Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s seminal work,  Ulysses. To commemorate this milestone, librarians at State Library Victoria are working to identify important material relating to Joyce and his worksA recent addition to the Rare Books Collection includes arguably one of the most audacious and controversial editions of Ulysses to date. The 1935 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of Ulysses brought together two of the world’s most recognisable modernist icons, James Joyce and Henri Matisse.

Printed some thirteen years after the famous plain blue wrapper of the Shakespeare and Company first edition (State Library Victoria is fortunate to hold this edition), the 1935 Limited Editions Club deluxe edition was presented to subscribers on brown buckram cloth boards and embellished in tasteful gold decoration.

Buckram slipcase for Ulysses, 1935

Publisher and book designer, George Macy, founded the Limited Editions Club in 1929 as a subscription-based fine arts book press. His vision was to ‘maintain the highest standards of literary excellence’ by ‘enlisting the world’s ablest book designers, illustrators, printers and binders’ to reissue some of the world’s great classics (Knapp, 2000).

Following the easing of U.S. restrictions on the importation and publication of Ulysses in 1933, production of the LEC edition of Ulysses commenced soon after. Although the book was lauded by many for its avant-garde design, it also attracted heavy criticism from publishers and academics. Typographic designer for The Bodley Head, John Ryder, described the Limited Editions Club Ulysses as ‘a typographic travesty’, ‘idiosyncratic’, and ‘ludicrous’ (Goodwin, 1999). Author and academic, Claire Badaracco even went so far as to describe Macy’s obsession with marketing and appearances as ‘a P. T. Barnum in Kelmscott clothing’ (Goodwin, 1999).  

Title page, Ulysses, 1935

Although the book is beautifully finished and adorned, it reflects a difference in the artistic process for both Matisse and Joyce. The lack of collaborative vision for the project was intensified by claims that Matisse had never read Joyce’s Ulysses. When Matisse was asked about why his etchings did not reflect Joyce’s work, he stated, ‘Je ne l’ai pas lu’, acknowledging the fact that he hadn’t read it. Whether this is true or not, Matisse clearly took inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey to produce his soft-ground etchings and pencil studies. This makes sense when you consider that Joyce’s Ulysses was heavily influenced by counterparts of Homer’s Odyssey; a parallel that Matisse exploited for his work. Although the two never met in person, it is understood that Matisse had Joyce’s consent to base his etchings on Odyssey.  

Matisse etchings bound with Ulysses, 1935

Being a ‘limited edition’ publication, Macy produced 1500 copies of Ulysses. State Library Victoria’s copy is number 928 and signed by Matisse alone, who signed all 1500 copies. It had been previously assumed that Joyce refused to sign all copies of the edition as he took issue with the work of Matisse. However, recent research has found this not to be the case. Instead, Joyce chose to sign only 250 copies. Citing his poor eyesight as a contributing factor, Joyce also warned that flooding the market with 1500 signed editions would ultimately devalue the work.

State Library Victoria copy is signed by Henri Matisse

Regardless of your opinion on this work, the final result is undeniably symbolic of modernist brashness and values. The Limited Editions Club Ulysses is now a highly collectable and desirable item and one that State Library Victoria is thrilled to have acquired for its rare books collection.  

Further information

Restricted books – Presented by Principal Librarian for History of the Book and Arts, Des Cowley

References

Goodwin, W., 1999. ‘A Very Pretty Picture M. Matisse But You Must Not Call It Joyce’: The Making of the Limited Editions Club Ulysses. With Lewis Daniel’s Unpublished Ulysses Illustrations. Joyce Studies Annual, (10), pp.85-103.

Knapp, J.A., 2000. Joyce and Matisse Bound: Modernist Aesthetics in the Limited Editions Club “Ulysses”. ELH67(4), pp.1055-1081.

Acknowledgements

Images reproduced with permission from The Limited Editions Club.

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