Object of the Week: A Book in a Box
In 1975, Anthony Burgess was approached by Richard-Gabriel Rummonds to provide an original piece of writing for a new publication. Rummond’s Plain Wrapper Press was based in Verona, Italy, and was well regarded as a publisher of fine-press books, especially after the success of Jorge Luis Borges’s Seven Saxon Poems in 1974. This volume contained illustrations and a relief-etched brass plate on the cover by the artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. Burgess, excited by this book, was keen to be involved with a future publication for the press, and set about writing a short piece about William Shakespeare.
In his memoir, Fantasies and Hard Knocks, Rummonds says he was shocked by the speed at which Burgess produced his short story, and the text needed no editorial changes. The search for an artist to illustrate the text was much more difficult. Originally Rummonds approached Francis Bacon, who refused, stating he was a painter and knew nothing about print. It was clear to all at the press that an English artist would be most appropriate to illustrate Burgess’s story, and eventually Rummonds met Joe Tilson through Marlborough Fine Art in London.
Tilson (b. 1928), at the time, was well known for his work in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and was a contemporary of artists such as Peter Blake, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney. His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1964.
Once the printing had started Burgess noticed that he had made a mistake in the text. He had switched the surnames of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Rather than reset the type for the affected pages, Burgess wrote an erratum in the form of an original riddle in Elizabethan English (below).
This volume, Will and Testament: A Fragment of Biography, was eventually published in 1977 with eight screenprints and other ornamentations by Tilson. It is enclosed in a box made of Romanian oak, with five embellished panels by Tilson. The run was limited to 86 copies, of which the Burgess Foundation has four. It is unknown how many complete copies of the book in a box have survived.
After the publication of Will and Testament, Burgess once again worked with Plain Wrapper Press. A Christmas Recipe was published for Christmas 1977 and included a pen-and-ink drawing by Fulvio Testa, with whom Burgess had collaborated on the children’s book Long Trip to Tea Time the year earlier. He would work with Testa again on The Land Where the Ice Cream Grows in 1979.
The book in a box is photographed here with a Christmas card to Burgess from Joe Tilson that bears an original illustration, and the catalogue for Plain Wrapper Press (1980).