The Book Designer Who Was Bruce Rogers Part III


Bruce Rogers

Following the completion of The Centaur at the Montague Press in 1916, Bruce Rogers went to England to work with the renowned advisor to the Kelmscott and Doves Presses: Emery Walker. His only project before wartime conditions made fine printing a most difficult undertaking was the setting and printing of Albrecht Durer’s, Of the Just Shaping of Letters, the only book of all the many hundreds Rogers designed in which he actually performed the presswork.

However, he remained in England 1919, serving as typographical advisor to the University Press at Cambridge, where he formulated production standards to improve the general quality of the books printed at the Press. It has been stated that Rogers’ endeavors at Cambridge made it possible for the position of Advisor to become firmly established. The late Stanley Morison was given the assignment in 1925.

Rogers and Rudge

When Rogers returned to the United States, he entered a similar relationship with Harvard University Press. After a few months he became connected with the printing house of William Edwin Rudge, recently removed from New York City to Mt. Vernon.

Rudge gave Rogers everything he wished for in the way of facilities for making fine books, and the designer responded admirably. In the prior to Rudge’s untimely death in 1931, the combined names of Rogers and Rudge made indelible impression on 20th century bookmaking.

The Rudge period coincided wit an expanding American interest in book collecting, particularly of limited editions. Many of the young typographers of the time visited Mount Vernon eager to accept any kind of job in the plant, as long as it provided some contact with the great man.

The Rogers-Rudge alumni include many outstanding figures who received their early inspiration from this period. Notable among them are the late Peter Beilenson, James Hendrickson, Melvin Loos, Herbert Simon, Frederic Warde and O. Alfred Dickman.

Joseph Blumenthal of the Spiral Press worked for a few months at Rudge but never met BR there. However, as he has written, “I always boasted that during my Rudge period I worked directly under the great Bruce Rogers.” Blumenthal also remarked that Rogers’ association with Rudge was “certainly the best partnership and influence in American typographic history.”

The Oxford Bible

In 1929 BR again journeyed to England to participate in what was to become his crowning achievement as a designer of books, the printing of the great lectern Bible produced by Oxford University Press. For this book, completed in 1935, Rogers used his own Centaur type, in the 22-point size. Completely without decoration, this Bible has been called by Stanley Morison one of the great typographical achievements of this century.

Rogers’ own account of it, in the booklet produced by the Monotype Co.—the Account of the Making the Oxford Lectern Bible—is a fascinating document of the problems encountered in a monumental undertaking.

BR returned home in 1935, establishing himself in a fine old farmhouse in Fairfield County, Conn., where he remained for the rest of his life. He never again maintained a relationship with a particular printer, but he designed a number of notable books, including the 39-volume edition of Shakespeare for the Limited Editions Club. In this set, each play was illustrated by a different artist.

It is interesting to note here that Rogers insisted that a single set be printed without the illustrations, since he considered the illustrating of Shakespeare to be impertinence. This set, the rarest of BR items, is in the Library of Congress.

The last great book to come from Rogers’ hand is the folio Bible printed at the press of A. Colish for the World Publishing Co. Set in the Newstyle type of Frederic W. Goudy, this is an ornamented bible, in which the chapter headings and tailpieces are composed of the typographic fleurons readily available to all printers but which he used with such elan in so many of his books.

Man with Honors

BR received honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Purdue Universities. He also was awarded the Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and in 1948 he became the only printer to receive the coveted Medal of the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

On this occasion he remarked. “This is a great day for printing, and a red letter day for me as an exponent of that art. Printing has had many great days—when Gutenberg (or somebody) pulled his first proof from movable types; when Caxton set up his first press in Westminster; when Jenson first used his beautiful Roman type in 1470; when the King James Bible was finished in 1611; when The Freeman’s Oath and the Bay Psalm Book came off the press at Cambridge in 1639 and ‘40; when Franklin issued his handsomest book, Cato Major, in 1744—these are a few of printing’s great days. And now, by your formal recognition of the art and its admission to the company of the other arts which this Academy so eminently sponsors another great day has been added to the printer’s calendar.”

Whimiscal Touch

Bruce Rogers, thought by some of his contemporaries to be an austere person, had a whimsical streak which frequently found expression. At the last great exhibition of his books, held by the Grolier Club in 1938, he parodied the Gelett Burgess epilogue to his Purple Cow:

O yes, I made this raft of books,
I’m sorry now I med ‘em,
But I can tell you what, gadzooks!
I’ll bet you haven’t read ‘em.

At another time Rogers told of an incident that had occurred during a visit to England: “I remember when an American friend of mine introduced me to a wholly strange group of men in a London club as a ‘bookmaker,’ eyebrows went up, if ever so slightly, shoulders grew cool, and it took several minutes of further conversation to restore a more cordial atmosphere to the gathering.”

Philip Duschnes, dealer in fine books and a long-time friend of BR, mentioned in a talk at Brown University in 1963 that Rogers had driven the late Paul Bennett, guiding light of the Typophiles, frantic with his insistence on printing the BR poem on ampersands on sandpaper, which he piquantly called ampersand paper.

“That’s no problem,” he told Bennett. “One day I’ll have a book printed for you on sheets of asbestos, for then you can take it with you.”

Without Ostentation

The complete lack of front of Bruce Rogers is perhaps indicated by the fact that in the last few years of his life he used for personal stationery the small gummed labels purchased from a mail order house. There was something incongruous in receiving a letter from the greatest typographer in the world written on Woolworth’s satin finish paper, with such a label affixed.

Sadly, the day of the renowned individual printer seems to be passing. Who will serve to inspire new generations of printers seeking to perpetuate that particular strain of perfection which was so representative of the best work of the past?

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the May 1970 issue of Printing Impressions.

Leave a Reply