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U&lc Online Issue: Other Articles


Robert Gibbings

 

 


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The huge, genial figure of Robert Gibbings first loomed into my life around 1953. I had been commissioned by the Limited Editions Club to design an edition of Charles Darwin’s record of The Voyage of the Beagle which Robert was to illustrate with wood engravings. His earlier work on wood was very familiar to me, and I particularly admired the books he had designed and illustrated between 1924 and 1933. During that period he had directed the Golden Cockerel Press where he was responsible for seventy-two limited editions of which forty-seven were illustrated with wood engravings. Eighteen of these had engravings by Gibbings.

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Wood engraving had been Robert’s favourite method for book-illustration since 1920 when he was one of ten founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers. He had been taught how to engrave on wood by Noel Rooke at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.

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Robert was particularly well qualified to illustrate Darwin’s narrative of his journey aboard The Beagle: like Darwin he was a highly observant naturalist, and had visited several of the places where Darwin had been put ashore during his voyage. Some of Robert’s illustrations for the narrative were based closely on sketches he had made during his travels.

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When I had to decide which typeface to use for the new edition of Darwin’s text, I had to face the same problems which had confronted Robert when he took over the Golden Cockerel Press. Most of the available typefaces were too light in weight to create a harmonious page when a wood engraving was placed alongside text ‚ both on the same page. My solution to the problem was to use a rather unusual Monotype recutting of a type which was named Poliphilus because it had been used first in 1499 by the Venetian publisher Aldus for his illustrated edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. What made the Monotype recutting was that it had been made to the order of a publisher who intended to produce a translation of The Dream of Poliphilo and to print it as an exact facsimile of the original edition. This meant that the type used by Aldus had to be reproduced precisely as it looked in the 1499 printing, including the thickening of the type caused by it having been printed on dampened handmade paper. The Monotype recutting was so close that when a trial page was put next to the original, the only visible difference was in the paper.

It would have been possible to have recut the 1499 type so that the letters were more like those cut by the original punchcutter. But the version recut in 1923 by the Monotype Corporation had the advantage that its somewhat ‘worn’ appearance created a darker mass of text. This was exactly the quality which made it so well suited for an edition illustrated with wood engravings cut in a robust style. Robert was happy with my choice, and so was the New York publisher.

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Although Monotype Poliphilus had been available in 1923, a year before Robert took over the Golden Cockerel Press, he never used it there because all its books were set by hand in Caslon type. The founts were cast in London by H. W. Caslon & Co. Ltd. using a harder metal than was used with Monotype casters, so the type stood up better to the strain of being firmly impressed into dampened handmade paper.

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By taking great care with the close and even spacing of the type and with its inking, Robert managed to make foundry-cast Caslon type look darker than usual, thereby creating a more even texture for book pages illustrated with wood engravings. His views on how best to integrate type with wood engravings were ably expressed in an article on ‘The Golden Cockerel Press’ which was published in The Woodcut (London 1927): ‘Type when properly printed requires a nicely adjusted quantity of ink per square inch: a fraction too much, and it fills up; a fraction too little, and it prints grey. It must be obvious that a block set amongst type must, for success, approximate to the texture of the type, otherwise one or the other must suffer in printing. But even if the area of the actual printing surface conforms to that of the type, there is need that the unit of texture should in some degree approach the unit of the texture of type. A few coarse lines left standing on a block may print well with small type, but they won’t look well. Something of the relationship of the thick and thin of the type must be observed in the block. One might almost suggest that it would be a good rule only to use gravers of a size which might conceivably have been used for engraving the type, but that is perhaps a little severe’.

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Robert went on to cite Eric Gill’s set of twenty wood engravings for The Song of Songs (Golden Cockerel Press, 1925) as ‘an entirely successful example of harmony between blocks and type’. That degree of harmony was achieved largely by Gill leaving quite large areas of white in his larger illustrations, thereby lightening his engravings to a point where they settled well with the accompanying text composed in Caslon. But as his friendship with Robert deepened through further collaboration on Golden Cockerel books, both men came to realize that perfect harmony between text and illustration could only be attained by creating a new type to meet their own special needs. So Gill set to work on designing the Golden Cockerel type in 1928. By then Stanley Morison had persuaded him to supply drawings for new types needed by the Monotype Corporation (to which Morison acted as typographical adviser). Even though Morison knew that the Golden Cockerel type was to be made by the Caslon typefoundry, he helpfully gave technical advice to Gill about its manufacture.

