Great Illustrated Private Press Books Part V – The Tragedie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, Cranach Press (1930)

Nearly everyone enjoys “Best Of” lists.  Whether it is the ‘100 Greatest Universities in the World’, the ‘100 Greatest Books in the English Language’, the ‘100 Greatest Records in Rock ’N” Roll’, etc., we usually cannot refrain from reading through these lists.  It may be to satisfy our curiosity regarding what a group of experts rate as “the best” or, perhaps, to discover a hidden gem that we have previously overlooked, worthy of our future attention.   Collectors of modern private press books are no different, as evidenced by the popularity and success of the excellent Grolier Club/David Godine publication entitled: ‘A Century For the Century : Fine Printed Books from 1900 to 1999‘ by Martin Hunter and Jerry Kelly.  In this entertaining book two members of the Grolier Club selected one hundred notable books published in the twentieth century (roughly one per year), books chosen for (amongst other things) superb letterpress printing, innovative book design, exceptional illustrations, or sheer beauty.  My fledgling series “The Great Illustrated Private Press Books” is a variation on this theme.

Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is a wide range of what a book collector considers a wonderful or successful illustration, it is not always easy to arrive at a consensus.  If you asked 100 fine & rare booksellers and/or avid private press book collectors to select “The Great Illustrated Private Press Books” of the modern private press movement a wide range of books would appear on their lists.  However, there is a distinct subset of books that are so exceptional they would inevitably appear on the vast majority of lists.  Long-standing readers of Books and Vines over the past five years have already seen articles on several of these books.  Certainly, the Bruce Rogers designed edition of T.H. Lawrence’s translation of The Odyssey of Homer,  the Gregynog Press The Revelation of Saint John the Divine and the lead article in this series – the Cresset Press Gulliver’s Travels would merit inclusion.  The book selected for this  installment in this series certainly qualifies and would appear on nearly every list.  It is: The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig, printed by Count Harry Kessler at the Cranach Presse, 1930.

The Cranach Presse was founded in 1913 by Count Harry Graf Kessler, an Anglo-German count, diplomat, author and aesthete. It published extraordinary books until 1933 when Kessler emigrated to Paris after the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany.  Amongst the great Weimar private presses,e.g. the Bremer Presse, the Ernst Ludwig Presse, the Officina Serpentis, the Press of Dr. Julius Schroder, etc., the Cranach Presse was the most highly regarded and The Tragedie of Hamlet is its masterpiece.  It was an international collaborative effort with Eric Gill (U.K.) cutting the wood-engravings for the title page, J. Dover Wilson (U.K.) editing the text of the second quarto printed in 1604-05 and providing the scholarly notes, Aristide and Gaspard Maillol (France) formulating and making the unusual hand made paper of pure hemp fiber and linen and Count Harry Graf Kessler (Germany) responsible for the book design, printing and supervision of production in his Cranach Presse workshop.  The most important and distinctive aspect of this book, however, are the eighty magnificent wood-cuts and wood-engraving illustrations by Edward Gordon Craig (U.K.).

From Art Directory:

Edward Gordon Craig was born in 1872 as the son of the famed actress Ellen Terry and the architect, stage designed and theater director Edward William Godwin.  Between 1889 and 1897 he worked as an actor at Henry Irving’s “Lyceum Theatre” in London (including performance as Hamlet) and began to design his own figurines and stage designs.  He was increasingly interested in graphics and was taught woodcut technique by James Pryde, William Nicholson and William Rothenstein since 1893.  In 1899 Craig turned back to the theatre and founded the “Purcell Operatic Society” together with the composer Martin Fallas Shaw.

After staging an avant-garde performance of Hamlet at the Moscow Art theater in 1912, a performance noted for its minimalism and use of small black wooden figures to model these sets, Gordon Craig met Harry Kessler, one of the most influential cultural voices and critics in Weimar Germany later that year.  Kessler suggested that he produce a set of illustrations for an edition of Hamlet for his Cranach Presse derived from his costumes, stage settings and designs in his Moscow Hamlet production earlier that year, with these wooden figures becoming the model for the wood-engraving illustrations.

