Large 4to (binding: 326 x 242 mm). 110,  pp. Text in Latin and French. 44 woodcuts by Aristide Maillol, including Cranach Press device on front wrapper; 16 initials designed by Eric Gill and ornamented by Maillol. Copy no. 74 of the regular issue of 250 on Maillol wove paper, from a total French edition of 292. bound by Pierre Legrain in chocolate morocco, overall geometric decor of parallel arcs in gold with areas of cross-hatching, in the interstices patches of variously sized small palladium circles, the design continued onto the spine, lettered in palladium, and onto the wide turn-ins, light brown suede doublures, gold, silver and black marbled liners, original illustrated wrappers preserved; front turn-in signed in gilt “Pierre Legrain”; original chemise and slipcase. Provenance: Colonel Daniel Sickles, bookplate, his sale Paris, 1962-63; with Pierre Berès (sale Paris, Bergé, part 4, 20 June 2006, lot 160).***
A superb geometric binding by Pierre Legrain on one of the most celebrated of modern artists’ books. The Cranach Virgil was the result of a collaboration between the Catalan sculptor Aristide Maillol, Count Harry Kessler, Eric Gill, and other book artisans, which lasted nearly a decade. Maillol and Kessler conceived the idea for this volume while visiting Greece together in 1912. Maillol cut the woodcuts in 1912-1914 in his native village of Banyuls, near the Spanish border. As explained in Kessler’s long colophon, the artist drew on local customs (dances) and monuments for inspiration. This was the first of several editions of classical texts illustrated by Maillol. The type was designed by Edward Prince, based on types used by Nicolas Jenson in the 1470s. The wove hemp paper was handmade by Aristide’s nephew Gaspard Maillol in a small studio on the road between Marly-le-Roi and Montval (and came to be known as papier de Montval). After all this work, the war came, and the edition was not completed until the mid-1920s, when it was issued in German, French and English editions.
Pierre Legrain (1889-1929), who revolutionized modern French bookbinding design, was not trained as a binder. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he had studied art at the Ecole Germain Pilon (where Robert Delaunay was one of his fellow students) and contributed drawings to various satirical weeklies, before taking up work with Paul Iribe, principal designer for the couturier and bibliophile Jacques Doucet. Legrain collaborated with Iribe and other designers, creating interiors, African art-inspired furniture, jewelry, and dresses. It was only after 1916, following two years of mobilization (Legrain had volunteered in spite of a bad heart), that he was pushed toward bookbinding design, by Doucet himself, who hired Legrain as his principal designer, replacing Iribe who had moved to America in 1914. “It was precisely his lack of expertise in binding and fowarding that contributed to [Legrain’s] success. Renouncing the methods of his predecessors, except those related to material perfection and technique, he carried out a radical reform [of binding design], employing geometric forms, executed with the help of a ruler, T-square and compass, [and using new materials], including metals that could be laminated, precious woods, pearl, ivory, skins of reptiles, amphibians, sharks ...” (Devauchelle, La Reliure , pp. 294-5, my translation). To carry out his designs he employed various doreurs, including René Kieffer, with whom he worked closely from 1919 to 1923, before setting up his own binding atelier. By the mid-1920s, the period of his most celebrated bindings, including this one, Legrain had mastered binding technique and supervised the production of all of his bindings; during this period he also branched out to all kinds of leather work. He fell ill at the peak of his productivity, and died at the age of 40, leaving behind many unfinished projects, but also a legacy of astonishing quantity and range of creations in the decorative arts.
This beautiful copy was exhibited in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale in 1947, at the Exposition de la Société de la reliure originale. Its highly dynamic and pleasing design is composed of rhythmic arrays of parallel semi-circles and small fragments of circles, interrupted only by short horizontal lines and striking clusters of small palladium circles, a motif not commonly used by Legrain.
Garvey & Hofer, The Artist and the Book 172; Riva Castleman, A Century of Artists Books, 110; Rewald, The Woodcuts of Aristide Maillol, 8-52. Pierre Legrain relieur: Répertoire descriptif et bibliographique (Paris: Blaizot, 1965), no. 1200, pl. LXI. Item #3189