Abebooks, an online rare book dealer, identifies fine and private presses in the following manner: “A fine press is a type of publisher that produces books of a high intrinsic and artistic quality…[A] private press…is a type of small press that is most often operated as an artistic or craft-based venture rather than a purely commercial business. Private press is often a term used to describe the English Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th and 20th centuries under the influence of William Morris whose Kelmscott Press aimed to return publishing to its medieval roots and away from the cheap mechanization of the Industrial Revolution” (abebooks.com). One of the private presses represented in the Burns Library Fine Print room is the Golden Cockerel Press, a press that was in existence from 1920 to the early 1960s.
The Golden Cockerel Press was founded in 1920 by a co-operative of young men and women headed by Hal Taylor. Roderick Cave and Sarah Manson, in their book A History of The Golden Cockerel Press 1920-1960, identify Golden Cockerel as a part of a growth of private presses that happened early in the twentieth century: “Of the new presses which came into existence after World War One, there are three often named in the same breath: the Gregynog Press in Wales, Francis Meynell’s Nonesuch Press, and the Golden Cockerel Press. Although these three were very different from the earlier private presses, as they were from each other…they continued the attempt to produce fine books, which was so marked a feature of the Arts & Crafts Movement in England” (vi). Manson and Cave also compare Golden Cockerel and its initial co-operative structure to the famous Cuala Press directed by Elizabeth Yeats. Golden Cockerel was started as a co-operative venture run by Hal Taylor, his wife Gay Taylor, and two of her friends, Bee Blackburn and Pran Pyper. Due to financial constraints and poor working conditions Blackburn and Pyper had both left the press by the summer of 1921 and the Taylors resorted to a more conventional private press model which included hiring compositors and pressmen. In 1924 Robert Gibbings, a prominent member of the new Society of Wood Engravers, bought the press. He increased the number of illustrated books that the press sold and engaged several important artists and wood engravers including Eric Gill, whose work is strongly associated with the Golden Cockerel. Gibbings and Gill worked together to produce The Four Gospels, one of the best-known works of the press and featured in this post.
In 1933 Christopher Sandford and his partners Owen Rutter and Francis J. Newbury bought the Golden Cockerel Press and moved the printing production to the Chiswick
Press London. Sandford remained a constant despite changes in partners due to poor working relationships, finances, and illness. Sandford and Rutter managed to keep the Press going even through World War Two, despite the closure of many of their former rivals. Sandford and his partners worked on publishing fine editions of classic works as well as contemporary fiction. One topic that typically comes up in the literature surrounding fine presses is whether or not a press is successful. Manson and Cave give an interesting analysis of the Golden Cockerel’s success, using not only the books as a litmus test but also the press’s responses to the political and social environment in which it existed: “In general…the Gibbings period at the Press was marked by books which were almost always agreeable – sometimes even outstanding – examples of book design…As run by Christopher Sandford and his various partners, after the purchase of the moribund press from Gibbings in 1922, Cockerel has to be judged by different standards. To weather the storm, to keep the Press going, was the first requirement. Every other private press in Britain – even Nonesuch, even the heavily subsidised Gregynog – closed in the lean years of the late thirties, or as a result of World War Two. Survival is one measure of success, and in those terms Golden Cockerel succeeded brilliantly” (231). In 1959 Sandford sold the press to American publisher Thomas Yoseloff who finished the last of the titles waiting to be printed and closed the press in 1961.
The Four Gospels is an illustrated edition that was a collaboration between Gibbings and Gill and published in 1931. Considered one of the greatest efforts of the Golden Cockerel Press, The Four Gospels is a beautiful specimen not only of wood engraving but also of typography. Eric Gill designed a new type for the volume, naming it after the press itself. The Golden Cockerel type and Gill’s wood-engravings combined with Gibbing’s careful design of the type and his compositors and pressmen’s excellent work created a beautiful, limited edition of the text. The book is printed on handmade paper, “the founder of the mill which made it, Batchelor & Son in Kent, had made paper for William Morris to use at his Kelmscott Press” (Dreyfus 70). The paper is heavy and textured with deckle edges. Each page was printed by hand using dampened paper (a particular method of hand printing) and the Press’s Phoenix platen press (Dreyfus 69-70).Each gospel is preceded by a title page bearing the emblem of its respective evangelist and includes illustrated capitals, half-page engravings, and full-page engravings. This book is particularly engaging because it is remarkably clear and readable and the attention Gill and Gibbings paid to “combining word and image in the illustrations” (Dreyfus 55) creates balanced, attractive illustrations. The execution of the printing and the engravings is also exquisite, a testament to the artist’s understanding of the process and materials of printing as well as the skill of the pressman.
Another book from the Gibbings period of the press that shows the difficulty of working with the heavy paper that Gibbings preferred is The Chester Play of the Deluge, illustrated by David Jones. Jones “produced illustrations of great originality and interest. They were dense, dark engravings…” (Manson & Cave 78). The darkness of the illustrations as well as the shallowness of the engraving combined with the materials being used for the book meant that the illustrations printed badly in the published version. Though they lack the clarity of the illustrations in works such as The Four Gospels, Jones’ abilities as an artist are still clearly seen in the illustrations. The Chester Play of the Deluge is an example of the vicissitudes of private press printing and the many variables that went into the making of the carefully chosen texts, artists, and illustrations of the Golden Cockerel Press. If you are interested in seeing the Golden Cockerel Press holdings or other fine print books at the Burns Library please contact the Reading Room at firstname.lastname@example.org or (617)-552-4861.
- Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD student in the English Department
Cave, Roderick and Sarah Manson. A History of The Golden Cockerel Press, 1920-1960. London: The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 2002.
Dreyfus, John. A Typographical Masterpiece. San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1990.
“Small, Fine and Private Presses.” http://www.abebooks.com/books/RareBooks/collecting-guide/what_books_collect/small-fine-private-press.shtml. Accessed August 10, 2015.
The Chester Play of the Deluge. Ed. J. Isaacs. Waltham Saint Lawrence: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1927.
The Four Gospels. Waltham Saint Lawrence: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1931.