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Senate House Library

Celebrating Joyce this Bloomsday


Written by
James Ryan, Library Customer Service Assistant

To celebrate Bloomsday, a commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce, explore the rare editions of Ulysses we have in our special collections at Senate House Library...

Origins of Ulysses

Ulysses was initially published in short serial forms until Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company took a gamble on James Joyce and published it in full in 1922. This gamble proved to be a good choice as Ulysses remains one of the most coveted and controversial works of 20th century literature. James Joyce perhaps provided the most elucidating legacy of Ulysses when he stated “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality”

Ulysses, James Joyce - 1922 edition Shakespeare and Co
Ulysses, James Joyce - 1922 edition, Shakespeare and Co



Art Imitating Life

In 1929 the Limited Edition Club commissioned artist Henri Matisse to create illustrations to accompany the text of Ulysses. The man behind this bold venture was George Macy who helped to produce lavish limited editions of illustrated classics in the 1930's and 40's. Macy’s most famous and audacious reproduction managed to bring together two artists who encapsulated the visual and literary Avant-garde movement of the early 20th Century. 

Matisse’s mythical Nausicaa design is embossed in gold on the front cover, displaying four shapely nudes enclosed in a sphere with Roman numerals forming a celestial clock . The spine is gilt and is bound in a leather tome. Matisse’s etchings were inspired by the Odyssean allegories entrenched in Ulysses. Interestingly, Matisse signed all 1500 copies whereas the contrarian in Joyce signed no more than 250 copies once he found out that Matisse’s illustrations were inspired by his Odyssean interpretation of the novel. Senate House Library is proud to have one of the limited editions signed by both Joyce and Matisse. 

Ulysses, James Joyce - 1935 edition illustrated by Henri Matisse
Ulysses, James Joyce - 1935 edition illustrated by Henri Matisse

Prior to publication, Joyce may have been excited for the collaboration but he was also worried that Matisse may not have his Irish details right. In a letter to T.W. Pugh, Joyce requested that copies of the illustrated Dublin newspapers of 1904 be sent to Matisse for consultation and inspiration . Like all great artists, inspiration and interpretation is key to the creative process. Upon seeing the sketches, Joyce was not happy with how Matisse interpreted his life’s work, believing that he did not actually read the novel. When asked why his drawings bore so little relation to the book, Matisse said frankly, "Je ne l’ai pas lu"  meaning “I did not read it”

Two illustrations by Matisse from the 1935 edition of James Joyce's Ulysses
Two illustrations by Matisse from the 1935 edition of James Joyce's Ulysses

It’s hard to argue the commercial value of such a unique reproduction, some critics have been less kind to the aesthetic value. John Ryder, who designed the 1960 Bodley edition of Ulysses, referred to this iteration as a ‘typographic travesty’ and ‘idiosyncratic’. Not all critics are of this opinion, David Brass, the internationally renowned antiquarian book seller, believes this edition is one of the most desirable and collectable illustrated books of the twentieth century and one of the few ‘livres de pientres’ of the pre-WWII era. Furthermore, a blog post by the Martin Lawrence Gallery in New York illustrates the extravagance of this edition: “beyond its precise and careful publication; it’s not merely a luxury object for collectors but a true piece of art, extended and taking the ancient Greek epic as its starting point”

This limited edition copy is a special collections item which is part of the Sterling Library. In 1956, Sir Louis Sterling, who was an avid book collector, donated over 4,200 volumes of first and fine editions of English literature to Senate House Library, these can be found in the Sterling Collection named after him. There are over 1,000 items relating to James Joyce on the catalogue and 20 listed e-resources such as journals and conference papers.


“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” James Joyce, Ulysses

Further Reading

  • Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, The first revision of the 1959 classic, Oxford University Press, 1982
  • Goodwin, Willard, “‘A Very Pretty Picture M. Matisse But You Must Not Call It Joyce’: The Making of the Limited Editions Club ‘Ulysses’. With Lewis Daniel's Unpublished ‘Ulysses’ Illustrations.” Joyce Studies Annual, vol. 10, 1999, pp. 85–103. JSTOR,
  • O'Byrne, Robert, ‘Joyce’s Ulysses with Illustrations by Matisse at Mealy’s,  Irish Arts Review (2002-), vol. 27, no. 1, 2010, pp. 46–46. JSTOR,