One quick look through the Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Song of Songs is all it takes to understand both the illustrative genius of Eric Gill and why copies of it were seized and destroyed by New York Customs when imported into the United States early last century. Given The Song of Songs is a book of the Hebrew Bible, Gill’s emphasis on the erotic nature of the story would cause consternation among some even today. While some may more politely use the word ‘romantic’ rather than ‘erotic’ in describing the illustrations, it certainly pushes the envelope considering its place in the Bible. In any case, there is no denying the artistic magnificence of the work.
Also known as The Song of Songs of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles, it is one of the shortest books in the Bible, making up only 117 verses. The protagonists are a man and woman, with the poem often construed to follow their relationship from courtship to consummation. Jewish tradition holds that the book is an allegory of God’s love for the Children of Israel. The New Testament does not quote the Song of Songs at all, though both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI write positively how Song of Songs teaches that selfless love and erotic love (eros) combined are true love, as it requires giving and receiving.
As mentioned previously on Books and Vines, The Golden Cockerel Press was one of the greatest fine presses of the twentieth century. In 1925, the press had just been taken over by Robert Gibbings (1889-1958), and Song of Songs was one of the first books published by him. Eric Gill (1882-1940) is one of the 20th century’s greatest typographers and illustrators, be it via stone carving or wood engraving. He provided specially designed typefaces for Golden Cockerel Press and also illustrated a number of their books.
This book is rare, and a real treasure for those that can find it. The quality of the carftsmanship is eye-opening. Look at Gill’s letter designs printed in red (below). Also, do remember you can click on the pictures to see detail, from which you can see the quality of the paper and type. Last I checked, Book Gallery in Phoenix had a copy of this, along with a signed Gill illustration that apparently came with some of them when published in 1925.
About the Edition
- Printed by Robert Gibbons at the Golden Cockerel Press, Waltham St. Lawrence, Berkshire, 1925
- 17 wood engraved illustrations by Eric Gill, who also provides 3 initial letters printed in red
- Compositors: F. Young and A. H. Gibbs
- Pressman: A. C. Cooper
- Bound in white buckram with large artist’s design in gilt on upper cover
- Ivory buckram boards with gilt titles on spine
- 11″ – 13″ tall
- Limited to 750 copies
- Slipcase shown in pictures below is a contemporary case made a few years ago