LONDON - In the second of two blogs, Jennifer Dell discusses the golden age of the private press and the British artists who led in the craft of fine book making. Here she discusses the work of Eric Gill and Eric Ravilious.
Eric Gill, after William Morris, is arguably the artist most closely associated with the private press movement and the revival of wood engraving in the early 20th century. Having moved to Ditchling, Sussex in 1907, in 1921 Gill there established the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic based on the idea of a medieval guild alongside Hilary (Douglas) Pepler. The St Dominic’s Press was a crucial part of their community. Gill went on to print with Rene Hague (a beautiful copy of Hamlet printed by Gill and Hague is offered as part of Lot 215), and his friend Robert Gibbings at the Golden Cockerel Press.
LOT 215 (PART OF): HAMLET. HIGH WYCOMBE: HAGUE AND GILL FOR THE LIMITED EDITIONS CLUB, 1933 WITH COVER DESIGNS
AND ENGRAVINGS BY ERIC GILL.
Gibbings had been approached by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1922 to illustrate The Lives of Gallent Ladies. Shortly after accepting the commission, Gibbings heard that the founder was gravely ill and the press was closing down. On an impulse, Gibbings borrowed the money from his friend Hubert Pike, a director of Bentley Motors, to buy the press himself, and by 1925 was running the press with his wife Moira. Under their influence, the Golden Cockerel Press flourished and became well-known for the important role illustration and engraving played in their publications. As Colin Franklin observes in The Private Presses (1969), “the work of the engravers of the Golden Cockerel books gives the press its greatest distinction and made a whole period of woodcut revival.” We are delighted to be offering a collection of books printed at the Golden Cockerel Press from the collection of Gary E. Prouk in our sale this December.
Himself an artist and author, Gibbings had founded the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920, supported by a number of upcoming artists and illustrators of the day. In November 1925, Paul Nash, a founder member, proposed one of his former students at the Royal College of Art for membership, Eric Ravilious.
While a reappraisal of Ravilious painted work is currently underway – with an exhibition of his wonderfully evocative watercolours of the English countryside running at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the end of August, it was as a designer that Ravilious trained at the Royal College of Art, where he was a contemporary of Henry Moore. His reputation until very recently has been as a craftsman rather than a painter. However, he was an exceptionally talented engraver, and it was as an illustrator that he made his living. Having met Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings in the late 1920s, Ravilious worked for them at the Golden Cockerel Press on a number of occasions and also illustrated for many other private presses and publishers.
LOT 220 (PART OF): THE WOOD ENGRAVINGS OF ERIC RAVILIOUS. LION AND UNICORN PRESS, 1972.
The close relationship between his engraved and his painted work can be seen in his 1928 illustrations for an Almanack for the Lanston Monotype Corporation. Ravilious placed mythical figures relating to each month against his characteristic Sussex landscapes. His illustration for May depicts the long man of Wilmington, who reappeared in The Wilmington Giant, a watercolour he executed in August 1939, now in the collection of the V&A. Another painting from this series, The Westbury Horse (1939) is currently on view in the Dulwich exhibition. Engraving taught Ravilious about texture, a skill he transferred to his painting throughout his short life; appointed an official war artist by Kenneth Clark, Ravilious joined a rescue flight off Iceland in 1942 from which he never returned.
LOT 214 (PART OF): ALMANACK 1929. LANSTON MONOTYPE CORPORATION, 1929 [1928.]
Indeed, it was the arrival of the Second World War which marked the end of the private press movement. War and depression meant the market for high-quality books began to dwindle, and expensive production costs for limited edition runs meant that it became increasingly trickier to keep the presses commercially successful. However, throughout the late 20th century interest in the private presses continued, both in the form of new presses and through collectors, with such books continuing to be highly sought after.
LOT 220 (PART OF): WILLIAM MORRIS: THE STORY OF CUPID AND PSYCHE. CLOVER HILL EDITIONS,
1974 INCLUDING ILLUSTRATIONS PREPARED BY MORRIS AND BURNE-JONES FOR
THE EARTHLY PARADISE, WHICH WAS NEVER PUBLISHED.
The close association between artists and the private press endures. Just as Ricketts at the Vale Press looked back to that other icon of English engraving and printing, William Blake (see Lot 203), many contemporary presses have revisited the work of the early 20th century artists, but also collaborated with the new artists which have emerged with each generation.