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Monday, 14 March 2011

Book Design

I should be finishing up my first dissertation but I keep reading and this continually opens up new angles. Over the past few days I have been following up a few ideas about the significance of fully-integrated book design in Jones' poem The Anathemata. Part of my argument is that the physical book of The Anathemata becomes a sign in itself, an object which the reader uses to perform an 'anamnesis' , like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. It suddenly occurred to me that treating the book as a utile sign in itself has its roots in a far deeper history. Gill and Jones were involved with the private printing presses of Hilary Pepler and Robert Gibbings; The St. Dominic's press at Ditchling and The Golden Cockerel Press. Anyway this has led me down the criss-crossing history paths of further research. This further 'research' mostly involves requesting the most beautiful books from the stacks and absorbing every minute detail of its design. I have been reading about the history of these two presses, feeling the quality of its paper choices beneath my fingertips, seeing carefully selected typefaces which have been handset, and perhaps best of all admiring the specially commissioned wood cuts and engravings which revived a dying art.

Eric Gill, Four Gospels

There are two masterworks I have been studying. The first is Eric Gill's Four Gospels for the Golden Cockerel Press. Gibbings gave Gill the typeface as a framework and the engravings grew from this. As I looked through the pages I could sense the perfected unity which this process of working had produced. The letters are interwoven with the designs, so that story and illustration are an integrated and fluent whole.

I am very tempted to take this page and head my dissertation with it, at the moment I have a simple quotation 'In the beginning was the Word [...] The Word made flesh.' but perhaps this invokes so much more?

It is clear from these pages and excerpts the extent to which Gill was experimenting with typography, layout and the relationship between visual and linguistic arrangements of meaning. This is one of the side effects of my dissertation, that suddenly I have this overwhelming appreciation for typography. Typography which once seemed the most incidental of things has become this vessel of resonant meaning.

I read somewhere that copies of Gill's The Four Gospels now sell for around £5000. This moment in the University Library, touching vellum and hand-pressed paper, is the closest I will ever get to such essential perfection!

For David Jones' masterwork of Book Design I looked to the Chester Play of the Deluge which he produced woodcuts for in 1927 for the Golden Cockerel Press. The collaboration with Robert Gibbings on this project enabled him to take more of an interest in layout and to produce woodblocks of an even greater complexity. The engravings are dark, compact knots of energy. They capture the chaos and power of the biblical story of Noah. My attention was directed towards The Deluge mostly because of a scholar called Thomas Dilworth who writes that Jones's Anathemata takes its spatial structure from an artistic development that Jones made in these same woodcuts.

The Deluge, David Jones

Building the Ark, Jones

After the Deluge, Jones

While I agree with Dilworth's description of the spatial structuring in these woodcuts, the point I want to make about David Jones' and his involvement with book design is something very different. But I'm not going to give anything away in that regard...

This remains as a glimpse in to my afternoon of discovery, I hope you have a feel for something significant and exciting in this.


  1. nice post

    p.s if you want to stay on ma "daily visits" list, come to my place and leave a comment.

  2. Really gorgeous images... I particularly love the one of Jesus being taken down from the cross. The way the bodies are moving around that "A" really makes the letter have quite a violent power. The point of the "A" visually pierces through this violent event, yet facilitates the compassionate, tender removal of his body. Stunning...

  3. I've just found your blog and I absolutely love this post. I've just started my Final Major Project on my foundation degree, in which I'm exploring typography and illustration. These illustrated letters are wonderful, its such a shame that most books today don't include things like this. Would you mind if I used some of these images? (with credit to your blog, of course)

  4. I wish that someone would re-discover Stanley Morison, the great typographer and bookman,catholic convert,near-communist,liturgist,calligrapher,gourmet, many of whose letters are in the Fitzwilliam & there is a massive biography by Nicholas Barker.Alan Robinson

  5. Great to read about Gibbings here, and to see these gorgeous prints. Defo exciting and significant. Thanks :)

  6. really like these, thank you.