Handmade and exclusive: the wood engravings of the Golden Cockerel Press
Famous for its fine handmade limited editions, the Golden Cockerel Press was founded as a writer’s cooperative in 1920 by Harold 'Hal' Midgley Taylor (1893–1925) at Waltham Saint Lawrence in England. Taylor’s ambition was to produce limited press editions of modern and classic texts printed on handmade paper using hand-set type. In early 1924, after successfully printing seventeen mainly literary texts, health problems forced Taylor to sell the press.
The new owner, Robert Gibbings (1889–1958), was an Irish-born artist and author who had developed a keen interest in wood engraving while studying under Noel Rooke (1881–1953) at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in 1912. Heralding the golden age of this small private press, Gibbings followed Taylor’s commitment to fine hand-crafted books but also saw the press as a vehicle for publishing high-quality wood-engraved illustrations. In contrast to the approach adopted by his predecessor, who had commissioned illustrations for only two of books published under his direction, Gibbings’ tenure ensured most of the seventy-one books issued were richly illustrated. Gibbings had been a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers and his devotion to wood engraving was evident in the nineteen Golden Cockerel Press books that featured his own work, including Samson and Delilah of 1925, as well as through his collaboration with fellow artists such as David Jones (1895–1974), Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), Paul Nash (1889–1946), Blair Hughes-Stanton (1902–1981) and, most notably, Eric Gill (1882–1940). All shared Gibbings’ view that wood engraving was the medium that was most compatible with hand-set type and each participated in the design and layout of the books to which they contributed illustrations.
Gibbings’ association with Eric Gill, which began in 1925 with books such as Sonnets and Verses by Enid Clay (Gill’s sister) and the Songs of Songs, was particularly fruitful. Gill collaborated on thirteen books, culminating in the four-volume Canterbury Tales (1929–1931) and the Four Gospels (1931). Both met with critical and financial success, and today are widely regarded as masterpieces of book design. The two books are presented in facsimile editions published by the Folio Society in The Golden Cockerel Press, 1920–1961 exhibition, currently on view at the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada.
Until 1931, the press had exclusively used the typeface Caslon Open Face for its publications. This changed when Gill, an accomplished typographer, introduced a new font called Golden Cockerel, which he believed would better harmonize with the engraved line. The Golden Cockerel typeface was first used in A.E. Coppard’s The Hundredth Story, published in 1931, and regularly afterwards, including in the aforementioned Four Gospels. In later years, the press steadily increased its use of Perpetua type (along with its related italic form, Felicity), which Gill had designed in the mid-1920s for the British Monotype Corporation.
Facing financial pressures brought by the Great Depression, Gibbings sold the press in 1933 to Christopher Sandford (1902–1983), who in an attempt to save money shifted from using hand-set type at Waltham Saint Lawrence to mechanical typesetting at a commercial press in London. Despite the change, Sandford continued to produce limited editions on handmade paper (as in earlier years, print runs were usually between 250 and 750 copies) and also remained committed to wood engraving as the preferred means of producing illustrations. Several new artists were introduced under Sandford’s direction, including Clifford Webb (1895–1972), John Buckland Wright (1897–1954) and Gwenda Morgan (1908–1991). Particularly noteworthy was Buckland Wright’s contribution of more than two hundred engravings for seventeen books, including Laus Veneris. Gwenda Morgan, one of the many women artists to work for the press, provided wood engravings for four books, including Grimms’ Other Tales in 1957.
As a private entity, the Golden Cockerel Press produced a steady flow of promotional material from 1927 on. As with the books produced by the press, these announcements of new publications were printed on handmade paper and featured wood-engraved illustrations. They were generally of two types: catalogues listing multiple publications and prospectuses for single books. Originally the press limited the number of the latter category, but after 1935 it typically issued a prospectus for most of its books. These usually included a wood-engraved cover illustration, general information about the publication and, on occasion, one or more sample or “specimen” pages. The catalogues listing multiple books provided similar information. A catalogue issued in 1934, for example, provided detailed details on several recent titles published, along with a number of specimen pages, including one for Glory of Life by Llewelyn Powys, which featured wood engravings by Robert Gibbings.
In 1936 the press issued the first of three detailed bibliographies, Chanticleer: A Bibliography of the Golden Cockerel Press, April 1921–August 1936. The first volume provided information on each of the 112 books that had been published by the press over its first fifteen years, including title, author, the number of illustrations, date of printing, typeface, number of pages, dimensions, type of binding and paper, edition size and price. Several entries also included general notes. The second volume of the bibliography, Pertelote, A Sequel to Chanticleer: Being a Bibliography of the Golden Cockerel Press, October 1936–April 1943, listed forty-three titles. The third volume, Cockalorum: A Bibliography of The Golden Cockerel Press, June 1943–December 1949, listed twenty-five titles and was more elaborate than its predecessors, providing fuller descriptions of the books published during the period. It included short essays on several artists associated with the press, Dorothea Braby (1909–1987), John Buckland Wright and Clifford Webb among them. Two essays honoured the life of Eric Ravilious, who had died in 1942 while serving as a war artist and two texts by Christopher Sandford outlined the craft of printing, titled “Printing for Love” and “Printing and Life”. All three volumes featured illustrations. The third volume, Cockalorum, featured eighty-two engravings by sixteen artists, twenty of these by Buckland Wright.
Sandford maintained the press until 1959, when financial pressures forced him to sell the business to Thomas Yoseloff (1913–2008), an American publisher and then director of the University of Pennsylvania Press. In 1960 he completed the publication of two titles commissioned by Sandford, including In Defence of Woman, written by the sixteenth-century Welsh poet William Cynwal and featuring engravings in colour by John Petts (1914–1991). The following year two additional titles were produced, before Yoseloff ceased operations when he realized that publishing the type of hand-crafted books for which the Golden Cockerel Press was renowned was no longer cost effective.
Despite numerous challenges, including four different owners, the Golden Cockerel Press maintained its commitment to producing hand-crafted books for more than four decades. As revealed in the Golden Cockerel publications presented in the current exhibition, a hallmark of these books was the illustrations made from wood engravings, which was seen as the perfect medium for illustration. Remaining true to this ideal, the Golden Cockerel Press became known for its superbly crafted books and the wood engraved illustrations created by eminent artists of the 20th century.
The Golden Cockerel Press, 1920-1961 is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until September 3, 2018. The NGC Library and Archives are open to the public free of charge, from Tuesday to Friday, 1—5 p.m. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.