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Military Report on the Sinai Peninsula
Towards 'An English Fourth'
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text
Paperback edition
'The Mint' and Later Writings About Service Life
Boats for the R.A.F. 1929-1935
reports and correspondence


The Forest Giant


Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw
Correspondence with E. M. Forster and F.L. Lucas
More Correspondence with Writers
Correspondence with Edward and David Garnett
Correspondence with Henry Williamson
Translating the Bruce Rogers 'Odyssey'
Correspondence with the Political Elite 1922-1935


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T. E. Lawrence
Correspondence about the Bruce Rogers 'Odyssey'

Castle Hill Press, 2014

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson

In the autumn of 1973 the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York held an exhibition titled Art of the Printed Book, 1455-1955: Masterpieces of Typography through Five Centuries. One of the books included was the 1932 Bruce Rogers Odyssey.

The works displayed were chosen by Joseph Blumenthal,1 a distinguished printing historian and fine-press printer. He later wrote: 'During the several years spent in selecting the 112 books finally shown, I handled every title reputed by historians of the printed book to be among the finest volumes made in the more than five hundred years since Gutenberg. I believe that the Bruce Rogers Odyssey is indisputably among the most beautiful books ever produced. . .

'It is difficult to describe a work of genius. In the Odyssey, with complete simplicity, without tricks or accessory decoration, with a classic austerity akin to the timeless proportions of the Parthenon, with only type and paper and ink, with consummate skill, Rogers created a masterpiece. It is appropriate here to recall that Sir Francis Meynell2 told me that he considered Bruce Rogers to have been "the greatest artificer of the book who ever lived."'3

The story of the Bruce Rogers Odyssey involves three other remarkable people: T.E. Lawrence, who made the translation; Ralph Isham, who helped persuade him to do it, and the printer Sir Emery Walker. My aim here is to place the Odyssey project, briefly, in the context of their lives.

By 1927, when Rogers began planning to produce an edition of the Odyssey, he was already one of the world's pre-eminent book designers. He had worked in both America and England, designing trade as well as fine-press editions. As his writings show, he drew many conclusions from this experience.

His thoughts on design were based on study of printing across the centuries. Above all, he saw the role of the book as a vehicle for text: 'no matter what style the design of a book conforms to, it must be one that presents the text clearly, without distractions of queer composition, odd types, or meaningless decoration.'4

Like Lawrence, he had encountered the work of the British private press movement early in his career; but his reactions and Lawrence's were quite different.

Lawrence discovered fine-printing while a student at Oxford, where he was immersed in mediaeval studies. His letters of the time show a romantic distaste for industrial society. He admired Kelmscott Press books, in particular, for their craft skills: illustration, hand printing and binding; but he showed no wider interest in book design or the history of printing. The foundations of his taste were solidly Victorian.

Rogers too admired the private press craftsmanship, but his understanding of design went back much further. As a result, his taste was far more classical. In fact, he disliked the books that Lawrence so admired.

Both Lawrence's Seven Pillars and his Odyssey translation were destined to become famous. Yet, as printed texts, their first editions could hardly have been more different. Seven Pillars is a squat volume, typeset in Caslon without leading. Each page carries a solid block of type. The Bruce Rogers Odyssey, by comparison, is taller and more elegant, typeset in leaded Centaur. Its pages have an air of refined distinction.

The illustrations are equally contrasting. Seven Pillars is packed with original tailpieces, portraits and other images, which Lawrence commissioned from leading British artists of the day. The only decorations in the Bruce Rogers Odyssey are stylised images, derived from Greek vase-paintings and printed in black on roundels of gold leaf. These are placed at the head of each Book and on the title page.

The idea of producing a fine-press Odyssey came to Rogers at a turning-point in his career. After working for a decade as a printer's in-house designer, he had decided to go freelance. He would take one project with him: the design of Ralph Isham's private edition of the Boswell Papers.5 The Odyssey, though, would be a truly independent project. Others would soon follow, including the magnificent Oxford Lectern Bible.