Craig’s work for Kessler was interrupted by the onset of World War I and involvement with other theatre projects and it continued intermittently over a period of seventeen years.  When completed, the wood engravings were both Expressionist and Minimalist, a reflection of the small “black figures” employed in his original Moscow production.  Additionally, many of the illustrations contain rows of either horizontal or vertical lines, meant to represent large screens on stage, giving the illustrations the illusion of depth and theatrical space. The figures in each illustration vary in both size and gradations of black to emphasize the three-dimensionality of a stage production.  It is the latter innovation, the variation in shades of black and gray of the figures in one impression versus the traditional black/white of the typical wood-engraving that makes the illustrations in the Cranach Hamlet unique, giving the reader the sense of immersing oneself in an actual stage production.

The Cranach Hamlet is equally important for its scholarship.  The text was edited from the text of the second quarto printed in 1604-1605 “According to the True and Perfect Coppie” by J. Dover Wilson Litt D.  Wilson was a noted Shakespearean scholar and was Regius Professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh. He was especially noted for being co-editor of ‘The New Shakespeare’ , original editions of the complete Shakespearean plays published by Cambridge University Press.  Hamlet was of particular interest to Wilson and his book What Happens in Hamlet, published in 1935, remains influential.  Additionally, Wilson supplies the source material upon which Shakespeare’s Hamlet is probably based – the Saxo Grammaticus legend in Latin and the French Hamlet story by Francois de Belleforest (mid 16th century), both with their English translations.  The Saxo Grammaticus Latin version (1514) is Scandinavian in origin, derived from the Norse folk tale of Amleth, first recorded in Latin around 1200.  Finally, Wilson has written a thirty-five page supplement with additional commentary on the text entitled Notes on the Tragedie of Hamlet , sewn separately and laid into a pocket inside the rear cover of the binding.

Both the highly original aesthetic elements of Craig’s illustrations and the scholarship and original source material provide by Wilson are brought together in a brilliant book design by Count Kessler.  The page is organized to give it a sense of formal proportion with the margins laid out with a blank space of one-ninth (1/9) the size of the entire page between text block and inner page margin and a blank space of two-ninths of the entire page for the top, bottom and outer margins.  The text of Hamlet is centrally positioned on the page surrounded by excerpts from the urtext of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest around the periphery, both in the original Latin (Grammaticus) and French (Belleforest) with their English translations.  The Maillol-Kessler specially made paper has a similarity to Kelmscott’s Batchelor paper but is softer.  The type was designed by Edward Johnston after that used by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in their Mainz Psalter of 1457 and the austerity of this type is counterbalanced by use of running headings and captions printed in red.  All this aside, it is the magnificent illustrations by Edward Gordon Craig that truly set this book apart. He produced eighty wood-engravings of which two have additional color.  The illustrations are innovative in their combination of black and shades of gray, an effect produced by varying the depth of the engraving on the wood block,  giving them a richness and depth that puts the reader on stage with ‘Hamlet’s’ characters. Craig’s son, Teddy, went to Weimar to assist the master-printer Gage Cole in the printing of the woodblocks, later remarking: “I was the only person who knew how to get the kind of impression (from the woodblocks) required, showing the delicate side grain of wood and at the same time producing the specially blackened details in certain blocks.”  (Gordon Craig: The Story of His Life by Edward “Teddy” Craig, p. 326).

Less obvious to the reader, Kessler and Craig employ clever visual devices throughout the text to emphasize aspects of the play, similar to Richard Wagner’s use of musical phrases (“leitmotifs”) to emphasize and link certain recurring themes, persons or places throughout his massive operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is discussed in detail in an excellent article written by Meredith Mann for the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library (main branch).

Finally, for Books and Vines readers living in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom with plans to visit London this summer, a copy of the Cranach Press Hamlet is on display as part of an innovative exhibit entitled “Shakespeare: Metamorphosis”, organized by the Senate House Library of the University of London. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 2016, this exhibit examines the changes and evolution in Shakespearean text and scholarship as well as our perceptions of Shakespeare and differences in how his plays have been staged and presented over the past four hundred years.  The exhibit divides this time span into seven distinctive periods, displaying over 30 rare texts from their extensive books collections to highlight this transformation. (Here are links to the Senate House Library home page and the outline of their Shakespeare: Metamorphosis exhibit).

