Dr Samuel Johnson
A rare collecting opportunity for book connoisseurs, this is a unique chance to own a piece of publishing history.
Enthusiasts of fine printing have their favourites, but almost all would agree that The Four Gospels, designed by The Golden Cockerel Press and with engravings by Eric Gill, was the culminating achievement of the private press movement. Sebastian Carter, a leading authority on 20th-century typography and one of the finest letterpress printers working today, lyrically described it as ‘both the solstice and the sunset of Golden Cockerel under Robert Gibbings’. The 500 copies from the original printing are to be found in pre-eminent institutions and private collections around the world, including the Royal Collection (a copy was purchased by King George V), Boston University’s Silver Collection and the British Library. The Grolier Club, the shrine for bibliophiles in America, called The Four Gospels Gill’s ‘greatest achievement in bookmaking’, and their copy, number 62, holds a treasured position in their collection of rare and fine printed books. Unsurprisingly, these almost never reach the open market, and when they do, they command prices of around £10,000.
Robert Gibbings, the owner of The Golden Cockerel Press and a wonderful wood-engraver himself, had already collaborated with Eric Gill on several beautiful books when he decided to create his finest book yet: an ambitious decorated edition of the four Gospels. The two men decided jointly on where illustrations would occur, and whether each subject merited full page, half page or a smaller ornament. The type was then set under Gibbings’s direction, leaving appropriate spaces for which Gill designed his exquisite, dramatic and imaginative initial letters and words. Leaves curl into the space between paragraphs, swords hang down into the margin, and the symbols of the evangelists each hold up the title of their gospel. It was a marriage of image and text that recalls the best of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet is suited perfectly to the modern age and flawless in its execution.
Gibbings said that his previous books were a ‘seven-year apprenticeship’, and while this may be characteristic of his modesty, The Four Gospels is truly exceptional. Today the strength and simplicity of the pages strikes you immediately on opening the book; its freshness and directness of design remains astonishingly powerful.
Experts on type and design have always been united in their praise of Eric Gill’s typeface designs. Robert Harling spoke of the letters’ ‘character and beauty, discipline and gaiety’, whilst Stanley Morison said: ‘The capitals that he did, I think, will be immortal. They’ll be used as long as the Roman alphabet is ever used anywhere.’
The generously proportioned Golden Cockerel type he designed specifically for the Press has the same cleanliness and elegance, but also a certain hand-drawn quality in the delicate, restrained flourishes that directly invoke the pen-work of medieval scribes and give a lightness and mobility to the design. In this type he found the perfect balance for his serif formation and managed to achieve the correct harmony at each type size, from text to titling. John Dreyfus remarked, ‘Robert and Moira Gibbings were able to crow that Gill’s new type would “add yet further lustre to the plumage” – and they were right.’
Typographer and historian of letters John Dreyfus is the recognised authority on Gill’s typography. He was President of the Printing Historical Society as well as a reader in Bibliography at Cambridge University. His essay on ‘Eric Gill and the Golden Cockerel Type’ provides an accessible and in-depth exploration of Gill as a type designer and is extracted from his book, A Typographical Masterpiece: An account of Eric Gill’s collaboration with Robert Gibbings in producing the Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Four Gospels in 1931.
Robert Gibbings, proprietor of The Golden Cockerel Press between 1924 and 1933, wrote about working with Eric Gill on The Four Gospels. His engaging account offers a rare insight into a fertile artistic collaboration.
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On his own tombstone, Eric Gill chose to describe himself as ‘stone carver’, separating himself from the fine-art world he described as ‘nonsense’, but to others he was one of the most gifted artists of his generation, master of every art he put his hand to. Today, his engravings are highly sought after, and his sculptures are found in museums, art galleries and private collections around the world.
Since childhood Gill had delighted in letter forms. His first work was cutting lettering on stone, including Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery. His early training in calligraphy translated into typeface design, for Stanley Morison and the Monotype Corporation and most gloriously for The Golden Cockerel Press. Of the 11 typefaces he designed, Gill Sans is the most widely used today; a clear modern type, it became the typeface both of London and North Eastern Railways and of the BBC.
Gill converted to Catholicism in 1913 and some of his most famous works were religious commissions, including the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. He was also renowned for his capacity to intertwine eroticism with religion, a combination often present even in his Madonna and Child or Crucifixion depictions. The Four Gospels was a project very close to his heart and showed his exceptional talents at their best.