In 1907 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed his epic opera in three acts The Golden Cockerel which was premiered two years later in Moscow after the composer’s death. Vladimir Belsky’s libretto was derived from Alexander Pushkin’s poem ‘The Tale of the Golden Cockerel’ (1834). The opera inspired Michel Fokine to stage a danced interpretation entitled Le Coq d’or for Serge Diaghilev’s ‘Ballets Russes’ (established in 1909) in Paris and London in 1914. The dancers were accompanied by a chorus and solo singers. This performance in turn would lend its name to a private press that began operating in late 1920. The Golden Cockerel Press went through three distinct phases with different owners. It began life under Harold Midgley Taylor as a co-operative workshop; then for nine years, under Robert Gibbings, it matured into an esteemed stylish press; and subsequently, under Christopher Sandford, the printing shop was closed down and the Press became in effect a publisher.
Taylor was a man in his late twenties who suffered from tuberculosis (of which he died in 1925). He had become fascinated by the project of printing and publishing books with a small group of idealistic workers and writers. Taylor bought an army surplus hut and assembled it in the Berkshire village of Waltham St Lawrence as a combined workshop and living quarters. He secured help from authors such as A. E. Coppard, Havelock Ellis, Richard Hughes and Peter Quennell, and a contract to print a monthly magazine, Voices, for the publishers Chapman and Hall. From the beginning almost everything went wrong. His hut was damp; money was short; inexperienced printers produced poor work; his authors were too busy establishing their own names; and the contract for the magazine was cancelled after the first number was delivered late. In November 1923 the Press was offered for sale. The business was taken over by Cork-born wood carver, engraver and author Robert Gibbings. The latter had been involved with the Golden Cockerel previously. Taylor had commissioned the Irish artist to illustrate Pierre de Bourdeille’s collection of tales Vies des dames galantes (The Lives of Gallant Ladies), one of those erotic works which was to become a Golden Cockerel trademark. Gibbings involved many of the outstanding British wood engravers who, in 1920, had joined forces in the Society of Wood Engravers. Eric Gill was the most notable of those engravers. He applied his talents in many areas: letter carving, wood block engraving, calligraphy, printing, type design and sculpture. Embracing the arts and crafts communal life and the rejection of industrialization, he added his own mixture of eccentric clothing, sexual obsessions, and devout Catholicism. Gill illustrated many titles of which The Four Gospels (1931) was amongst his best. He also designed a special type for the Press.
Caslon was the type customarily used by private presses at the time and Gibbings continued to use Caslon for the first few years of his involvement with the Press. He was however an ambitious man. His wish was the creation of a special Cockerel roman. William Morris had set a precedent with his Kelmscott Press. He had designed his own Golden Type (based on the Venetian roman of Nicholas Jenson) and Troy Type (inspired by the semi-blackletter rotunda used by the German Zainer brothers), as an integral part of his historical approach to book design. Private presses were protective towards their types. They were seen as a sign of individuality, a statement of independence in a trade that had become enslaved to industrialism. This was certainly William Morris’s view. Eric Gill shared these notions – in theory at least. In practice he was more of a pragmatist. His work for the Monotype Corporation (home to influential typefaces such as Times New Roman, Arial and Gill Sans, many of those created under the direction of Stanley Morrison) was very much that of a modern designer who combined the separate skills and demands of craft and industry. He lacked Morris’s desire for exclusivity.
The publication of The Four Gospels was both highlight and endgame for the Press. The Great Depression put all ambitions on hold. In 1933 the Press was once again for sale. The new buyer was a director of the Chiswick Press, Christopher Sandford (who, like Gibbings, was born in Cork), who closed down the workshop at Waltham St Lawrence and moved the type to the London office where Monotype setting was used at the expense of the Cockerel type. Sandford finally relinquished control in 1959, selling the Cockerel to the American publisher Thomas Yoseloff who, at the time, was director of the University of Pennsylvania Press. The latter completed four more publications, but towards the end of 1961 he wound up all operations, as the market for fine books had shrunk and the production of Golden Cockerel titles become too costly. Today, the patterns and matrices are held at the Cambridge University Press archive of private press material, which is placed in the University Library.
One of the most sought-after of the Golden Cockerel books is the four-volume Canterbury Tales, produced by Eric Gill and issued in 1931. A collector’s dream, it is one of the most beautiful books produced in the twentieth century, a pinnacle of private press publishing. Lavishly illustrated (into the title illustration Gill incorporated a cockerel, symbol of the press), the book took two and a half years to produce. Four hundred and eighty-five copies were printed on paper, and a further fifteen on vellum. Gill’s rich illustrations for The Canterbury Tales include tail pieces and initial letters for each of the tales, and borders which he designed as pairs throughout the book. Blue and red initial letters serve as a contemporary response to the medieval scribes he admired so much, thus marrying the illuminated manuscript tradition with a modernist aesthetic. Working closely together, Gill and Gibbings created a perfect marriage of type and illustration. All their editions went through a meticulous process of preparation. The type was set with space left for the artist’s borders and illustrations. Gill then drew his designs on the proof sheet itself before transferring them to the engraving block. He often revised his illustrations in the process. His stated ideal was that the engraving shall be part of the typography. In The Canterbury Tales he fully realized that ambition.