Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part VI – La Divine Commedia, or The Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri, Nonesuch Press, 1928

The Nonesuch Press was founded by poet and book designer Francis Meynell, along with his wife, Vera Mendel, and David Garnett in 1922 where it operated from the basement of Garnett’s bookshop in Soho. Although the press continued, in one form or another, into the mid 1960’s, publishing over 140 titles, the vast majority of their bibliography was issued in the Nonesuch Press’ first two decades, the 1920s and the 1930s. Meynell’s intent was a hybrid between the philosophies of the Doves Press and George Macy’s Limited Editions Club.  Unlike some of its more famous United Kingdom private press siblings of that time, e.g.,  the Golden Cockerel Press, the Gregynog Press, and the Ashendene Press, Meynell sought to produce books that were, first and foremost, readable and affordable. Similar to George Macy his overriding philosophy was to bring high quality books to the masses at affordable prices. He stated: “Our stock in trade has been the theory that mechanical means could be made to serve fine ends; that the machine in printing was a controllable tool.” While they designed their editions on a small hand press (an Albion Press), the books were printed commercially using the best of then-current mechanical means on a trade press rather than the laborious and costly hand set letterpress printing on hand made papers revived by William Morris at his Kelmscott Press in the 1890’s.

Similar to William Morris, Meynell was politically radical (he was a conscientious objector in World War I and was also a socialist who supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War) yet aesthetically conservative, with his book designs sharing some of the no-nonsense, spartan approach favored by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves Press a generation earlier.  In John Dreyfus’ book ‘A History of the Nonesuch Press‘, 1981, Meynell is quoted: “The readable book is the well-dressed woman.  Richness of clothing is not the test, but fitness for the occasion.”  The result?  Books that are attractively designed, carefully produced, and user-friendly, books that are meant to be read comfortably.

If the Nonesuch Press had a weakness it was in their selection of material, with many titles having little appeal to most modern readers.  However, they DID publish a small number of books that are of keen interest to private press book collectors, specifically:

1. The Nonesuch Dickens: A 24-volume set that incorporates the final text revised by Dickens as well as the original copper plates (etchings) and blocks (wood engravings) used in the illustrations of all of
the first editions.  This remains the definitive collection of Dickens’ works.

2. The Works of Shakespeare: A 7-volume set printed in the text of the First Folio, carefully edited by Herbert Farejon. This is an atypically luxurious yet unfussy set, designed by Francis Meynell and carefully printed by Walter Lewis at the Cambridge University Press on Pannekoek mould-made paper, set in Monotype Fournier, then bound in full tan niger morocco with gilt titling on the spines.  Although there are several excellent editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, this is my personal favorite.

3. The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer: The most beautiful bilingual editions of Homer in the last two hundred years. Printed on grey Pannekoek mould-made paper with use of Antigone Greek and Cochin types designed by Jan van Krimpen and printed at the Enschede en Zonen press in Holland.  Illustrated with engraved ornaments designed by Rudolf Koch. Bindings in full tan niger morocco.

4. Genesis.  The First Chapter:  Famous for the twelve astonishing woodcuts by Paul Nash in a modernist/cubist aesthetic, perfectly matched to Rudolf Koch’s bold Neuland type on Zander’s hand made paper.  Printed at the Curwen Press directly from the wood.

5. The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus.  The translation of G. Rawlinson Revised and Annotated by A.W. Lawrence.  Another atypically luxurious book for the Nonesuch Press, this is folio-sized and bound in half turquoise blue vellum with matching blue cloth sides, with elaborately decorated gilt designs on the spine and boards.  Printed in Nonesuch Plantin with Perpetua and Felicity italic types with 9 large wood-engravings by V. Le Campion, 9 double-page maps by T. Poulton and the Behistun Inscription, by Walter Lewis at the Cambridge University Press.   A.W. Lawrence was an expert on classical sculpture and architecture as well as the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge University in the 1940’s. His marginal annotations in this work are so extensive it is akin to taking a course at Cambridge University or University of Oxford, constituting a “book within a book”.

