Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part VII – The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press (1931)

{Ed. Note: This is part VII of an on-going series by dlphcoracl looking at the greatest illustrated private/fine press books of all time. See Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI for the previous articles.}

The Four Gospels is one of a trilogy of works illustrated with wood engravings by Eric Gill for the Golden Cockerel Press (GCP), including The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.  Collectively, these three books represent the pinnacle of the GCP bibliography and are amongst the greatest private press books of the twentieth century.   The books represent an unusual integration of text, typography, decorative figures and virtuoso skill by the typesetters and pressman.  Prior to the publication of these books proprietor Robert Gibbings had already established the GCP as the most important artistic platform for a generation of young wood-engravers in the United Kingdom.  Himself an illustrator and wood engraver, Gibbings bought the GCP in 1924 with the express intent of contributing to a revival of the wood engraving art through his GCP publications.  At its peak the GCP employed a stable of gifted wood engravers that included Eric Gill, David Jones, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Eric Ravilious, Mary Groom, and John Nash.

Eric Gill was the son of an Anglican clergyman but he and his wife subsequently converted to Catholicism in 1913.  Although Gill considered himself a devout Catholic his private life and views on sexuality were highly controversial, seemingly running counter to his professed religious beliefs.  He is considered by many to be the single most important figure in the development of the book arts in the twentieth century, in no small part due to his range of artistic interests and skills which included sculpture, drawing and printmaking, wood-engraving, and typeface design.  Planning for the ‘Gospels’ began in 1928 and early on Gill decided to design a new type specifically for the ‘Gospels’ one that would work harmoniously with his chunky, dramatic wood engravings.  The type became known as the Golden Cockerel type and it was punched in 18-point, a much larger type than usual.  “By giving greater weight to his Golden Cockerel type, he also made sure that it would create a strong enough texture to match the visual weight of the wood-engraved illustrations placed in, or facing, a page of text composed in his type.”  (pg. 28, Dreyfus referenced below)

In the preliminary planning stages between 1928-1930 Eric Gill worked closely with the GCP proprietor Robert Gibbings and they developed a close personal and professional relationship.  The first decisions made were:

1. To use the Authorized Version of the King James Bible.
2. Make the book size large quarto (approx. 13.5 x 9 inches)
3. Print letterpress on dampened Kelmscott handmade paper with a unique watermark of a dove and the GCP initials.

The major design revolution in this new edition of the Gospels would be to use the large wood-engraved initial letters of the first words of important sentences or sections as a pictorial device to illustrate and emphasize aspects of the ‘Gospels’.  Another innovation was to utilize variations in the size of letters to give additional emphasis to portions of the text.  For example, in St. Mark 16:15 a verse reads: “And he said unto them, go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”  By enlarging the words “GO YE” so that they were two inches tall, filling the entire width of the page, Gill gives added urgency to this command.The bindings would be done by hand at Sangorski & Sutcliffe with a 1/4 white pigskin and golden maize buckram cloth.   Overall, the creative design aspects of this book are summarized beautifully in the book ‘A Typographical Masterpiece’ by John Dreyfus, Bain & Williams Ltd: London (1991):

The general impression of the edition is that it is richly illustrated.  In fact, it contains 199 pages which are devoid of illustrations. There are 55 plain double-page openings, and in three of the Gospels we find as many as six consecutive openings without any illustrations.  Two stratagems helped to make readers overlook how many unillustrated pages occur in the book.  The first was to dazzle the reader at the start of each Gospel with a magnificent half-title blazoned with the evangelist’s emblem, immediately followed by one or more large engravings on the opening page of each Gospel.  The second stratagem was to catch the reader by surprise in the middle of each Gospel with a full-page engraving, and to maintain the element of surprise by putting engravings in unexpected positions and in a wide variety of shapes.  All too often engravings are placed on a recto page, leaving versos weak and dull, so creating a predictable and boring rhythm.  In the plan worked out by Gibbings and Gill, the reader was constantly surprised, but never perplexed. ( pg.55)

The wood engravings for the Four Gospels were something Gill had thought about and planned for quite some time, as evidence by the astonishing speed with which they were executed.  Gill created sixty-four wood engravings in only eleven weeks.  Equally important is what he and Gibbings chose to exclude.  The elaborate and sometimes over-the-top Kelmscott-esque marginal decorations and wood engravings seen in Gil’s earlier work in the GCP editions of Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales are omitted, giving the Four Gospels a less cartoonish appearance in keeping with the solemnity of the topic itself.