The German edition of the Cranach Presse Tragedie of Hamlet was originally published in 1928/1929 and followed shortly thereafter with the English edition in 1930, the latter containing six additional wood engravings.  The standard English edition was issued in 300 numbered copies (from a total edition of 322 copies) and was printed in 10, 12 and 18 point black letter, designed by Edward Johnston (as described above). The punches were then cut by Edward Prince and completed after his death by George T. Friend.  The title page was cut by Eric Gill and the book was printed on the hand presses of the Cranach Presse Weimar under the supervision of Count Harry Kessler, J.H. Mason and Max Goertz.  The book is folio-sized (14 x 9.5 inches; 355 x 240 mm) with top edge gilt and other margins untrimmed.  It was issued in three bindings: a holland-type binding with cloth-backed spine and paper over boards, a one-quarter vellum spine with pinkish-beige paper over boards, and a deluxe edition of 50 copies in a full morocco leather binding in crimson red or maroon crafted by master binder Otto Dorfner. The deluxe Dorfner binding has single-gilt ruled borders on the covers, extensive gilt titling and insignia on the upper front cover, raised bands on the spine, and spine panels with gilt lettering.  Of the 22 non-standard copies 15 were printed on Japan Imperial vellum, accompanied by an extra suite of 53 loose proofs initialed in pencil by the artist Edward Gordon Craig, and 7 copies were printed on vellum.

About the Edition

  • Printed at the Cranach Presse with Count Harry Kessler, J.H. Mason and Max Goertz supervising the setting of the type and printing
  • Typographical arrangement planned by Count Harry Kessler
  • Illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig, who designed and himself cut on wood
  • Title cut by Eric Gill
  • The type (18 point, 12 point and 10 point black letter) was designed by Edward Johnston after that used by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in their Mainz Psalter of 1457
  • Type cut by Edward Prince and completed after his death by G.T. Friend
  • Paper made of pure hemp fiber and linen using a process devised in joint research by Count Harry Kessler and Aristide and Gaspard Maillol
  • Limited to 300 copies, plus 15 copies on imperial Japanese paper, and 7 copies on 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.)

Hamlet, Cranach Press, Spine
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Spine
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Cover
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Cover
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Cover #1
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Cover #1
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Cover #2
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Cover #2
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Frontispiece
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Frontispiece
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Title Page
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Title page with wood-engraved letters by Eric Gill
Sample page No. 1 showing page layout and design. The English text of the play is printed in larger type and placed in the upper/mid and inner portions of the page. The original source material and commentary are printed in smaller type along the periphery of the page, enveloping the play’s text. Wood-engraved illustration sits on top of the commentary derived from Saxo Grammaticus.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Sample page No. 1 showing page layout and design. The English text of the play is printed in larger type and placed in the upper/mid and inner portions of the page. The original source material and commentary are printed in smaller type along the periphery of the page, enveloping the play’s text. Wood-engraved
illustration sits on top of the commentary derived from Saxo Grammaticus.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Illustration Sample page No. 5. Note the extensive commentary around the periphery of the page.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Illustration Sample page No. 2. Note the extensive commentary around the periphery of the page.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Illustration Macro of Sample page No. 5.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Macro of Illustration Macro of Sample page No. 3.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Sample page No. 8
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Sample page No. 4
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Polonius enters - macro view
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Polonius enters – macro view
Enter the Players - recto page.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Enter the Players – recto page.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Wood engraving of Fortinbrasse entering over the stage with his army.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Wood engraving of Fortinbrasse entering over the stage with his army.
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Colophon
Hamlet, Cranach Press, Colophon

3 thoughts on “Great Illustrated Private Press Books Part V – The Tragedie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, Cranach Press (1930)

  1. Absolutely stunning-both inside and out.

    ‘A Century For The Century’ is an excellent reference book,but with only one picture for each entry,one can’t get a great sense of the visual quality of these books. So to be able to see these macro images is fantastic.

    Gary

  2. For those who cannot spend over $10,000 for an original there exists an excellent facsimile of the German version of the Cranach Hamlet. It was first published by Edition Leipzig in 1967 and then by Benjamin Blom in 1972. The facsimile is the same in both cases, bound in quarter vellum like part of the original edition. The only difference is in a pamphlet in a pocket in the rear of the book giving the history of the edition. This is in German for the Leipzig edition but translated into English for Benjamin Blom. There are copies available on ABE from $350 to $750. The quality is equivalent to the Folio Society Golden Cockerel facsimiles, though most people will probably hope that the Folio Society comes out with the English version at some point.

    Also, your Sample Page No. 3 misses one of the excellent examples of the use of gray and black in the illustrations. Most of the court should be grey with Hamlet brooding in the lower left (where you have him largely covered with your disclaimer box) in black. The article by Meredith Mann referenced in the review shows the illustration properly.

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