Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Monday 26 October 2015

The Arden Shakespeares and the Brotherhood of Ruralists

Arden Shakespeares, 2nd series
The above picture shows a complete set of the Arden editions (2nd series) of Shakespeare's plays, arranged on my kitchen floor, in their First Folio sequence. (The narrative poems and Pericles weren't included in the Folio, but are of course included in Arden 2. Strangely, the sonnets weren't published by Arden until the 3rd series.) I bought some of them new in the 80s and 90s, but most of them I've collected secondhand in recent years, rarely paying more than a couple of pounds per volume.

The 1st series began with Hamlet in 1899, and took 25 years to complete. Arden 2 first appeared with Macbeth in 1951 and took 32 years to complete, this time finishing with Hamlet. I've collected Arden 2 because it's the best scholarly edition of Shakespeare (though the New Cambridge Shakespeare is hard on its heels, and Arden 3 will beat it when complete.) The lengthy introductions give plenty of space to deliciously nerdy details such as the early history of the texts and what relation they might have to what Shakespeare wrote, and the questions of dating. The text of the plays is clearly laid out (though I don't like the use of abbreviations for the names of the speakers, and the line numbers aren't separated by enough white space from the text, which is occasionally momentarily confusing).

The extensive notes to the text are one of the things that make Arden stand out. It's not uncommon for the notes to take up more space than the text they're commenting on. There might be examples of pages consisting of just one line of text followed by a whole page of notes, but after a quick flick through a few volumes the best example I can come up with is in Twelfth Night, where on page 107 two lines of text are followed by one line (in very small type) of textual history, and then the bulk of the page is notes (in small type). (A few of the plays, for example Hamlet and Richard III, have longer notes printed after the text to avoid swamping the play altogether.)

The texts are usually followed by appendices, often substantial, offering, for example, extensive extracts from Shakespeare's sources, or notes on (and sometimes musical notes too) the early settings of the songs. Altogether, you get an enormous amount of information in a compact, attractively presented package, though if you just want to read the plays unencumbered by editors' ruminations, the Arden editions aren't for you.

Arden 2 was originally issued as hardbacks in plain dustjackets:

Later they were issued as paperbacks. At first the paperbacks had plain, predominantly white covers:

Then they were issued with engravings from Bell's late 18th century edition of Shakespeare on the covers*:

At first the engravings had coloured borders, but later the edges were bled off (i.e. printed without borders):

An engraving as it originally appeared in Bell's edition
Later still, from about 1980, they were issued yet again, this time in specially commissioned covers by the artists of the Brotherhood of Ruralists. The Brotherhood of Ruralists was founded in 1975 (and still exists, with some change of personnel) by Ann Arnold, Graham Arnold, Peter Blake, Jann Haworth, David Inshaw, Annie Ovendon and Graham Ovendon. That's three married couples (Blake and Haworth were married), two men called Graham and two women called Ann or Annie; it must have got a bit confusing at times, and poor David Inshaw must have felt left out, being neither married to nor sharing a name with another member (he left the group in 1983). They took their inspiration from earlier artists inspired by the English landscape, especially Samuel Palmer, the Pre-Raphaelites and Stanley Spencer. Blake is probably the best known of them, mostly through having designed the sleeve of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper in 1967, but Inshaw is perhaps the most interesting; his 'The Badminton Game' has deservedly found a foothold in the public consciousness.

David Inshaw - 'The Badminton Game'
While doing some background reading for this blog I found a university lecture on the subject of the Brotherhood's cover designs, but also plenty of animus directed at them. For example, here's a paragraph from a scholarly review of some of the first volumes of Arden 3:

If we are grateful for nothing else in the changes signalled by the arrival of Arden 3, we must give thanks for the fact that Routledge [the publishers] have finally banished the dreaded 'Brotherhood of Ruralists' and the artwork which they inflicted on the second Arden series. Their kitsch evocations of pastoral glories have, in the first three volumes [of Arden 3], been replaced by a set of fetching stylised modern covers.

'Second-rate Pre-Raphaelite whimsy' is another phase I've come across; 'twee' is a word that's cropped up more than once in my research.

In a review of a 2011 exhibition featuring, among other art, the Brotherhood's work (not the Arden cover designs) Tom Lubbock wrote in The Independent:

Like the hippies, though, they never had much sense of what they were up against. They thought it was enough to say "let's pretend", but they didn't see that their imagination of mystical, deep, England had already been fully colonised by commercial imagery. Their pristine visions of an unfallen world came straight from a pretty advert for soap or air-freshener.

They had their moments. There's always been a bit of neo-surreal hauntedness in David Inshaw's work, with its hard, long shadows falling across flat grass. . . . If I really wanted to put someone off the English countryside I'd do it with Ovendens and their emetic combination of lurid colour, featureless smoothness and air-brushed soft-focus.

Are the covers really as bad as these comments suggest? I'm not going to claim that they're masterpieces waiting to be rediscovered, or that none of them are failures, but on the whole I like them. I think that the author of the first review quoted above is objecting more to the name the Brotherhood of Ruralists than the covers themselves; the grammatically unnecessary quotation marks are what gives away his or her real motive. How many of the covers try to be 'evocations of pastoral glories'? (Whether they're kitsch or not is of course a matter of opinion.) Maybe eight or nine (out of 38), and that eight includes one of the best, Inshaw's Love's Labour's Lost, which seems to me to capture the perfectly poised artificiality of the play. (Incidentally, is this Shakespeare's most purely charming comedy?) It's true that Graham Ovenden's cover for A Midsummer Night's Dream tries and fails to out-Palmer Palmer, and Ann Ovenden's for As You Like It is just a bit dull. 

