Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s earliest works, written while he was still in his twenties and published in 1879. It chronicles a twelve-day, one hundred and twenty mile hike he took through the south of France with his donkey Modestine. The route that he took has since become very popular, and there’s actually a little tourist industry in the Cévennes that caters to hikers who want to retrace Stevenson’s route on the trail, now known as GR70. It’s considered a pioneering classic of outdoor literature and Stevenson’s ‘sleeping sack’ influenced modern-day sleeping bags.
I’m looking forward to taking this with me the next time I take a few days off and escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
As always, the Limited Editions Club commissioned their own artwork for their edition, and the Monthly Letter provides many interesting anecdotes.
About the illustrator and illustrations
Roger Duvoisin, who has illustrated this loveliest of all editions of Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and thereby himself contributed greatly to its loveliness, is not a Cévénol but a Swiss. (Correction: He was a Swiss. He became an American citizen in 1938.) He was born in Geneva in 1904, and studied there at the Ecole Professionelle, Ecole des Arts et Metiers, and Ecole des Beaux Arts. He initiated his artistic career by designing pottery; then he took up textiles, moving from Geneva to Lyons and Paris. When he came to America in 1927, he first applied his talents to this same field, but by 1932 he was drawing illustrations for books and for magazines and writing children’s books (with illustrations by Roger Duvoisin, of course). You may have read some of them or given them to someone who did: The Four Corners of the World, Petunia, Petunia and the Song, A for the Ark, Petunia’s Christmas, Petunia Takes a Trip (just like RLS).
Roger Duvoisin illustrated his first Limited Editions Club book in 1944; it was a book by Robert Louis Stevenson, and it was called, and will be called until the end of time, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
It was in April, 1955, that we commissioned Roger Duvoisin to illustrate Travels with a Donkey. He spent much of that summer in the Cévennes. “I followed Stevenson’s route,” he wrote us that December, “making pencil sketches and taking colour slides of the country he described. It was an interesting adventure with some thrills in it, for Stevenson’s mule-path of three-quarters of a century ago is still only a narrow road. We had some real frights driving around hairpin curves on roads too narrow for our Mercury. In a village lost in the upper Loire valley we stopped at an inn where Stevenson rested and there met an Englishman, the feature editor of the Scottish Daily Mail, who walked in with a copy of Travels with a Donkey in his hand. He was also following Stevenson’s path in order to write about the journey anew for his paper. The Stevenson book in that inn was an introduction far more effective than any guidebook would have been. For one thing, it got us a splendid meal.”
A few months later, when he had finished his drawings, Roger Duvoisin sent us the copy of Travels with a Donkey which he had used on his own travels through the Cévennes. In it he had carefully marked the passages which he had illustrated, and he has scrupulously placed the illustrations in our own edition, so that you may be sure that every illustration applies to the proper point in the text.
About the production
The monthly letter also sheds light on the production of this edition:
Our Edition of Travels with a Donkey has been printed at the Plantin Press in Los Angeles under the supervision of the proprietors, whose names are Saul and Lillian Marks. Their handiwork is familiar to the members of this Club–familiar and, we trust, greatly admired-because Saul and Lillian Marks have previously made for us, and for you, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Popol Vuh (The Book of the People), The Revolt of the Angels, The Virginian, The Turn of the Screw, and The Ring and the Book.
The type is Perpetua, and we have a word or two to say about that. It was designed by Eric Gill, the superb artist and craftsman who designed our edition of Hamlet and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy and illustrated our Henry VIII in the Bruce Rogers Shakespeare. And Eric Gill’s Perpetua type was used in our editions of The Cricket on the Hearth, War and Peace, and Le Morte d’Arthur.
Perpetua is probably the most popular and widely used among the half-dozen type faces which Eric Gill designed. A glance at the capital letters in this face makes it immediately apparent that they were developed by a master stone-cutter; the heavy strokes and the curved serifs are quite unlike those that would be accomplished with a pen. If it is true, and it certainly is, that every work of art carries the imprint of the artist’s personality, then Eric Gill’s Perpetua type is assuredly a work of art. The shape of none of the letters derives from any previous type design. Eric Gill adhered to the twenty-six letters of the conventional English alphabet, but however he arranged them they all spelled “Eric Gill.”
The paper on which Eric Gill’s noble Perpetua type has been impressed in this noble edition of Travels with a Donkey is a special making of Curtis rag fashioned by the Curtis Paper Company at their mills in Newark, Delaware. Of the fifty-one drawings which he made, Roger Duvoisin has chosen to add colour to some twenty of them, and the colour has been faithfully applied by hand in the studios of Walter Fischer in New York. The binding is not donkey-skin (we doubt if there would have been enough of Modestine to go around); it is a rough basket weave in a brown and green combination that hints at earth and trees. We like to think that some of the dunnage which RLS slung over Modestine’s back might have been wrapped in much the same style of cloth as that in which the Russell-Rutter Company of New York, bookbinders par excellence, have wrapped our edition of Travels with a Donkey.
The hand-coloured backstrip label is set in a sunken panel, and Roger Duvoisin has composed a fetching little drawing which has also been hand-coloured and set into a panel on the front cover and which leads the reader directly to the endpapers: two maps, one of the Cévennes, one of France toute entiere. The map of the Cévennes gives RLS’s route in detail, on a scale of around six miles to the inch, so that you will be able to follow him almost step by step, village by village, hamlet by hamlet, as he steers Modestine, or Modestine him, by high road and by low road (but mostly by high road), from Monastier to St. Jean du Card. The map of France will allow you to put the Cévennes in their place, so to speak, to orient them in relation to Paris or Marseilles or where you will–centers which a good many Cévénols, even to this day, have only heard of.
Pictures of Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes
As always, you can click on the thumbnails below to see larger versions of each image.