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The owners of several earlier private presses had obtained new types made for reasons very similar to those which motivated Robert and Gill in 1928. Why none of these earlier proprietary typefaces appealed to Robert or Gill is easy to understand when you begin to classify these designs. Either they were revivals or adaptations of types used in the first century after the invention of printing (as with the Kelmscott, Eragny and Ashendene Presses); or they were wildly idiosyncratic designs by artists (as for the Vale and Essex House Presses).

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What Robert and Gill wanted was a new type which would create a strong enough texture to harmonize with the work of several contemporary British wood engravers commissioned by the Golden Cockerel Press. They did not believe that the solution would be found by reviving or tinkering with type designs or earlier periods, nor by adopting a type so full of eccentricities that it would distract from the enjoyment of either texts or illustrations.

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In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, British typefounders had produced bolder and stronger types in the 19th century. Unfortunately for the book printers, these suffered from the disadvantage of having been designed to draw attention to headings or individual phrases in catalogues, timetables, reference works and all kinds of ‘jobbing’ or ‘display’ printing. So these types known as Clarendons, Sans Serifs, Grotesques and bolds were too forceful and assertive to be suitable for bookwork involving long continuous texts.

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Private presses like the Golden Cockerel were always fastidious in their choice of typefaces because they took greater care than larger commercial book-printers to maintain even spacing throughout their books, and to keep up high standards of consistent press-work. They knew from experience that fine books could be produced only if they were set in types which had been expertly designed and cut. The same lesson had been learnt by private presses in other parts of Europe; and as Robert and Gill went occasionally to France, they may have been aware of the work of Louis Jou (1881‚1968), a Catalan who settled in France.

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Jou was an extremely industrious and versatile artist who set up his own press in1929 after working for fifteen years with other Parisian printers. He engraved his own illustrations and decorations on wood. He also designed and cut his own types. For several of these he himself cut the punches; later the range of sizes was extended by Charles Malin, the Parisian punchcutter who made a trial size of Gill’s Monotype Perpetua for Stanley Morison in 1926. Jou’s talents had been handsomely displayed in his edition of Machiavelli’s Le Prince (Paris 1921), the first book set in Jou’s type. A wider appreciation of his work resulted from an article he contributed to a new periodical Arts et Metiers Graphiques no. 3 (Paris 1928). His masterpiece was a three-volume edition of Les Essais by Montaigne (Paris 1934‚6) in which Jou generously acknowledged the help he had been given with his later types by le brave Charles Malin.

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To Robert and Gill, the type cut by Jou which was first used in Le Prince might have looked too mannered and archaic for their own tastes. Several of the letters appear to be coarsely cut when they are compared with Jou’s later types which Malin cut for him. Yet Robert and Gill might have appreciated the large number of alternative characters provided in the 14 point size which helped the compositor to achieve very even spacing between words. These alternative characters included four ampersands (&) on different widths and seven letters with swash terminals for use at the end of a word where otherwise too much space might have caused a gap. Nothing on this scale was made for the Golden Cockerel fount, but it did include three ornaments (a star, and two flowers with petals) for use between sentences. And like Jou’s types, inter-character spacing or ‘fit’ between letters was extremely close between the Golden Cockerel letters. This close fit was easier to achieve for typefounders than it was for the manufacturers of Monotype or Linotype machinery.

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I find it rewarding to compare the Golden Cockerel fount with one other private press fount which was made a few years later for the Officina Bodoni in Verona. Zeno was designed by Giovanni Mardersteig, the founder of the press, in 1931--the year when the Golden Cockerel edition of The Four Gospels was published. It is easy to compare the two designs because Zeno was used for the Officina Bodoni’s edition of The Gospels published in 1962.