Arden Shakespeares, 2nd series, comedies
About half the covers consist of, or feature very prominently, a portrait or portraits. Some of these are I think quite good. Blake's Henry IV part 2 shows us the more introspective side of Falstaff (which surely he must have), Graham Ovenden's Pericles captures Marina's strength of character, Ann Ovenden's King John shows Arthur's (I assume) vulnerability, and Inshaw Juliet's innocence. On the other hand, Blake's Anthony and Cleopatra, depicting Cleopatra and Charmian with the dead Iras, is utterly lacking in any sense of drama or psychological insight, and his Othello is quite without nobility.

Arden Shakespeares, 2nd series, histories (and poems)
Some of the covers, such as Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew and The Comedy of Errors, refer back to Italian Renaissance paintings, a conceit that I think works. A Winter's Tale, in contrast, is brought up to date, which in itself is no bad thing, but seems out of place among the period costumes.

Arden Shakespeares, 2nd series, tragedies
Arden 3 is still incomplete; apparently the remaining volumes will appear before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 2016, but at the moment the most up to date edition of, say, King John is the 2nd edition, which dates from as long ago as 1954. 

It's interesting to compare Arden 2 and 3. I'll use As You Like It as an example. The Arden 2 edition dates from 1975; the preliminaries and introduction occupy 95 pages, the text of the play 131, and the two appendices four. There are no illustrations or index. Arden 3 (2006), devotes 142 pages to preliminaries and introduction, including 22 full page illustrations, 246 pages to the text, and 100 pages to five appendices, bibliography and index. The font is a little bigger in the 3rd series, and the pages of the playtext less cluttered and easier to read; the characters' names are written in full in capitals (as opposed to the 2nd series which has abbreviations in lower case italics). 

Most importantly, Arden 3 can draw on several decades further scholarship. The introduction and notes to Arden 2 now seem dated in places. Naturally, those to Arden 3 will suffer the same fate eventually. (Apparently Arden 4 is already in the pipeline, and, as someone who remembers anxiously awaiting the appearance of the 2nd edition of Hamlet, this fact is one of an increasing number that makes me feel very old.) 

So Arden 2 has been largely superseded, but I think I'll hang on to my set, at least while my collection of Arden 3 is incomplete, and until shelf space becomes even more of a pressing concern in my house than it is at the moment. I'll keep them mostly because I'm familiar with them, but the Brotherhood of Ruralist covers play a part too. I've lived with some of them a long time, and, while they may not be great (or, in a few cases, even good) art, I'm fond of them.

The Arden Shakespeares are the best heavily annotated editions, but if you want minimal notes and the bonus of excellent covers then the New Penguin Shakespeare editions are for you. They ran from 1967 to 1987, with covers initially by David Gentleman (he designed 31) and later by Paul Hogarth (38); they've also been issued in different covers. 

Cover design by David Gentleman
Cover design by Paul Hogarth
You can find complete (or nearly complete) images of the New Penguin Shakespeares here and here.

* One of the claims to fame of the publisher John Bell (1745-1831) was that he discontinued the 'long s' (often mistaken for an f) in the books he produced, starting a trend and thus making reading easier for future generations.

Ben Jonson's introductory poem to the First Folio shows the use of the long s: it was used where we'd now have a lower case s, except at the end of words. Thus in the first line what we'd now write as 'seest' looks like 'feeft' (though the f and the long s are similar, not identical; modern keyboards obviously don't allow for the latter).


  1. I too collected the 2nd Arden series in the covers by the Brotherhood of Ruralists. And I was delighted to see that this Brotherhood boasted among its members Peter Blake and Jan Haworth, who had, of course, designed the iconic cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. As you say, the quality of these cover illustrations do vary, but on the whole, I rather like them. I’ve supplemented some of these (though not all) with 3rd editions. Splitting “Hamlet” into two volumes (one for the 2nd Quarto text, one for the Folio text) is particularly useful: shame they didn’t do that for “King Lear” too. However, I do find myself much attached to the 2nd Arden edition of “Hamlet” edited by Harold Beaver. I have a single volume edition of Shakespeare too (the Oxford edition, edited by Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor), but, with all the individual Arden editions, rarely feel the need to reach for that.
    -Himadri (aka The Argumentative Old Git)

  2. Sorry - my rusty old brain was short-circuiting. I had meant Harold Jenkins, not Harold Beaver. Harold Beaver was the Melville scholar who had edited the older Penguin editions of Moby-Dick & Billy Budd. Not sure why I got them mixed up!

  3. Hello Himadri. Thanks for the messages. I too am gradually replacing my Arden 2s with 3s. I rather regret getting rid of the former because, like you, I like some of the covers, plus they have useful information on matters such as dating and printing history and extensive extracts from Shakespeare's sources (which the 3rd series doesn't do so routinely). In an ideal world I'd have three (or more) copies of each play: Arden 2 and 3, for 'serious' reading, and a beautifully illustrated edition for 'leisure' reading. But this is a mere pipe dream (or, perhaps, a type dream, as we're talking about books) as here in the real world shelf space is prime real estate, fought over viciously by competing volumes. I'm rapidly approaching the Pepys point. He decided that a certain number of books - 3000 in his case - was optimal, and after that it was one in, one out. My only alternative is to start putting shelves over doorways.

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