Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press at the University of Iowa (1981)

Robert the Devil is an anonymous medieval legend, apparently originating in 13th century France, about a knight who, due to his mother making a pact with the devil, is born as the son of satan. He leads a life of extensive plunder and debauchery, and is feared and hated. One day he becomes self-aware of what a horrible person he is, asks the pope for forgiveness and seeks repentance through good actions, eventually earning blessedness and dies a saint. There is some debate around if the legend is based on a real historical figure, with some arguing it was based on Robert I, Duke of Normandy, however many seem to disagree. Having recently read the story for the first time, regardless of whether the legend is based on a real historical person or not, it certainly is not in doubt that the story is quite engaging!

Robert the Devil is a perfect sort of story for private press treatment: a classic medieval tale, not very long, with lots of imagery potential. The 1981 publication of this story by Kim Merker‘s The Windhover Press at the University of Iowa proves this. It is a wonderful edition!  But don’t take my word for it: Martin Hutner and Jerry Kelly, in their look at the best finely printed books of the twentieth century, A Century for the Century, include Merker’s Robert the Devil in this prestigious list.  Before discussing this edition further, and since Books and Vines has not previously looked at Kim Merker’s work, a few words about Merker himself.

In an essay entitled The Windhover Press and the Art of PrintingCaitlin Voth provides some biographical information on Merker:

Kim Merker was born in New York in February 1932 and would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Illinois College in 1955. He then went on to graduate school at the University of Iowa, drawn to the university’s writer’s workshops. It was here Merker would take a typography class with Harry Duncan {ed. note: Duncan operated the highly regarded Cummington Press} and become interested in printing. In 1958 Merker established his own press called The Stone Wall Press and roughly a decade later he established The Windhover Press.

His work in both of these presses put him at the top of his field, but it was not just his craftsmanship that set him apart. Merker was known for his publishing early work by poets who later went on to great heights including Philip LevineMark Strand and James Tate, all of which, the New York Times mentions, went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, and two of which were chosen poet laureate of the United States (Strand and Levine). Donald JusticeRobert Dana and W. S. Merwin (B. 1927) can be added to the list of Merker’s amazing eye for poets, the latter of which translated the edition of Robert the Devil being looked at here. Like Strand and Levine, Merwin also won both the Pulitzer Prize (in 2009) and was named the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate in 2010. Merker first published Merwin in 1970, through his Stone Wall Press, with Signs, illustrated by A. D. Moore.  This was followed by 1978’s Feathers From the Hill, published under the Windhover Press imprint, and finally 1981’s Robert the Devil reviewed here.

Kay Amert, in an article from The University of Iowa Libraries, says of the Stone Wall Press:

They employ fine printing papers, impeccably chosen type designs, nearly flawless hand-composition, meticulous printing executed on hand-presses, and hand-binding. The approach to design exercised in the books is pristine and classical in nature, and color is used with restraint. 

This excellence continued on with Windhover Press, as Caitlin Voth points out that:

…under the guidance of Merker, The Windhover Press became an excellent producer of meticulously crafted books. The press became known for the quality of the work they published. The fine printing papers, hand composition and the stunning printing completed on hand presses all solidified the university press’ reputation for making beautiful books, all under the careful watch of Merker….

An important aspect of Merker’s style is the way he used illustrations amongst the painstakingly chosen texts. {Sidney E.} Berger remarks that “Illustrations play a subtle and important role in his books, primarily because they are uncommon. He chooses his decoration as carefully as he selects his texts.” This is evident in many of his books, and the interplay between text and image and the cooperation between printer and artist, creates a final work of art that is unique to each book. Although the theme of quality and classic design is relevant to all of Windhover’s books, because each carefully chosen text is accompanied by carefully chosen illustration, each book is different from the next.

Kim Merker’s steadfast attention to precision and detail created a solid structure for text and illustration to play within. It allowed for a particular harmonizing of type and image that reflects the chosen texts beautifully. 

A Century for the Century says:

Both Merker’s and Duncan’s books are eminently readable, showing great respect and sensitivity to the author’s words, but always demonstrating fresh and new approaches that build on the traditions of the typographic book while breaking some barriers along the way.

In short, Kim Merker was one of the greats of the American fine press movement. The New York Times, in Merker’s obituary, states that Mr. Merker:

…was a designer, typesetter and printer of some of the most beautiful books made in America in the late 20th century….Within the artisanal movement called fine press printing, which celebrates bookmaking as it was practiced before mass production, Mr. Merker had few peers.

As for Merker’s edition of Robert the Devil, Hutner and Kelly mention: 

As with all of Merker’s books, there is a combination of beautiful and legible classicism with an inventive and fresh approach. The type and general handling of the text and traditional, but the asymmetric title page using a woodcut line border is novel. A special deluxe issue of fifty copies, with the woodcuts hand colored by the artist, is one of the more attractive — and rare — of the Windhover publications.

They go on to say that in Robert the Devil, Merker’s mix of illustrations (“wood engravings in a somewhat retrospective style by Roxanne Sexauer“) and typography (Dante, Bembo italic, and Centaur types on specially made Windhover paper) is “harmonious  and innovative.”  Sexauer’s illustrations, especially in this hand-colored edition seen below, have a very appropriate medieval feel to them. They nicely complement the story and visually marry well with the type and paper. Voth tells a story about the design, as you will see in the picture of Sample Text #1 below, why the space behind the illustrations if left blank:

Because the paper is nearly translucent, Merker decided not to print on the reverse of the block prints. On this decision he remarks that “some people have said that it looks artificial to have left that amount of space [on sheets on the opposite side of woodcuts], but it would have been worse to read type backwards through the sheets.” This again demonstrates Merker’s attention to detail and also how carefully he weaves the illustrations within the texts. The uniqueness comes from this artful weaving and the block prints themselves.

I do find that white space ‘interesting’ though I agree seeing the type through the sheets would have been worse. Obviously there are other solutions, I am assuming cost was a factor. In any case, how there ended up being hand-colored specials is also an interesting, though straightforward story. Voth says that:

..at the end of print run, Merker did not have enough money to pay Sexauer for her work, and so he printed some with the block prints in colour and sold these editions at a greater price in order to pay Sexauer fairly for the work she contributed. This exemplifies Merker dedication to the cooperation between printer and artist.

Thank goodness, as these specials are really something!  However, they are not inexpensive. While one can find the regular edition for ~$200 (which is an amazing steal, get one!), the special often goes for $1500 to $3000 and up. Of course, this gets you one of the premier works of one of last centuries greatest private press publishers of a work by one of last centuries most influential American poets (and both signed the edition, along with artist Roxanne Sexauer).

About the Edition

  • Designed by Kim Merker at The Windhover Press at the University of Iowa
  • From an anonymous French Play of the XIV Century
  • Translated by W.S. Merwin
  • With wood-engravings by Roxanne Sexauer, hand-colored by the artist
  • Set in Dante and Bembo Italic type, with Centaur capitals for display
  • Hand-made Windhover paper made specially for this edition in England
  • Bound in full linen cloth, paper spine label
  • Limited to 310 copies, 50 of which are specials hand-colored by the artist
  • Signed by Merwin, Sexauer, and Kim Merker

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.)

Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Book in Slipcase
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Book in Slipcase
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Spine and Covers
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Spine and Covers
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Title Page
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Title Page
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Title Page Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Title Page Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Preface and List of Players
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Preface and List of Players
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #1
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #1
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #2
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #2
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #3
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #2
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #3
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Text #3
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Colophon
Robert the Devil, The Windhover Press, Colophon

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