I’ve written in detail about the Limited Editions Club Shakespeare before, being one of the crowning achievements of George Macy’s press. The books were letterpress printed and published by the Limited Editions Club as part of the Club’s Eleventh Series from 1939–1940, titled “The Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of William Shakespeare.” The set was designed by Bruce Rogers and edited by Herbert Fargeon.
Each of the thirty-seven volumes is folio-sized (8–3/4″ x 13″), bound in gold-stamped half natural buckram with paper sides, printed in four colors and gilded along the top edge to help protect the book against dust and moisture. Published in 37 volumes throughout 1939, each volume was illustrated by a different illustrator, including some of the very best of the day, such as Eric Gill, John Austen, Jean Charlot, Edy Legrand and, of course, Arthur Rackham.
A great deal has been written about Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream throughout the years, so I’ll focus here on the illustrator and his illustrations in this review.
Arthur Rackham (1867–1939) is widely regarded as one of the greatest illustrators of the ‘Golden Age’ of British book illustration. He worked with many publishers on both sides of the Atlantic during his prolific career and in the process won multiple awards. His work is housed in numerous collections and is highly sought after.
During the 1920s, in the first decade after the first World War, a cultural shift began and two circumstances led to Rackham having to seek a new market for his work. The first was that the British public seemed to have lost their appetite for works of a fantastical nature, which was, of course, Rackham’s specialty. The second was that the cost of producing the fine limited edition books that Rackham was so well-known for became prohibitive. As Barbara and Alan Lupack explain in their Illustrating Camelot:
Rackham himself lamented the “difference the war has made. The market is now divided up among stacks of cheaply produced & relatively inexpensive books.” According to Derek Hudson, the realities of war “had dealt a blow to imaginative craftsmanship in general, and the fairyland in particular.” Limited editions with fine color plates – the kinds of editions that had bought Rackham popularity as well as financial success – were falling out of vogue…1
In 1927 Rackham felt pressured enough to travel to the United States, where his work had always been very popular, to meet with a number of publishers and it was then that he met George Macy for the first time. They established a business relationship which saw Rackham illustrating Charles Dickens’ The Chimes in 1931. Macy attempted to get him to illustrate a second book for the Limited Editions Club in 1935 – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – but Rackham declined, explaining that his time that year had been fully taken up, but also because he was “not very hopeful of the A.M. as a subject… largely on account of its lack of length.” 2
In the following year, Macy chose Rackham to be one of the thirty-seven illustrators for his monumental Limited Editions Club Shakespeare that he planned to release in 1939. Macy was quite accomodating of Rackham, going so far as to ask Rackham which plays he would like to illustrate, to which Rackham replied: “1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 2. The Tempest (These two easily first); 3. The Merry Wives of Windsor; 4. Twelfth Night; 5. As You Like It … I have done the Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance & should like to do it any number of times.” 3
Rackham’s first illustration of a complete text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was published by Heinemann back in November 1908 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. William de Morgan wrote to Rackham and described the illustrations for the book as “the most splendid illustrated work of the century, so far.”4 Gordon Ray has noted that “[Rackham’s] designs for A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1908 became the standard by which subsequent illustrations of Shakespeare’s play have been judged.”5
In 1928, just a few months after returning from his trip to the United States, the New York Library commissioned him to do a series of special watercolors for a manuscript of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Spencer Collection. Rackham completed the work in just over a year and sent the artwork to New York where it was on display for two months before being returned to England for binding. Rackham chose Graily Hewitt for the calligraphy, who also provided a commetary, and Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London to do the binding, overseeing every aspect of the production of the book. Rackham’s fee for this project was $7,500, the equivalent in 2011’s dollars of $97,300.
The following is a brief excerpt from James Hamilton’s Arthur Rackham: A Life With Illustration which provides some fascinating information about the illustrations for the LEC Midsummer Night’s Dream, Arthur Rackham’s third commission of this play by Shakespeare:
Rackham’s agreement to undertake what he surely knew would be his final treatment of the play ‘in which I should find myself most at home,’ delighted George Macy, who wrote in March 1936: ‘I don’t believe I have written you that I tried to persuade the Trustees of the New York Public Library to let us reproduce the illustrations in their possession, but they were jealous of their monopoly, and would not give us this permission.’
