May 14

In a sense, Bruce Rogers, who was born on this day in 1870, was both the first and last of America’s great artists of the book, enjoying an international reputation for over a half century. During his active career he designed over 700 volumes, among them some of the outstanding books of our times. No other designer can approach the high level of accomplishment represented by such production, and Rogers is rightly honored as the finest artist-printer which America has yet produced.

After his graduation from Purdue University’s Art School in 1890, BR as he became familiarly known served as an illustrator for a newspaper, followed by free-lance art work.

His career really began when he joined Houghton Mifflin of Boston in 1896, remaining with that firm sixteen years and designing over 200 books bearing the imprint of the Riverside Press. He then went to England, where he became typographic advisor to Cambridge University, returning to the United States in 1919. His next great period of accomplishment was with the printer William Edwin Rudge, during the twenties. At the end of this time he returned to England to work on the great lectern folio bible which was completed by Oxford University Press in 1935 and which is undoubtedly his greatest monument.

For the remainder of his life he chose to work on a free-lance basis, selecting projects which suited his tastes, such as the 39-volume edition of Shakespeare which was published by the Limited Editions Club, and the fine folio bible printed in 1949 by the World Publishing Company. He remained active up to the time of his death in 1957. Such is his life in outline. His achievements as a book maker are of such an order, even in a time when technological factors appear to dominate the typographical, that his name will continue to be honored wherever books are admired and loved for their appearance.

Bruce Rogers was a traditional printer. He was at his best under conditions which allowed him free rein in his selection of materials. Some of his contemporaries had a way of referring to his work as “ivory tower” when they attempted to defend their own production-conscious approach to book design, but he followed his own precepts and refused to lower his standards at any time. Another criticism leveled at him was that he was happy only with the design of “period” books, a matter which he discussed in an address at the Grolier Club in 1938.

“Even a casual look round the room will show that apparently no basic principle has actuated the production of all these books, no new organic theory has been demonstrated. They are as miscellaneous as they look to be; and therefore, as a collection, not nearly so impressive as a set of Kelmscott or Ashendene or Doves Press books. Yet there has been a sort of principle on which I have worked however mistaken it may have been. It is to have, conceivably, pleased the author of the work that I had in hand, by the form which I gave it. This has indeed actually happened, when the book was by a writer still living, as several letters in my possession will testify. But as it has been my fortune to have been frequently called upon to print authors of the past, rather than those of the present time, it seems logical to have cast their words in the forms that were familiar to them in their own day, instead of trying to impose upon them any of my own typographic interpretations or peculiarities. My contribution has been mainly to take advantage of modern improvements, to print their books better if possible, than they were done in their own times.”

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