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DANTE ALIGHIERI [illustrated by Tom PHILLIPS]

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Inferno. A Verse Translation by Tom Phillips with Images & Commentary.
London: Talfourd Press, 1983.

Two volumes, complete. Royal folio (the pages 16-1/2 x 12-5/8 in., 42 x 32 cm), top edges cut, others deckle. No. 32 of 100 copies of the general edition, of the whole issue of 185 copies "or so," numbered and signed by Phillips in the colophon. Printed at the artist's Talfourd Press from Walbaum letterpress designed by Ian Mortimer, on Somerset-type wove paper mould made and tinted at Inveresk Mills to the artist's specifications and incorporating his signature as the watermark. Illustrated with 139 original prints (in lithography, etching, aquatint, soft-ground etching and silkscreen) hors texte in color, black-and-white and monochrome (half-title, general frontispiece, four plates for each Canto, colophon) initialed (or, on the prints in five of the gatherings, fully signed) in pencil by Phillips, and, in the last gathering, an unsigned hors texte etched roundel of initials "TP" and a panel of lithographed handwriting with issue notes. Loose as issued in original silkscreened clamshell boxes. Collates 214 ll.: [3 ll.], 210 ll., [1 l.], in 35 gatherings of three folded sheets (six leaves) and the final gathering of two folded sheets, with guard tissue between bifolia. (The gathering for each Canto consists of the outer sheet, folded into two leaves, with prints on the first leaf verso and the second leaf recto, into the fold of which are inserted a sheet of guard tissue and the middle sheet, with Canto number on the first leaf recto and the English blank verse translation on the other three pages, into the fold of which in turn are inserted another sheet of guard tissue and the inner sheet, with prints on the first leaf recto and the second leaf verso.) Minimal wear to boxes, else generally as new.

This astounding livre d'artiste, certainly the great Dante of the 20th century, was seven years in the making. The project, active by the late 1970's, endured a catastrophic studio fire and staggering financial burdens on the artist before final completion. The two pillars of Phillips's poetic translation are, first, his blank verse taking Dante's Italian into contemporary English, then illuminations gleaned from his A Humament ("treated fragments" of W.H. Mallock's Victorian novel, A Human Document). Most of the plates combine both verbal content, in stenciled lettering or text balloons, and images freely derived from an encyclopedia of sources ranging from magazines, postcards and cut-up Doré to quotations and manipulations of Picasso and Michelangelo. In the last plate of the last Canto, a precious survival of the 1978 fire, a book-shaped collage of seminal images from the plates floats above the billowing sunray-like pages of Dante's book in a brilliant starry sky borrowed from van Gogh.

This inaugural production of Phillips's own Talfourd Press (his home on Talfourd Road in London) was as a whole finished April 30, 1983, "on the seven hundredth anniversary of the meeting of Dante & Beatrice on the Ponte Santa Trinità." The issue notes on the penultimate leaf state that the etchings were proofed and editioned by Nick Tite at Talfourd; the lithographs by Nick Hunter at Ashby Studio; the screenprints (except two from Coriander Press) by Chris Betambeau at Advanced Graphics; many other people participated, consulted and assisted as well. Testifying to the project's toll, the USURA plate for Canto CXVII, with imagery mimicking the logo of Phillips's then bank, has the ballooned text, "He turned to his banker/ began to examine his account/ 'it is worse than I thought,'" (a plate for Canto XXIX depicts his actual bank statement showing a debit balance of <49,930.90>, "spending in Sienna/"). Phillips was elected a Royal Academician the following year.

Stein, Donna, Contemporary Illustrated Books: Word and Image, 1967-1988, New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1989, p. 41.

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