However, the single most beautiful Nonesuch Press book, warranting inclusion in the “Great Illustrated Private Press Books” series, is unquestionably their edition of Dante Alighieri’s ‘La Divina Commedia’.  It is printed bilingual with the Italian text in a newly edited version (at that time)  by Prof. Mario Casella (University of Florence) and the classic English translation by Rev. H.F. Cary (originally published in 1814) on the opposite page.  It is notable for inclusion of Sandro Botticelli’s forty-two original drawings, the first time they had appeared within the text of the Divine Comedy as Botticelli had intended.  Botticelli’s original illustrations are divided between museums in Rome and Berlin.  They were ( I assume) carefully photographed, then printed by collotype in sepia by Atelier Daniel Jacomet in Paris.  Of the 42 illustrations, 34 are double-page plates which were carefully mounted on stubs (map-mounts), i.e., the back of the folded illustration pasted onto a guard,  so that there would be no loss of information in the centerfold and the entire illustration could be visualized.  Daniel Jacomet was a master of the pochoir technique and was the printer preferred by many of Paris’ leading artists, such as Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Braque, Dufy, etc., to make reproductions and hand-crafted illustrations of their work – pochoirs.  The pochoir technique is extremely complicated and the artists relied upon skilled artisans such as Jacomet to do this properly (see here for an excellent article on this process). Not surprisingly, Botticelli’s drawings are here reproduced faithfully with exquisite care.

The book itself is luxurious in all aspects.  It is small folio size (12 1/8 x 8 inches; 312 x 203 mm.) with text in double column in Italian (verso) and English (recto).  Type is Monotype Blado italic with Poliphilus for capital letters and display, printed at the Westminster Press on van Gelder mould-made paper with the Nonesuch watermark.  The binding is a bright orange vellum over stiff boards with double ruled borders on front and rear boards, elaborate central gilt design, gilt lettering, top edge gilt over a rough-cut edge.  There are several famous and beautiful private press editions of the Divine Comedy, though the vast majority of these are printed in the Italian or French languages. The Nonesuch Dante remains the most beautiful private press edition in the English language.

For private press collectors who wish to obtain a copy,  I have Good News and I have Bad News. First, the Good News: it was published in a Limited Editions Club-like edition of 1475 copies and at any given time there are between 6 to 12 copies available from book dealers around the world, easily found on Abebooks.com. Now, the Bad News: this book has a Gregynog-like propensity for rarely being found in collectible (near fine or fine) condition and you will need to “pay up” for such copies. The Nonesuch Dante is usually found with one of several notable flaws:

1. The spine is faded and dried.

2. The bright orange vellum is a dirt magnet and it is easily soiled.  Worst of all, it shows dirt and stains from the most routine of book handling, seen as faint smudges on the bright orange vellum.

3. Vellum over stiff boards is a bad combination if the boards are not made of wood or if they are not exceptionally thick and rigid.  Over time the vellum inevitably dries and, as it does so, it shrinks and retracts resulting in bowing and curvature of the underlying boards – what I call “saucerization”.  Unless the book was instantly put within a combination of stiff thin board chemise wrap which is then inserted into a tight-fitting slipcase, this is a flaw commonly found in this particular book.

As a result, this book will be offered in an extremely wide range of asking prices – typically from $700 to $1,800 depending on condition.  In my experience, the NF and fine (collectible) copies will cost $1,200 or more.  This is NOT a book I would attempt to purchase in a less-than-desirable (collectible) state.  You will not be pleased and instead of saving a few hundred dollars on a non-collectible copy you will be wasting MANY hundreds of dollars.  If you cannot afford a nice copy, simply take a pass on it.

About the Edition

  • Italian Text from Prof. Mario Casella, revised for this edition
  • English translation in blank verse by the Rev. Henry Francis Cary (first published in 1814, corrections in 1844)
  • Forty-two (mainly double-page) illustrations from drawings by Sandro Botticelli collotype reproductions
  • Collotype reproductions printed in sepia by Daniel Jacomet; the 34 double-page plates were carefully mounted on stubs so there could be no loss of the image in the gutter
  • Printed on Van Gelder mould-made paper
  • Type is Poliphilus roman and Blado italic
  • Printed at the Westminster Press
  • Bound in orange stained vellum with gilt borders and centerpieces on the covers, spine lettered in gilt
  • 8.5″x12.5″, 325 double-column pages
  • Limited to 1475 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Spine and Covers
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Spine and Covers
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Spine
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Spine
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Front Cover
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Front Cover
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Title Page
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Title Page
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Title Page
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Title Page
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Contents
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Contents
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #3
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #2
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #2
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #2
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #3
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #3
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #9
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #3
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #12
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #4
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #4
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #4
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #15 with Text
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #5
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Sample Text #5
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Colophon
La Divine Commedia, Nonesuch Press, Colophon

