series of wood engravings to serve as a baseline reference point. Subsequently, she provided wood engravings for ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles‘, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd‘, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge‘, and ‘Jude the Obscure‘. Her illustrations improved considerably although the quality of reproduction for her wood engravings was variable since Macy used a wide variety of publishing houses for his LEC books and some were not up to the exacting standards of the Golden Cockerel Press or the Gregynog Press printers. However, the final two LEC Hardy novels illustrated by AMP, ‘The Mayor of Casterbirdge’ and ‘Jude the Obscure‘, are both unqualified successes. By now, Miller Parker had a familiarity with the English countryside of Hardy’s novels and ‘Casterbridge’ was printed by the Thistle Press while ‘Jude the Obscure’ was printed by Joseph Blumenthal at the Spiral Press, with excellent result.
Fortunately, Miller Parker’s beautiful wood engravings have been reprinted with the technical excellence they deserve in two more recent publications from the 1990’s. The Fleece Press published ‘Agnes Miller Parker: Wood-engraver and Book Illustrator, 1895-1980‘ in 1990 with 35 wood engravings printed directly from the wooden blocks, giving a comprehensive survey of her work over many decades. As is typical of Simon Lawrence and his Fleece Press the wood engravings are printed to the highest standard, a hallmark of all Fleece Press books, with a luminous appearance that brings her illustrations to life. As referenced earlier, the Gwasg Gregynog Press published a two-volume set entitled ‘Agnes Miller Parker Wood Engravings‘ with Volume 1 reprinting wood engravings from ‘The Fables of Esope’ and Volume II from ‘XXI Welsh Gypsy Folk-Tales’, printed directly from the blocks by David Esselmont. It, too, is an extraordinary publication with state-of-the-art printing of AMP’s wood engravings, an effort that took nearly two years to complete. This set is arguably the high point of the Gwasg Gregynog press.
For this 1931 Gregynog edition of The Fables of Esope, Miller Parker designed and engraved in wood thirty seven glorious illustrations, making this edition a masterpiece of Gregynog and Miller Parker, and one of the greatest private press publications of all-time. Besides her illustrations, the edition contains a number of beautifully done initial letters designed and engraved by William MacCance. The handset Bembo type by Richard O. Jones and the use of specially made hand-made Barcham Green paper adds to the excellence of the overall package. It is bound in Welsh natural sheepskin.
This edition contains 97 fables collected by the “Latin Aesop” Romulus (c. 400 AD), and 17 more Aesopian fables not transmitted by Romulus, all written in the late medieval English of the literary translator William Caxton (1422–1491). Speaking of Caxton, prior to showing you pictures of this marvelous work, I have selected two fables from the Gregynog Esope (Wm. Caxton translation) and the corresponding fable in the edition illustrated by Edward Detmold, published originally by Hodder and Stoughton in 1909, the version more familiar to the modern reader. The differences are quite interesting and to illustrate this I am going to select two of the fables from Caxton’s Esope, transcribe them fully, then transcribe the Detmold edition version of the same fable directly below for comparison purposes.
