Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

The Classics: “New” from Phaidon, Early Titles on the Old Masters

Phaidon Classics:  Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Gogh (2015) and, forthcoming, Botticelli, Renoir, Vermeer

pages from "Raphael" by William E Suida, Phaidon Classics, 2015
pages from “Raphael” by William E Suida, Phaidon Classics, 2015

To hold a vintage art book from Phaidon Press is something of an initiation ceremony. For readers of a certain age, the heavy linen covers, tipped-in plates, relatively accessible and unstuffy texts, and affordability made these large format volumes a mainstay of one’s art library. For an older generation of artists—the late R.B. Kitaj, for instance—collecting these volumes attained the status of a cult.

Now, in a savvy publishing move, Phaidon is reissuing these “classics” from its archives in a classy new design that emulates the ethos of the originals but are not facsimiles or pastiches of them—recalling similar revisiting of the back catalogue by Penguin Classics and other publishers. Each volume is fronted by a critical introduction by a current expert on the subject of that monograph placing the original scholar’s approach in context. Phaidon Press was founded in Vienna in 1923 and started publishing art books in the mid-1930s, shortly before moving to London to escape the Nazis. In 1950 they published E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, originally intended as an introduction to the subject for children, so far selling 7 million copies of the book worldwide. They were pioneers of large format, long print-run editions, striking a novel balance between quality and affordability.

The first three titles are “Rembrandt,” “Raphael” and “Van Gogh” while volumes on Renoir, Vermeer and Botticelli are currently on pre-order. (The original series ran to some two dozen titles but the publishers are uncertain at present as to how many will be reissued.) Walter Liedtke, the Met’s Dutch curator tragically killed in a train accident in February 2015, introduced the volume on Rembrandt by Tancred Borenius (1885–1948), the Finnish art historian who had taught at University College, London. “Once in a while” writes Liedtke, “it is wonderful to turn back to the older, broader, subjective and often beautiful books on Rembrandt to discover why we turned to him in the first place.”

I put some questions to Diane Fortenberry, the senior editor at Phaidon Press in London in charge of the Classics series.

DIANE FORTENBERRY: When I first approached Walter Leidtke to ask if he would write the new preface to the Rembrandt volume, he emailed back within minutes that he was standing in the Rijksmuseum in front of The Nightwatch, and that given the serendipity of the occasion, he couldn’t refuse. A few emails further on, he told me that the original Phaidon Rembrandt was the first art book he’d ever owned. Very sadly, he had just begun writing the preface to one of the next set of Classics, on Vermeer, when he was killed.

[Liedtke writes, in his Rembrandt preface, that the Phaidon books “open windows onto the prospect, or the memory, of absorbing oneself in the actual works of art.”]

What were the criteria for choosing the artists selected and the order in which they are selected? 

cover of "Rembrandt" by Tancred Borenius, Phaidon Classics, 2015
cover of “Rembrandt” by Tancred Borenius, Phaidon Classics, 2015

We chose the first three — Raphael, Rembrandt and van Gogh — because they spanned the widest chronological range (Renaissance, Baroque and Post-Impressionism) and because the three original titles were of similar extent and arrangement. This last was important as we developed the design that would serve for the entire series. Van Gogh was chosen in particular because this was the first book in the original series. The story of its publication illustrates the ethos of Phaidon Press: beautifully produced art books accessible to all. The first print run was 55,000 copies, and when Belà Horowitz, Phaidon’s co-founder (with Ludwig Goldscheider, who designed the original series), telephoned the warehouse two days after publication to ask how it was selling, his exhausted warehouse manager told him they were all gone. The run sold out in two days, such was the popular appetite for both van Gogh and for a well-produced book of his work that the ordinary person could afford.

What is the criterion for tipped-in plates as opposed to regular printed images?  Is it just a design thing or is there some practical reason for choosing some images for this method- related perhaps to the prior question? 

It’s a combination of both. The images that are tipped in among the introductory text pages were chosen in part to correspond to the discussion there. The plate section of each book is arranged roughly chronologically, and the sequence was tweaked in order to place particularly striking or important works as tip-ins. For technical reasons having to do with the binding process, the black card tip-in pages had to be placed in specific places among the white coated plate pages, so it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to work everything out.

Was the reissue series something planned under the prior owner (Richard Schlagman, the owner from 1990 to 2012) or an innovation under the new proprietor? 

The Classics series is the brainchild of Phaidon’s new owner, Leon Black. When he first toured the office here in London, he was shown the Phaidon archive, in which he saw copies of the original volumes on the shelves. He said that he’d had copies as a student (this has been something of a refrain from people of a certain age), and could we do something to bring them out again. The new Classics series is close to Leon’s heart, and he’s been closely involved in their creation.

Tell me something about the design, or rather, the redesign, of this series, now very distinct in black covers and yellow fore edge.

The books were designed by Astrid Stavro, of Atlas Design in Palma de Mallorca. There was a brilliant pair of production people in New York, two of us working as editors in London, and Astrid in the Balearics who all worked on these books with a very personal intensity — they became more than just another project — and the result is classic book-making brought into the twenty-first century. The contemporary design and traditional quality mean that they’re exquisite modern books that also retain the magic of time past.

The covers are very striking, with self-portraits by Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Gogh in the first set.

The next set, which is being completed now, will comprise volumes on Botticelli, Vermeer and Renoir. So yes, lots of men in the first set, lots of pretty ladies in the second.

For full publishing details, please visit the Phaidon Press website