Gill’s elaborate wood engravings required careful planning, great skill and close collaboration with the GCP proprietor and publisher Robert Gibbings (himself a skilled wood engraver) to produce a harmonious book.  Gill and Gibbings quickly decided that Gill’s newly-designed Golden Cockerel typeface, created and cut specifically for this edition, would take design precedence regarding its setting and spacial placement on each page of text.  After the pages of type were hand set they were sent to Gill, who would then design and fit his illustrations into the available spaces.  Gill was still given the freedom to let his wood-engravings extend into and flow in any direction without being confined by either the rows of type or the page margins, sometimes spilling into the margins. Because of their long experience working together, they were able to alter the spacing of the type (when necessary) and then integrate it with Gill’s wood engravings to form one harmonious page after another.  It also required exceptional skill from the type compositors A.H. Gibbs and F. Young and the pressman A.C. Cooper.

The paper used in the Four Gospels was handmade with a special GCP watermark by Batchelor & Son, makers of the papers for William MorrisKelmscott Press.  The paper was dampened and printing was done on a German Phoenix platen press.  Each single sheet was hand fed into the press and examined as it came off the press. The GCP Four Gospels was published in an edition of 500 copies, 488 on paper and 12 on vellum.   The 488 paper copies were bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe in one-half white pigskin with a tightly woven maize-coloured buckram cloth over boards.  The spine was given five raised bands, each band edged in gilt, with titling in gilt placed within the second compartment from the top and the famous Golden Cockerel logo in gilt within the second compartment from the bottom of the binding.  The twelve vellum copies were given full white pigskin bindings with a gilt design on the front cover.  Top edge gilt in all copies. The finished edition measures 343 x 248 mm (13 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches) containing 268 pages, [2]pp. blank, and the colophon. Enjoy!

About the Edition

  • Designed by Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings
  • Printed and published by the Golden Cockerel Press
  • Over 60 wood engraved illustrations by Eric Gill
  • Dampened handmade paper with a special GCP watermark by Batchelor & Son
  • Set in 18 point Golden Cockerel type
  • Bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe in one-half white pigskin with a tightly woven maize-coloured buckram cloth over boards, with five raised bands, each band edged in gilt, with titling in gilt placed within the second compartment from the top and the famous Golden Cockerel logo in gilt within the second compartment from the bottom of the binding
  • 343 x 248 mm (13 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches), 268 pages
  • Limited to 500 copies, of which twelve in vellum

Pictures of the Edition

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The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Slipcase Spine
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Slipcase Spine
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe of 1/4 white pigskin and maize-colored cloth over boards
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe of 1/4 white pigskin and maize-colored cloth over boards
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Spine
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Spine
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Title page with wood engraved letters by Eric Gill
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Title page with wood engraved letters by Eric Gill
Title page to the Gospel of Matthew
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Title page to the Gospel of Matthew
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, The Gospel of Matthew, opening page, with large wood engraved initial letter “N" depicting the Epiphany
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, The Gospel of Matthew, opening page, with large wood engraved initial letter “N” depicting the Epiphany
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Opening page of The Gospel According to Saint Mark
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Opening page of The Gospel According to Saint Mark
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Saint Mark’s Gospel: The Descent from the Cross.
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Saint Mark’s Gospel: The Descent from the Cross.
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Title page for The Gospel According to Saint John depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Title page for The Gospel According to Saint John depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Colophon
The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, Colophon

One thought on “Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part VII – The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press (1931)

  1. Hi Chris, just last month I was finally able to complete my bucket list by getting hold of my own copy of the Four Gospels. Your copy has suspiciously white pigskin! Did you have it cleaned or rebound? Where did the slipcase come from? Michael

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