GREGYNOG: THE FABLE OF THE FROGGES AND OF JUPYTER
No thyng is so good as to lyue Justly and at libertye For fredome and lyberte is better than ony gold or syluer: whereof Esope reherceth to us suche a fable: There were frogges whiche were in dyches and pondes at theyre lyberte: they alle to gyder of one assente & of one wylle maade a request to Jupiter that he wold gyue them a kynge: And Jupiter began thereof to merueylle: And for theyr kyng he casted to them a grete pyece of wood: whiche maade a grete sowne and noyse in the water: whereof alle the frogges had grete drede and fered moche: And after they approched to their kynge for to make obeyssaunce unto hym:
And whanne they perceyued that hit was but a pyece of wood: they torned ageyne to Jupiter prayenge hym swetely that he would gyue to them another kynge: And Jupiter gaf to them the Heron for to be theyre kynge: And then the Heron began to entre in to the water: and ete them one after other: And whanne the frogges sawe that theyr kyng destroyed: and ete them thus: they beganne tenderly to wepe: sayeng in this manere to the god Jupiter: Ryght hyghe and ryght myghte god Jupiter please the to delyuere us fro the throte of this dragon and fals tyraunt which eteth vs the one after another: And he sayd to them: the kynge whiche ye haue demounded shall be your mayster: For whan men haue that: which men oughte to haue: they ought to be joyful and glad: And he that hath lyberte ought to kepe hit wel: For nothyng is better than lyberte: For lyberte should not be wel sold fir alle the gold and syluer of all the world.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON (1909) : THE FROGS ASKING FOR A KING
The Frogs, grieved at having no established ruler, sent ambassadors to Jupiter entreating for a King. He, perceiving their simplicity, cast down a huge log into the lake. The Frogs, terrified at the splash occasioned by its fall, hid themselves in the depths of the pool. But no sooner did they see that the huge log continued motionless, than they swam again to the surface of the water, dismissed their fears, and came so to despise it as to climb up, and to squat upon it. After some time they began to think themselves ill-treated in the appointment of so inert a ruler, and sent a second deputation to Jupiter to pray that he would set over them another sovereign. He then gave them an eel to govern them. When the Frogs discovered his easy good nature, they yet a third time sent to Jupiter to beg that he would once more choose for them another King. Jupiter, displeased at their complaints, sent a heron, who preyed upon the frogs day by day till there were none left to croak upon the lake.
GREGYNOG PRESS: OF THE GOOD MAN AND OF THE SERPENTE
He that ought not to be assewerd that applyketh and setteth him to doo somme other eny euyll: whereof esops reherceth such a fable: Of a serpent: whiche went & came into the hows of a pour man: which serpent lyued of that whiche fell fro the poure mans table: For the whiche thynge happed a grete fortune to this poure man and bycame moche ryche: But on a daye this man was angry ageynste the serpent: and took a grete staff: and smote at hym: and gretely hurted him: wherefore the serpent went oute of his hous And therin he came neuer ageyne: And within a lytyll whyle after this: this man retourned and fell ageyne in to grete pouerte: And thenne he knew that by the fortune of the Serpent he was bycome ryche: and repented hym moche of that he smote the serpent: And thenne this poure man wente and humbled hym before the serpent sayenge to hym: I praye the that thow wilt pardonne me of thoffense that I have done to the:
And thenne sayd the serpente to the poure man: Syth thow repentest the of thy mysdede: I pardonne and forgyue it to the: But as longe as I shalle be on lyue: I shalle remember me of thy malyce: For as thow hurtest me ones: thou maest wel hurte me another tyme: For the wounde that thow madest to me: may not forgete the euylle whiche thow hast done to me wherefore he that was ones euylle: shalle ever be presumed & holden for euylle: And therefore men ought to presume ouer hym: by whome they receyue somme dommage and not haue suspecte theyr good and trewe frendes.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON (1909): THE LABOURER AND THE SNAKE
A Snake, having made his hole close to the porch of a cottage, inflicted a severe bite on the Cottager’s infant son, of which he died, to the great grief of his parents. The father resolved to kill the Snake, and the next day, on its coming out of its hold for food, took up his axe; but, making too much haste to hit him as he wriggled away, missed his head, and cut off only the end of the tail. After some time the cottager, afraid lest the Snake should bite him also, endeavored to make peace, and placed some bread and salt in his hole. the Snake, slightly hissing, said, “There can henceforth be no peace between us; for whenever I see you I shall remember the loss of my tail, and whenever you see me you will be thinking of the death of your son.’
No one truly forgets injuries in the presence of him who caused the injury.
Now, feast your eyes on one of the ‘Great Illustrated Private Press Books’ of all time!
About the Edition
- Contains 97 fables collected by the “Latin Aesop” Romulus (c. 400 AD), and 17 more Aesopian fables not transmitted by Romulus, all written in the late medieval English of the literary translator William Caxton (1422–1491)
- Printed by William MacCance, completed November 1931
- Translation of William Caxton
- 37 illustrations designed and engraved in wood by Agnes Miller Parker
- Initial Letters designed and engraved by William MacCance
- Bembo type hand-set by Richard O. Jones
- Specially made hand-made Barcham Green paper
- Bound in Welsh natural sheepskin
- 12″ X 8.75″
- Limited to 250 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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