Rockwell Kent's Illustrations For Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis

Rockwell Kent’s Illustrations For Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis

The Printing House of Leo Hart | About Rockwell Kent | About Venus & Adonis

Frontispiece to Rockwell Kent's Venus & Adonis

In 1979, Mrs. Zelda Hart donated to the Memorial Art Gallery 21 photo-engravings from Rockwell Kent’s original drawings for Venus & Adonis, published by the Printing House of Leo Hart (Rochester, NY: 1931).

View images from Venus & Adonis.

The Printing House of Leo Hart

Kent designed the bookplate shown above, taken from the Charlotte Whitney Allen Library's copy of Venus & Adonis, which was donated to the Library by the family of Leo Hart.

The Hart Printing Company was established by Leo Hart in Rochester, New York in 1905. In the early years of the company, its chief business was commercial printing, but by the late 1920s, Leo Hart acted on a long-held desire to print beautiful books, and he created the Printing House of Leo Hart. Venus & Adonis was Rochesterian Leo Hart’s first venture in fine book publishing. Rockwell Kent was suggested to illustrate the work, and a friendship developed between the two.

In the personal correspondence between Kent and Hart, Kent wrote, "I have to compliment you on as fine a piece of printing as has ever been done in connection with work of mine." Fortunately for Hart and Kent, award-winning typographer and book designer Will Ransom was employed by the Hart Printing Company as supervisor, and oversaw nearly every detail of the project. 1175 copies were printed and bound with silk and leather covers, and an additional seventy-five copies were printed on hand-made paper and bound in leather, with an accompanying group of prints.

In 1932, the American Institute of Graphic Arts chose Venus & Adonis as one of the best fifty books of the year. The Institute’s exhibition travelled to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester and to other museums across the country.

In the 1978 summer edition of the Kent Collector, Horace Hart, Leo Hart’s son, described his father’s company: "Its sole purpose was to print and publish beautiful books that would demonstrate the highest standards of literary content, design, typography, and printing." This first book and its accompanying prints, Venus & Adonis, accomplished just that.

The papers of the Leo Hart Printing Co. are located in the Rare Books Department of the University of Rochester Libraries.

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)

As artist, illustrator, adventurer, and explorer, Rockwell Kent was a prolific, active, and often controversial individual. In 1903, he took his mother’s advice to prepare for a conventional profession by accepting a scholarship at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. However, after three years of study, Kent chose to pursue his lifelong love of painting with a scholarship at the New York School of Art. Under the tutelage of painters Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Abbott Thayer, Kent’s spare and distinctive style developed, which he applied to magazine covers, paintings, and prints.

While commercial illustrations provided Kent with a steady income in the 1920s, by the 1930s, he had
perfected his technique in book design and typography. At the height of his popularity, Kent illustrated classic literature such as Candide, Faust, Moby Dick, Canterbury Tales, and Venus & Adonis.

His illustrations for Venus & Adonis incorporate the flowing Art Deco line and the bold, simplified forms that were his hallmarks in prints as well as paintings. While the quality of his artistic output was consistent throughout his life, his engagement in radical politics often overshadowed his art. With the passage of time, Rockwell Kent has re-emerged as a leading figure in American art.

For more information on Kent, visit the following sites:

About Venus & Adonis

This classical Greek poem retold by William Shakespeare in 1593 follows Venus’s pursuit of the young hunter, Adonis. The goddess of love wooed Adonis unrelentingly, yet Adonis remained disinterested, preferring to hunt instead. As he sought his greatest challenge–the wild boar–fate intervened and the young hunter was slain.

After hearing Adonis’s hounds, Venus rushed to find the youth and discovered his body. To ease her suffering, Venus transformed his blood into the flower we know as the anemone. Although the story’s ending is tragic, it contains humorous elements and is charged with erotic imagery.

For the Hart publication, Kent selected 21 elements from the story to illustrate with pen and ink. The drawings were photographed on sensitized copper plates and bathed in acid, which etched the delicate lines into the plate. Engravers then worked on the plates by hand in order to ensure that the intricate details would reproduce clearly and crisply. Then, the plates were printed on paper with black and brown ink. Over a three month period, Leo Hart examined every sheet of paper as it came off the press to determine that the printing quality was consistent.

The text itself contains nearly 1200 lines of verse, separated into six-line stanzas comprised of a quatrain and a couplet. This poetic form, with its rhyme scheme ‘ababcc,’ is called the Venus & Adonis stanza after its first use in Shakespeare’s poem.

Complete text of Venus & Adonis.