Inspirations: The Sign of the Centaur

Inspirations: The Sign of the Centaur

“The proprietor [of the Centaur Book Shop], Harold Mason, was a 29-year-old of independent means who was fascinated by books, particularly first editions by liberal intellectuals. His bookshop was a small, comfortable room in a 300-year-old house outfitted with bookshelves, wicker chairs, candlesticks, Japanese prints and a fireplace. Here one could find first editions of avant-garde books and current issues of the intellectual magazines of the day …

The bookshop’s name was taken from a line in the banned book Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell: ‘Up on my back,’ said the Centaur, ‘and I will take you thither.’ The association with Jurgen ‘lent a mild wickedness to the enterprise,’ Mason recalled. When importation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, considered at the time to be as sinful as booze, was prohibited, Mason arranged for a shipment of a case of books, after the spines had been replaced with those of another book of the same size.

From the Bluebird Collection: Poster by Andy Beach for ICA, Centaur block print by Wendy and Marvin Hill.

From the Bluebird Collection:
Poster by Andy Beach for ICA, Centaur block print by Wendy and Marvin Hill.

A room over the shop became an after-hours gathering place for select patrons, artists, people of letters, and other friends. It was, like a Greenwich Village salon, bohemian and arty. This was during Prohibition, and ‘in’ members had their own liquor lockers and keys to the room. The outgoing Wharton [Esherick] was quickly inducted into the club, and he made a sign to hang over the door, a modernist centaur of wood and bent iron straps (the ‘sign of the Centaur’).”

— From Wharton Esherick: Journey of a Creative Mind, by Mansfield Bascom, Abrams, 2010, reproduced in a pamphlet from the Excursus I: Reference Library at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia