If you’re a regular user of the internet, you probably saw a multitude of images posted for the Bard’s birthday a few weeks ago. I can almost guarantee, though, that few were as opulent as the contribution from the University of Missouri Libraries Special Collections Tumblr: a beautiful leather-bound set of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with some striking illuminations.
On a whim, I did a quick search to see if the Folger also had a copy of this set—and we do! It was photographed for our Bindings Image Collection and is now fully cataloged in Hamnet (Folio PR2848 1901a Sh.Col.).
The colophon shows us that this is a St. Dunstan edition, specially illuminated for Howard T. Goodwin and signed by the illuminator, the publisher, and a representative of the University Press.
A revival of the lost art of illumination
The St. Dunstan editions were conceived of at the turn of the century by publisher George D. Sproul and coincided with a wave of renewed interest in book art, coming on the heels of the Arts and Crafts movement. Some earlier Arts & Crafts-era presses commissioned illuminations for their volumes—notably the Essex House Press—but most limited their artistic value to their typographic components and illustrations. By the turn of the 20th century, however, handlettering and illumination had begun a successful comeback: Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts, of which artist and illuminator Ross Turner was a member, declared in a 1907 exhibition guide that “there has been a distinct improvement in both illumination and in lettering; the principles of which are better understood now than ten years ago.” 1
In his prospectus, Sproul marketed his luxurious editions as “a revival of the lost art of illumination,” an art which was “of the most remote antiquity,” having been made a “superfluous luxury” by the advent of the printing press. 2 The St. Dunstan editions, named for the 10th-century clergyman noted for his skill in painting, would be printed on Italian parchment 3, bound in intricately-designed leather bindings by the Trautz-Bauzonnet Bindery 4, and of course, extensively illuminated by hand.
The prospectus provides descriptions of ten schools of illumination, each of which is to be used for a different volume. Ross Turner, a well-known watercolorist and marine artist who also devoted years to the study of illumination, is listed as the sole illuminator, meaning that he would have had to illuminate at least 300 volumes by hand.
It seems that not all of Sproul’s planned details would be carried out as expected: the book’s record in WorldCat indicates that the University of Missouri’s copy, as well as a copy at Rhodes College, were illuminated by an Italian artist named Nestore Leoni. 5 Leoni’s artistic style, as shown below left on the title page of Missouri’s copy, is quite different from that of Ross Turner, as shown in the Folger’s copy, below right.
In contrast to Leoni’s more ornate, traditional style, Turner uses a simpler, floral style. (For more examples of Leoni’s work, see the Special Collections & Archives at Mizzou tumblr.) Descriptions in sale catalogs suggest that floral initials may have simply been Turner’s illumination style; a description of the illuminations for the St. Dunstan edition of The Rubiyyat of Omar Khayyam notes that it features “intertwined floral and foliated effects.” 6 A comparison of illuminations from parts I and II shows that Turner’s style evolved over the course of his work—part II includes foliation that is more expansive and more medieval, and some fairly realistic butterflies.
Together, it seems likely that Sproul overestimated the time and effort it would take to illuminate so many volumes, and was forced to bring in another illuminator and abandon the plan to illuminate each edition in a different style. Sproul seems to have been undeterred, however, and simply brought in both Turner and Leoni from the beginning on his next project.
“Books This Man’s Ruin”
In addition to the original twelve St. Dunstan editions, Sproul also envisioned an ambitious set of Charles Dickens’s complete works as a lavish later addition to the St. Dunstan series. The St. Dunstan Illuminated Dickens would be a visual spectacle, with hand-illuminated initials by Nestore Leoni and Ross Turner supplemented by extensive illustrations, a set of those published with Dickens’s original volumes and a new set commissioned special for the St. Dunstan volumes. The cost for these sets, of which only 15 would be produced, was a neat $130,000 (130 volumes at $1,000 each). In a short notice on the forthcoming volumes, the periodical Academy and Literature archly commented that, “If Dickens ever dreamed that he dwelt in marble halls, his dream is coming true. Even in his waking moments he was rather fond of dress and glitter, and here he has them both in excelsis.” Academy and Literature went on to note, “If the combined labors of critics, printers, illuminators, and the publisher result in giving happiness to fifteen millionaires, we do not know that any harm will be done.” 7
Regrettably, George Sproul’s editions did in fact end in harm. Sproul found himself involved in multiple scandals: lawsuits against customers who had contracted to buy his editions but were unable to pay, lawsuits against Sproul by customers who had not received the editions promised, and allegations of inferior quality of the materials used in manufacturing. Several of his customers, such as Emil Scherr, a textile manufacturer, and Mrs. Abbie B. Blodgett, a wealthy widow, bankrupted themselves in order to afford the subscription price of the St. Dunstan editions, among other bibliographic works. 8 Another subscriber, Mary J. Hoxie, alleged that only five of her promised Dickens volumes were delivered, and were not of the quality she had expected; in return, Sproul offered her a set of illuminations of the Declaration of Independence done by Nestore Leoni. 9 In the ensuing trial, Hoxie’s legal team asserted that, given the quality of the books she had received, the full Dickens set would have been worth barely $1,000. (Despite the allegations made against Sproul, the Sonnets at the Folger appear to be of good quality materials.)
The most tragic outcome, however, involved Howard T. Goodwin, a bibliophile and clerk of 30 years at a brokerage firm in Philadelphia. Far from the millionaires pictured as the likely buyers of the St. Dunstan editions, Goodwin lived on a salary of $2,300 per year, but nonetheless contracted with Sproul to purchase the entire set of St. Dunstan editions, a total cost of $285,000, which he would pay in monthly installments. Goodwin had made barely a quarter of his payments when he suddenly committed suicide in his office at the brokerage firm. Not until three months later was it revealed that he had financed his extensive book purchasing by embezzling from his employers, and had owed them some $60–80,000 dollars. “BOOKS THIS MAN’S RUIN: Love of Rare Editions Caused Confidential Clerk to Embezzle and Then to Commit Suicide,” declared the New York Times. 10 Goodwin’s extensive book collection was auctioned off over the course of three days in October of 1903, where Henry Folger acquired Part I of the two-volume Sonnets. 11 In the auction, other St. Dunstan editions in Goodwin’s collection sold for several hundred dollars each, a fraction of what Goodwin paid for them.
- Exhibition of the Society of Arts and Crafts (Boston: Society of Arts and Crafts, 1907), pg 60.
- The St. Dunstan Volumes (London & New York: George D. Sproul, 1900?), foreword. Many thanks to John Overholt for providing a scan of Houghton Library’s copy of this resource.
- The Academy and Literature, in its coverage of the St. Dunstan edition of Dickens (also discussed in this blog post), noted that “It has been difficult heretofore to obtain satisfactory results from type on parchment, but the secret process of the University Press in Boston, which is doing the work, gives a clear, clean imprint which does not affect the life of the parchment.”
- Little information about the Trautz-Bauzonnet Bindery is available. As described in the Folger’s Bindings Image Collection, “This American (?) firm apparently assumed the name of the famous 19th-century Parisian firm, the collaboration of Antoine Bauzonnet (1795-1886) and Georges Trautz (1808-1879).” The Literary Collector was more succinct, referring to “the Trautz-Bauzonnet Bindery (whatever that may be).”
- Leoni would later become famous for an illuminated broadsheet of the Declaration of Independence. You can see a quick glimpse of Leoni’s process in this short video from 1943.
- Sale Catalogs: Miscellaneous (New York: American Art Association, 1917), pg. 147.
- Academy and Literature, vol. 62 (London: Academy Publishing Company, 22 January 1902), pgs 76–77.
- Literary Collector, volumes 7-8 (1904), page 55. Mrs. Blodgett’s son, on behalf of his mother’s estate, eventually brought five separate suits against George D. Sproul.
- Publisher’s Weekly, no. 1956 (1909), page 218.
- New York Times, “Books this man’s ruin,” February 20, 1903.
- Part II was not sold at that auction, and it is not clear whether Goodwin had received it before his death. As Part I is hand-inscribed for Goodwin (by Ross Turner) and Part II is not, this may indicate that the volume was incomplete at the time of Goodwin’s death, and was re-routed to another subscriber in his place. Part II was acquired by Folger at another auction in 1917.