Working very slowly on the illustrations, Rackham was making good progress by Christmas 1936: ‘My six drawings will all be in colour. They are well on now & should be done early in the spring at the latest… I am rather hoping you’ll do them in collotype which, at its best, is the best. But they will be suitable for 3 or 4 colour also (I prefer 3 colour – but so long as it is good I do not mind either way).’
Without consulting him, Limited Editions Club chose to ignore Rackham’s advice and reproduce the illustrations using lithography, employing the lithographer Fernand Mourlot of Paris, with colouring by Beaufumé. While the plates were being made and the proofs prepared, Rackham had moved on to his series of Wind in the Willows illustrations for Macy. He had also fallen very ill again. Writing to Macy in November 1938, he said: ‘My doctors tell me I must not be in too much of a hurry – but that’s about all they can do for me.’ When the proofs for A Midsummer Night’s Dream came through, Rackham was disappointed that his friend Macy had not listened to him. He had given the advice he did, not to avoid any process that was ‘new fangled’, and offensive to his rigid conservation, but because Rackham had developed his technique to his chosen process, and he was certainly too old to change now. If they commissioned him, he expected them to do so on his own terms. He wrote to Macy:
I wish I knew what to say about the set of proofs of the ‘Dream’. I wish I could say I liked them but I do not. I do not know by what process they are produced, but I think it is one for which my work is not fitted. I deal in colours that melt into one another, with gradual gradations. This process is granular & spotty, & here & there individual colours start out without any relation to the neighbouring colours. I do not know what to say to correct them. My work is specially adapted to the 3-col. process, in which each colour is printed in a different strength, over the whole surface… I am convinced that all efforts to better that process have failed so far – for full colour, modulated paintings, and all my success has been with 3-col. work, so I believe my best plan is to stick with it, & try no experiments.
For its part, the Limited Editions Club attempted to justify the new medium to its subscribers in a defensive statement in their Club leaflet:
Mr. Rackham … has usually insisted that his illustrations should be reproduced by the photo-engraving process, by half-tone process blocks. Such a process gives a facsimile reproduction of the drawings; but the fine dots involved in half-tone blocks require that they be printed on coated paper; and we refused to permit the inclusion of coated paper in our Shakespeare. We decided to defy the lightening and to have Mr. Rackhams’s illustrations reproduced in a different manner this time … as though the artist himself had made the reproductions with his own brush… The result is that Mr. Rackham’s reproductions are not facsimiles of the originals… But we consider they preserve the spirit of Mr. Rackham’s drawings, and are infinitely more beautiful in reproductions.
Had Rackham died at this point – as he might well have done – we would inevitably have been left with the nasty taste in the mouth, that he had had his last work abused by his publisher, who had wilfully defied him. Happily, however, only three weeks before he died, Rackham received his copy of the Limited Editions Club A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose title page, significantly, carried the line ‘Illustrated from Watercolours by Arthur Rackham’. He was able to write to Macy: ‘Now I have seen the book I do agree with you that the method of reproduction you have chosen is more fitting than the 3-col. process. It is a fine edition. Some of the reproductions are as good as they could be…’ Rackham did, however, withold his complete pardon, by adding the parting shot ‘… – one or two – not so good.’
In all his treatments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he returned again and again to the lines that had inspired him in the 1908 version. One scene, however, Rackham left until his last treatment of the play, as if he could not bear illustrate it before he really meant to hear Puck say these lines for him at his own final curtain:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. 6
Illustrator: Arthur Rackham
Paper: Paper from The Worthy Paper Company
Type: 18-pt Anton Janson cut especially for this edition by the Lanston Monotype Company
Publish date: 1939
Limitation: 1950 numbered copies
Size: Folio-sized (8–3/4″ x 13″)
Binding: Gold-stamped half natural buckram with paper sides
- Barbara Tepa Lupack, and Alan Lupack, Illustrating Camelot, (Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1998), 163. ↩
- James Hamilton, Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration, (Pavilion, 2010), 159–160. ↩
- Ibid, 160. ↩
- Derek Hudson, Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work, (Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 78. ↩
- Gordon N. Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914 (New York: Dover, 1976), 204. ↩
- Hamilton, 164. ↩
- Clarke Historical Library, “Arousing Delight – Arthur Rackham: Rackham’s Classics.” Accessed October 11, 2012.
Pictures of the LEC Midsummer Night’s Dream with Illustrations by Arthur Rackham
While I don’t think that Rackham’s illustrations in this edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are his best work, even Rackham on a bad day is a beautiful sight to behold. Be sure to click on the pictures to view the larger, high-quality version.