Something should be said here about Rogers' family life. During his work on the Odyssey his wife Anne6 suffered from advancing cancer. She died in 1931. Their only child, Elizabeth, had died young, in 1924, leaving them with the care of her son, also named Bruce.7 Though the letters printed here rarely show it, Rogers must have found his wife's declining health extremely stressful.

It was reading Seven Pillars, in 1927, that prompted Rogers to wonder if he might persuade Lawrence to translate the Odyssey. He mentioned the idea to Ralph Isham, during a conversation about the Boswell edition.

Isham, an American, had known Lawrence in London during the immediate post-war years. He had volunteered for service in the British Army in 1917 and by 1919 was working in Intelligence with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. A graduate of Cornell and Yale, he was two years younger than Lawrence. They evidently enjoyed each other's company and shared an interest in books. Isham will be remembered as one of the great collectors of the 20th century. He painstakingly assembled the magnificent collection of James Boswell's papers now in Yale University Library. Within his means Lawrence, too, was a scholarly collector. He added significantly to the holdings of the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library.

Like others who had known Lawrence before 1922, Isham was dismayed to learn that he was now serving in the ranks. He had quickly discovered, though, that the poverty was self-imposed. Lawrence had turned down many offers of work. He also owned assets he could have sold. In December 1927 he told a friend: 'Last month I refused an American offer of 100,000 dollars for a seven weeks lecture tour in the States; last week an offer of £5000 for one of the five copies of my proof-printing of the Seven Pillars.'8

Isham saw instantly that the Odyssey project was a chance to get Lawrence to do something more remunerative. To make the proposal even more attractive he backed it financially, setting the translator's fee at £800 (at least £42,000 in 2014), half of which he put up himself.

Lawrence enjoyed translating. He regarded it as an honourable way to earn money. He had translated a French novel, The Forest Giant, for Jonathan Cape.9 The timing of the Odyssey offer was fortunate, as he was about to complete his second book, The Mint. He had no definite writing project in mind.

So, in his own words, he 'swallowed the golden hook'.10 Some might find this surprising, but he was no longer such a romantic idealist, either for himself or for others. 'It is a common gag,' he wrote, 'to call me unbusinesslike - and indeed there are things I care for more than money; but I do try to keep in mind that the people I have to do with are out for money, and I have tried my best to ensure their getting what they like.'11

The Odyssey project would put this tolerance to the test. But out of it he earned enough to buy Clouds Hill, his cottage in Dorset, and improve it in time for his retirement from the RAF. Characteristically, he used some of the money to help friends.

The last figure in this distinguished quartet needs little introduction. Emery Walker, friend of William Morris and co-proprietor of the Doves Press, had been one of the outstanding printers of the private press movement. Now in his last years, he continued to help Wilfred Merton, his successor at Emery Walker Ltd, until his health failed. The Bruce Rogers Odyssey was his final major achievement, and by no means the least.

There have been many English versions of the Odyssey, before and since the translation made by Lawrence. Yet his text, the product of much thought, has been one of the most successful. It has been continuously in print for more than eighty years.

Jeremy Wilson

1. Joseph Blumenthal (1897-1990 ), American printer, typographer and historian of the printed book. Founder of the Spiral Press.

2. Sir Francis Meynell (1891-1975), co-founder and printer at The Nonesuch Press.

3. Blumenthal, p. 134.

4. Bruce Rogers, Paragraphs on Printing (New York, W.E. Rudge's Sons, 1943) p. 6.

5. James Boswell (1740-95), Scottish lawyer and diarist, friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson.

6. Anne Rogers (1867-1931), wife of Bruce Rogers.

7. Bruce Burroughs (1922-2010), grandson of Bruce Rogers.

8. T. E. Lawrence to Sir Hugh Trenchard, 22 December 1927, transcript, TEL Papers.

9. Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant (translated by J. H. Ross, pseud. of T. E. Lawrence, London, Jonathan Cape, 1924; parallel French and English text, Fordingbridge, Castle Hill Press, 2004 ).

10. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 3.x.1928, Letters Vol III.

11. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 23.xii.1927, transcript, TEL Papers.

Copyright © Jeremy Wilson, 2014.


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