'A talent of the widest dimensions, impossible to embrace' (Bilibin, Narbut's teacher)

NARBUT, Georgii

Chetyrnadtsat risunkov ukrainskoi azbuki. Ukrainska Abetka

[Fourteen Drawings of Ukrainian Alphabet. Ukrainian ABC]

Publication: Golike i Vilborg, Skt. Peterburg, 1921.

NARBUT, Georgii, Chetyrnadtsat risunkov ukrainskoi azbuki. Ukrainska Abetka

Great example of possibly the greatest Ukrainian ABC.

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Our Notes & References

One of the most important Ukrainian ABCs, the best of the 20th century, and a beautifully fresh example of this rare, large-format publication.

At the same time one of the most important books on Ukrainian national identity by one of its greatest artists, and Narbut’s masterpiece.

Popular among publishers just before WWI, Narbut (1886-1920) began drawing alphabet illustrations for Golike & Vilborg in 1917, but he stopped mid-way when he moved to Kyiv to join the newly created Artists Academy, where he had been appointed a professor. He would eventually become a Dean of the Academy, for a brief period. During this time in Kyiv, he also designed banknotes, postage stamps and charters for the new Ukrainian National Republic, essentially creating a brand for the country which is still recognisable today.

Narbut went back to his Alphabet in 1919 – but instead of continuing the abandoned work, he changed it completely, adopting another style and other techniques. Unfortunately, due to his untimely death of typhus in 1920 the full set of letters remained incomplete. The 14 drawings which he had completed were published in Petersburg a year after, with a 1921 Russian letterpress title repeated on the wrappers, but also keeping Narbut’s Ukrainian title page, dated 1917 and still mentioning Golike & Vilborg, which had then become the ’15th State Typography’. It was still one of the best and most luxurious Russian presses of the time, and the book boasted surprising dimensions for an ABC, making it then the largest of the ex-Russian empire. It is also the first Ukrainian alphabet illustrated by a renowned artist, and not by an illustrator employed by the publisher.

Narbut’s illustrations for the Ukrainian Alphabet feature all the hallmarks of his style: silhouettes, Ukrainian architecture, children’s toys, floral typography and folk art. Each letter is a vivid scene, and many represent the nation’s cultural heritage such as Hetmans, Cossacks and snow-covered cupolas. A friend of Alexandre Benois, Narbut paid direct homage to his famous ‘Azbuka v kartinakh’ [Alphabet in Pictures’, publ. in 1904] with the letter “i”, drawing there Ukrainian folk toys. All of the characters are gathered together in the illustrated title page surrounded by a border of alphabet building blocks. Unfinished, some pages don’t show the words which the image show; interestingly, instead of one word as usual, each image presents up to three words beginning with the letter. Praising the complexity and wealth of Narbut’s imagery, his biographer Beletskii wrote in 1985: “The Ukrainian Alphabet a confession and a very resembling self-portrait of the artist”.

Of great rarity, especially outside Ukraine and Russia: in spite of rather scattered and inconsistent bibliographic information, we understand that the print run wasn’t larger than 125 copies, possibly 110, including 13 ‘ad nominem’ copies. A flooding of the publisher’s office in September 1924 apparently further reduced the quantity of copies available.

WorldCat mentions only three copies (Princeton, Pierpont Morgan and the Getty), while a hand-coloured copy (the only known?) is in the Russian State Library in Moscow; we are also aware of holdings in a few Ukrainian public institutions as well as private collections in Ukraine and Russia. A “Desideratum” of the St. Petersburg National Library of Russia.


Belitskii, G.A. Narbut, p. 227, No. 54; Egorov, 100 Raritetov iz kollektsii ukrainskikh bibliotek, 30; Vengerov Bibliokhronika I, 169

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Physical Description

Folio (34 x 22.5 cm). Blank, letterpress title in Russian dated 1921, 14 plates in black and white after Narbut incl. title in Ukrainian dated 1917, printed on thicker, rag paper, versos only.


Original publisher’s blue wrappers, Russian title printed in black.


Wrappers with only minor wear and staining, discrete restoration to spine, slight glue staining to gutter, plates in mint condition; an excellent example.

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