9/27/2016 Addition to article: Christopher Ivicevich posed an excellent question with regard to the differences between the type in the Grabhorn Press ‘Divine Comedy’ and the Nonesuch Press ‘La Divina Commedia’.  Dlphcoracl has sent me a couple photos of the first few stanzas of Canto XII in the Paradiso from each edition with a metal ruler alongside the text to precisely show the difference, which are shown below, and he also provides this comment:

A picture is worth a thousand words. The easiest way to answer your question is to take a photo of each.  I have taken photos of the opening stanzas from Canto XII in the Paradiso from each edition with a metal ruler placed alongside each to help you compare the types accurately.  Clearly, the Ketterley type used in the Grabhorn Press edition is easier to read for several reasons.  In the Grabhorn edition the space between individual letters is larger, the space between rows of text is slightly greater and the Ketterley monotype is slightly less “italicized” and stylized than the Blado italic type in the Nonesuch edition.  Additionally, the English mould-made paper in the Grabhorn is whiter and brighter that the Van Gelder paper in the Nonesuch, the latter having a very slight grayish hue. These factors in combination produce a text page in the Grabhorn that “breathes” – it is easier and more legible to read.

p1030057

Paradiso Canto XII - Nonesuch Press ‘La Divina Commedia'
Paradiso Canto XII – Nonesuch Press ‘La Divina Commedia’

A larger problem, however, is the antiquated and somewhat enigmatic  H.F. Cary translation used in the Nonesuch Press edition, dating back to 1814.  However poetical or faithful to Dante’s meter and rhythm,  it is not an easy read and I find myself pausing every 2 or 3 lines to decipher and decode its meaning.  It places a veil over Dante’s masterpiece and in the 21st century it is unnecessary. The Grabhorn Press edition uses an unrhymed hendecasyllabic verse translation by Mary Prentice Lillie and it read fluidly and easily.  Although a few purists may consider it a “dumbing-down’ of Dante’s original poem,  I disagree and greatly prefer it to Cary’s translation.  Try it for yourself – read the initial stanzas of Paradisio Canto XII in each photo and decide which you prefer.

In summary, the Nonesuch Press edition of ‘La Divina Commedia’ remains the most beautiful private press edition – in no small part due to the Botticelli illustrations and their expert reproduction by Atelier Jacomet in Paris.  Sandro Botticelli is not your ordinary book illustrator and these sketches are in a league of their own.  The best of all worlds, however, may lie within the most recent fine/private press English language edition of the Divine Comedy produced in Verona, Italy by the Stamperia Valdonega (distributed for Edizioni Valdonega, Verona) as a 3 volume set in 2007. It uses the superb translation by Robert and Jean Hollander which I consider the gold standard for the 21st century.  It has done for readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy what Edith Grossman’s modern translation has done for readers of Cervantes’ Saavedra’s Don Quixote.  Additionally, it includes an astonishing set of miniature color illustrations (paintings) by German artist Monika Beisner, (100 in all) with one illustration for each canto throughout the three sections of Dante’s work.  The illustrations took Beisner seven years to complete and they are scrupulously loyal to Dante’s text, adding immeasurably to a reading of this edition.

5 thoughts on “Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part VI – La Divine Commedia, or The Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri, Nonesuch Press, 1928

  1. Thank you very much, dlphcoracl, for your well considered response. I agree that the Grabhorn edition is easier to read both from both translation and typographical aspects, and I concur that Botticelli’s illustrations are marvelous.

  2. Christopher:

    Remember to take your mouse and left-click over each of the two photos to enlarge them. If you left-click a 2nd time the photo will enlarge further into a macro photo, revealing the precise details of each typeface.

  3. Christopher, because DLPHCORACL has some pictures to add in response to your good question, please recheck the bottom of the article, where I have added his response and some pictures to illustrate such. Thanks!

  4. Thank you, once again, for an erudite and illuminating article. I own this gem and treasure it. In your assessment, how does the typography compare to the Grabhorn Press 3-volume edition of the Divine Comedy?

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