The Canterbury Tales is a glorious expression of Eric Gill’s genius. In this varied, vibrant work, Gill displayed his artistic versatility, and succeeded in marrying the illuminated manuscript tradition with a Modernist aesthetic. For this facsimile edition, The Folio Society has created an exquisite binding based on Gill’s own designs for the Physician’s and the Summoner’s tales. The work itself is represented in a meticulously exact facsimile, created directly from an original copy. Copies of the original print run of 500 very rarely reach the open market, and one of the few examples in recent years sold for $9,000. This beautifully produced facsimile represents an outstanding opportunity to own this work at an affordable price.
Read on for more details, or click below to view a new Folio Society podcast which features acclaimed stage and screen actor Simon Callow reading from the Folio facsimile edition.
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This edition is strictly limited to 1,980 numbered copies, with 1,200 available for immediate despatch – place your order now to be sure of your copy.
A landmark of English poetry, The Canterbury Tales has appeared in many illustrated editions over the centuries. The Golden Cockerel Press edition of 1929-1931, illustrated by Eric Gill, is among the most remarkable. It is one of the most beautiful books produced in the twentieth century, a triumph of the art of the private press. Now The Folio Society presents the first ever facsimile edition of this extraordinary work.
Chaucer’s tales, narrated by a group of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, are a glorious feast of storytelling, by turns heroic, bawdy, touching and devout. The pilgrims themselves, from the idealistic Knight to the sly Pardoner, are believable, subtly drawn characters. Eric Gill devised a highly original approach to this timeless poem. In his illustrations, as in his sculpture, Gill was not unduly concerned with historical detail or achieving an ‘antique’ appearance. He captured the unchanging human essence of the tales, and created a stylised beauty full of light, space and arabesque movement. Gill’s range of expression in The Canterbury Tales is truly prodigious, blending the sensual and the graceful in a way that reflects the spirit of the poem. In the words of Peter Holliday, Gill’s inventiveness is ‘not unlike the playfulness displayed by medieval scribes in their illuminated manuscripts’.
Gill’s powers of imagination can be seen in many individual touches. Into the title illustration he has incorporated a cockerel, symbol of the press. The General Prologue is illustrated with the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, whose shrine at Canterbury was the pilgrims’ goal. The opening illustration to ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ (below right) depicts Constance, the Christian daughter of a Roman emperor, cast adrift by her father. Gill shows her carrying her child, who appears only later in the Tale – thus creating a visual reference to the Madonna and Child. The curved timbers of the boat fuse with the swirling waves, creating a harmonious design full of tender beauty.
In their collaboration for the Golden Cockerel Press, Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings created a sublime marriage of type and illustration that became a golden standard for designers. Their great editions, from Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales to The Four Gospels, were created through a meticulous process. The type was set with space left for Gill’s borders or initial letters and illustrations; proofs were then sent to Gill, who drew his design on the proof sheet itself before transferring the illustration to the engraving block.
Gill frequently revised his designs during the engraving process, which for critic Glenn Storhaug, ‘contributes to the sense of immediacy and spirited invention’. Lively figures face one another across the pages, while for the beginning or end of each tale, half-page illustrations merge with the text. As Gill himself wrote, ‘the engraving is part of the typography’, and The Canterbury Tales is a glorious realisation of that ideal.
Gill’s illustrations for The Canterbury Tales were rich indeed: half-page illustrations, tail pieces and initial letters for each of the tales, and copious borders which he designed as pairs throughout the book. Blue and red initial letters are used at intervals to add variety – an inspired, thoroughly modern response to the medieval manuscripts Gill admired.
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An art historian specialising in typography and printing history, Peter Holliday was an assistant to the curator at Ditchling Museum, Eric Gill’s home and workshop for many years. In this extended essay, first published by Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, Holliday describes Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings’s work in the context of the artistic currents of the time, tracing its aesthetic evolution from William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement. It is a fascinating introduction, not only to Eric Gill’s work on The Canterbury Tales, but also to the artistic theory that underpinned his designs.
Review by anon on 30th Dec 2012
"Beautiful edition. This copy is truly special - the quality of it makes looking through and reading a charm. Reasonable price for such a great copy."