Anyone who loves and appreciates books know that there are those rare volumes which blur the line between literature and art, often with delightful results. Presses such as the Kelmscott, the Easton, the Folio Society and the Franklin Library have gained renown for their beautifully bound and richly illustrated books, and yet none has so successfully melded art and literature as the Limited Editions Club – a publishing house created for this very purpose.
Founded in 1929 by George Macy, the Limited Editions Club set out to publish finely-made and illustrated titles old and new, with original illustrations by some of the most revered artists of the day. Each book would number 1,500 exactly, to be signed by the illustrators, and was sold to club members for an annual subscription fee of $10.00 (roughly $150.00 today). The combination of craftsmanship, subject matter, and new works by beloved contemporary artists made the Limited Editions Club an immediate success. Jonathan Swift’s The Travels of Lemuel Gulliver, illustrated and signed by Alexander King, was issued in mid-1929 and was immediately hailed as a revelation in the world of book publishing as well as fine art.
Over the next five years the Limited Editions Club would commission artists from the United States and Europe to illustrate some of the most beloved works of world literature, among them Leaves of Grass, Hamlet, Rip van Winkle, Faust, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Each book was individually signed and numbered by such artists as Rene Clark, Yngve Berg, and Arthur Rackham. Yet the crown jewel of the Limited Editions Club was yet to come…
In 1934 Macy commissioned Pablo Picasso to illustrate Aristophanes’s fifth century BCE comedic play Lysistrata, which tells the story of a dramatic attempt by the women of Greece to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex. This wonderful edition featured six original etchings and thirty-four line block reproductions. Picasso’s illustrations were of simple line drawings that provided an invaluable glimpse into the next phase of the artist’s career, as he would utilize similar artistic styles for his anti-war paintings, most famously 1937’s Guernica. Yet Macy still predicted backlash, remarking to members that it was important to “remember that simplicity is not infantile!” And backlash he got, with one member writing that it was “a shame to ruin the beautiful printing and the delightful paper with such miserable drawings.” The last laugh, however, would go as it so often did to Picasso. Next to Henri Matisse’s edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, famous for its illustrations having absolutely nothing to do with the text, Picasso’s Lysistrata is one of the most sought-after works printed by the Limited Editions Club; copies which still have the original slipcase and dustcover can go for an average of five figures at auction.
Hoping to provide these beautiful editions at a slightly more affordable price to the general public, George Macy founded the Heritage Press in 1935. Each book was similar to those works printed by the Limited Editions Club, though they lacked the artists’ signatures and the illustrations were reprinted from the LEC editions. Today these editions are fairly common finds in used bookstores, and while not particularly valuable they do give the collector a taste of just how much care went into each book printed by the Limited Editions Club.
Following George Macy’s death in 1956 his wife Helen took over operations of the business, and was succeeded upon her retirement in 1968 by her son Jonathan. In the 1970s the Limited Editions Club was sold to the Easton Press, and many of the original Limited Editions Club books have been reprinted in Easton’s signature leather and gilt binding. The company still operates today, with such contemporary artists as Faith Ringgold, Robert Motherwell, and Balthus continuing the company’s proud tradition of providing accompaniment to some of the greatest works of literature ever printed with eye-catching works of fine art.
Image: Inscription page, Ulysses, signed by author James Joyce and illustrator Henri Matisse. (license) /Source: Megan Rosenbloom
Image: Illustration, Circus of Dr. Lao, illustrated by Claire Van Vliet (license) Source: Library of Congress
Image: Illustration, Lysistrata, illustrated by Pablo Picasso. Photo by author.
Majure, Bill. "A Brief History of the Limited Editions Club" Montpeiler Books and Art. Accessed 27 April 2020.
"Lysistrata, Limited Editions Club, 1934" Digital Exhibits: UWM Libraries Special Collection. Accessed 27 April 2020.