Wednesday, February 6, 2019

393. An Extra-Illustrated Sphinx

Private press books, and deluxe editions, have usually been treated well, and heavily annotated copies of Kelmscott Press, and Dove or Vale Press books are quite rare, as are copies with dog ears, public library copies being the exception.

Expensive books are like expensive cars, their owners don't like them to be scratched, touched, or sometimes even looked at.

The Sphinx by Oscar Wilde, designed and illustrated by Charles Ricketts, is one of the untouchables. There are dedication copies, and some copies come with bookplates, but rarely more.

However, Dartmouth College Library owns a copy that was extra-illustrated at some point. Extra-illustrated books were a vogue in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, often so many illustrations from other sources (portraits, topographical prints) were pasted in, that the book's original binding couldn't cope, and new bindings were commissioned to house the complete collection of the original pages and the additional prints.

The Sphinx had ten reproductions after pen drawings by Ricketts. The Dartmouth copy has an original watercolour on the half title.

Rauner Special Collections Library, Hanover, NH., Rauner Val 826 W64 W6 c.2
Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
This copy of The Sphinx was donated to Rauner Special Collections Library by Robert Minton (Dartmouth College Class of 1926). Robert Henry Minton (1904-1974) worked as a stockbroker in New York.

The illustration shows palm trees, a temple wall, a sphinx, and an incense burner, drawn in black and coloured in blue. There is a signature to the right hand corner of the watercolour. The artist is Frédéric Bourdin, a French illustrator. Not much is known about Bourdin. Between 1911 and 1921 he illustrated books for several publishers.

Frédéric Bourdin, illustration
for Stendhal, La Chartreuse de Parme (1911)
copy in the Koopman Collection (KB, National Library of the Netherlands)
Other illustrated editions include works by Balzac (1911), Moreau (1919), and Guerrazzi (1921). Extra-illustrations was a side-line for him. He apparently made watercolours for an edition of Octave Mirbeau's Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, and also tried his hand at extra-illustrating, or 'illuminating', English literary works, such as Alfred Tennyson's Maud (1855), and Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia (1879). These books have different English provenances, suggesting that Bourdin was asked by English dealers to add illustrations in water colour.

Frédéric Bourdin, illustration
for Stendhal, La Chartreuse de Parme (1911)
Almost no record of his life has survived, it seems, and most dictionaries of engravers and artists do not mention him. The 1999 edition of Bénézit (Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs de tous les temps et de tous les pays par un groupe d'écrivains spécialistes français et étrangers) mentions three works illustrated by Bourdin, but when and where he was born or died is not known. His work is characterised as follows: 'Son oeuvre conserve un hiératisme intellectuel cher aux synthétistes.' His sober and cerebral work was influenced by the post-impressionists. 

How he came to make an illustration in this copy of The Sphinx is not known.