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2010-12, 367, 368, Mandrake Press, Michael Taffe

The Mandrake Press Booklets

MOST FROM the Victorian branch of the BCSA who know me are aware of my preoccupation with PR (Inky) Stephensen‘s Mandrake Press. As far back as 1985 Professor Reg Carr maintained that this press and its limited liability successor were ‘almost entirely neglected.’¹ While paying tribute to Craig Munro‘s biography of Stephensen, Carr also acknowledged the well documented history of Fanfrolico Press from which Mandrake Press grew. John Arnold‘s 2009 monograph and comprehensive bibliography, The Fanfrolico Press: Satyrs, Fauns and Fine Books, has confirmed the place of Fanfrolico in the pantheon of early twentieth century fine and private presses.

Stephensen set up Mandrake Press with Edward Goldston as partner ostensibly to publish The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence. Fortunately for us it went beyond this and developed into a Fine Press if not a truly Private Press. Stephensen was a good designer of the printed page with an eye for a fine line and layout. As with all of his output the quality varied enormously, from a finely produced or a catching tale one day, he would turn to a controversial personal and passionate issue the next and go on to produce a text for the sake of satisfying his latest obsession.

I loved the productions of Mandrake Press, none more so than the two black letter books, The Wyf of Bathe and The Book of Tobit. The fine editions of Salambo and Amorous Fiametta not only looked good but were great reading, although they might challenge younger readers used to David Malouf or the latest Peter Temple offerings. Back in the early 1990s I found myself hooked and made a promise to myself to gain a good library of this publisher. My initial goal was to collect the works of this press because its limit of 32 productions was a realistic goal — delusion! How little I then knew about book collecting! Once I had the books there was a matter of prospectuses and then letters and dedications and associated books (Fanfrolico and Scholartis) and ephemera as any true collector could have told me.

Having designed such attractive works in expensive limited editions it was a good marketing ploy to provide a small pocket size volume for the mass market. This new product was announced in the autumn catalogue of 1929 as, ‘A new “Library” series at 3s. 6d, in which the principles of fine book production, are applied in the popular-price and “unlimited” market.’² By the time the press closed almost half its production consisted of the Mandrake Booklets series.

Despite this announcement in the autumn, the series could be said to have been launched in June of that year with the issuing of a prospectus advertising ‘Two provocative little books’: A Tourists’ Guide to Ireland by Liam O‘Flaherty and A Bed of Feathers by Rhys Davies. And so was born this small and comparatively successful little series. Of course Stephensen knew the authors from Fanfrolico days and had already published Davies‘ short story in The London Aphrodite in 1928.

Stephensen contributed a mediocre collection of short stories to the Mandrake Booklets, The Bushwhackers, which even he regarded as ‘a deplorably hasty booklet’.³ When Stephensen‘s small volume first appeared it was a cheap read and little else, but with Jack McLaren we had a storyteller. McLaren‘s short story A Diver Went Down is one I believe Wilkie Collins would be proud to have written. These works may not be in the realms of great but without the wide swings in moods and judgement of Stephensen and the effects of the 1930s Depression one is left wondering where the Mandrake Press might have gone. Produced on vellum and bound in black cloth with distinctive snakeskin patterned boards, Richard Fotheringham understand-ably praised them as an ‘excellent series of small volumes’.

In 1928 and 1929 Mandrake produced 14 of the booklet series and when one looks at the production of 32 books in less than two years from such a small concern it is a cause for wonder. Few today would have the work ethic, enthusiasm or passion to attempt such a feat. This said, it must be kept in mind that Stephensen also produced other work outside of the Mandrake label as well as lobbying people for material and carrying on his business dealings and relationships as he did. The series carries some delightful woodcuts and engravings as frontispieces and the dust jackets carry a delightful series of woodcuts that contribute to the uniformity of a set on collectors‘ shelves.

I have mentioned variants, dedications and all that makes this (not quite Private Press) especially interesting. One dedication to Goldston is interesting in that it is from the author to the co-owner of the Press. Goldston was an astute businessman with an eye to maximising his investments. Carr points out in his catalogue of the Press that Goldston sought to have his books signed and dedicated in the belief that this would add to their later values. My own collection carries a variety of dedications, some, like this, tell of the people named, others give details of release dates of the publication, and there is always further interest.

The business failed and a new company was formed in March 1930 as Mandrake Press Ltd. After this rebirth old stock continued to be sold off under Mandrake Press Ltd. The first catalogue under the new management was issued in May of that year advertising a gift offer of a dozen selected Mandrake Booklets, attractively boxed at two guineas. The new catalogue also announced another two titles in the booklet series: Nos 15 and 16, Intermezzo by Rupert Croft-Cooke and A Man of the Streets by A Kuprine, author of Yama and translated by SW Pring. There does not seem to be any evidence of these booklets ever being published by the press and no new titles were issued in the Mandrake Booklet series prior to the demise of the company in November 1930.

Of all the productions to come off the press only two works ran to a second edition, one of which was the very first of the booklet series, A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland by Liam O‘Flaherty.

The original edition was bound in the uniform black cloth and snake skin boards that are now synonymous with the series. There is only one exception to this uniformity.

The first issue of the second edition came out in a green cloth cover instead of the trademark snakeskin of 1928-29. This second edition did not carry the dust jacket with its delightful woodcut of a country priest and an Irish peasant as in the original issue.

Imagine my delight when I discovered at auction, another variant of this second edition. The new discovery appeared in a dust jacket of green overprinted with a repeat pattern of the trade-mark mandrake plant and the legend ‘Mandrake Press Ltd’ on the jacket spine. Added to this the front of the dust jacket announced that this was ‘The Mandrake Booklets.— No. 1.’.

Where did this new find arise? Was it because of the discovery of extra supplies of the old snakeskin pattern or of the unpopularity of the cloth cover? This reissue of the second volume was in the earlier black cloth and snakeskin cover. Having read and reread the first catalogue of the new Mandrake Ltd of May 1930 I believe another possibility is that the advertised boxed sets were issued with the traditional snakeskin bindings plus their own Mandrake motif dust jackets.

For such a small press, Mandrake has more than satisfied my bibliographic passion but the Booklet series stand alone. Their subject matter carries a diversity of genre from short story to novella, from letters to adventure, from darkness to humour. Despite the years that have passed they are still a good bedtime read from time to time as I tend not to be able to put a novel aside.

Of all the productions of the era, whether Mandrake or other fine presses, the Mandrake Booklet series had a quality, stability and uniformity rarely found by the contemporary reader. Unlike so much produced by Stephensen, this series did not echo either his own dissatisfactions or DH Lawrence‘s accusation levelled at The Bushwhackers, that Stephensen‘s efforts lacked perseverance.

In the first instance all had uniform binding, were printed on vellum and were printed by the Crypt House Press in London. I love variation and Mandrake like other private and/or fine presses provides this, but this series of booklets gives an extra dimension without becoming overbearing or boring through their uniformity.

1. RP Carr The Mandrake Press 1929-30 Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, 1975 p. 4

2. PR Stephensen The Mandrake Press 1929, p. 4

3. Craig Munro Wild Man of Letters: The story of P. R. Stephensen Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1984, p. 109

4. R Fotheringham Expatriate Publishing: P. R. Stephensen and the Mandrake Press, Meanjin Vol. 31 No. 2 (1972) p. 187

5. Craig Munro Wild Man of Letters: The story of P. R. Stephensen Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1984, p. 79.

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