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Mardersteig based his design on a manuscript written c. 1520 by the great writing master and scribe Ludovico Arrighi of Vicenza. Zeno benefited from Mardersteig’s experience of printing with his own hands on his hand press, and from his increasing use of wood engraved illustrations. The transition from sixteenth century hand-written letters to twentieth century type-castings was made much easier by the trusting and admiring relationship which had developed during previous collaboration between the designer and the punchcutter. After Malin’s death, Mardersteig declared that without his ‘empathy and understanding, without his dedication to, and mastery of, the engravers’ craft, the different typefaces he cut for me would never have expressed my concept of them so perfectly’.

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The stages between concept and execution of a type design were complicated by the fact that most designers of text types drew their letters on a greatly enlarged scale, using pens and brushes; whereas a punchcutter engraved letters in exactly the same size as the type required.

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Partly because of the character of the collaboration between Mardersteig and Malin, Zeno shows sharper contrast between thick and thin strokes, and has finer serifs than the Golden Cockerel type. Furthermore the fit of the letters is looser in Zeno because Mardersteig preferred a less dense page than Gibbings, with more space between the lines. Both Zeno and the Golden Cockerel type came into existence for similar reasons, and were indeed used with wood engravings for the same text. Nevertheless the difference between the two typefaces reflect the divergent preferences and methods of the two type designers.

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One vital feature common to both typefaces is the strong colour of the letters. In the Golden Cockerel type the letterforms are consistently robust, and well suited to manufacture in the full range of sizes needed for text composition. For display work, extra founts of titling and initials have been made, based on designs by Gill which were used in The Four Gospels. In that magnificent Golden Cockerel edition of 1931, Gill used large letters as a framework for most of his illustrations. But his scheme was not yet fully developed in 1930 when he engraved his first illustration of ‘The Epiphany’ for a prospectus and specimen page. Later the figures in his illustrations were ingeniously intertwined with the letters of a complete word. Not only was this a novel idea; it also allowed full rein to the talent he had developed as a monumental mason for designing letterforms specifically to suit individual words and names.

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Great credit must also go to Robert Gibbings for the success of the Golden Cockerel type, and of its edition of The Four Gospels. Early in their collaboration, Gill had stated publicly: ‘if a man be an engraver, he is only actually responsible for his engraving. If he hands his blocks or plates over to a publisher, it is not his concern what use is made of them’. This wrong-headed idea had led Gill to provide Robert with a set of wood engravings to illustrate an edition of Sonnets and Verses (1925) by Gill’s sister, Enid Clay. Robert put these engravings with his Caslon type as best he could, but the weight of the engravings was discordantly heavy for the type. As Robert put it the blocks and type ’had little more than a brotherly-sisterly relationship--that is to say, the designing and cutting of the wood did not await setting of the type’.

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By 1930 when the two friends sat down to plan The Four Gospels, they had agreed to set up in type an entire gospel and to proof it so that a complete page paste-up could be made with spaces of various dimensions left for illustrations and decorations. Gill then sketched his engravings with pen and ink in the agreed spaces. To quote Robert again, ‘such a game can only be played where the artists and compositors are in daily touch--herein, at least, lies one advantage of being printer and artist at one and the same time’.

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The rules of the ‘game’ Robert mentioned have changed almost beyond recognition with the widespread use of personal computers and digitised typefaces. A few fine illustrated editions are still produced by small private presses using letterpress equipment. But a great amount of excellent work is now produced by writers and craftsmen without the help of craftsmen trained in traditional skills. Many newcomers to book production will warmly welcome the availability of ITC Golden Cockerel type: the quality and completeness of the digitised version make it an exciting addition to the small number of typefaces that are suitable for text composition where illustration plays an important part.

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A final word on the strong colour of the Golden Cockerel type: what if it is found to be too heavy for use with lighter illustrations? In such cases I recommend following a practice used by Carl Zahn, designer of many splendid catalogues for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When he saw proofs of his catalogue for the exhibition of The Artist & The Book 1860‚1960 (Boston 1961), he was upset that the text set in Hermann Zapf’s Palatino type looked too dark against severely reduced reproductions of illustrated texts. So the text of the catalogue was reduced in strength by applying a 300-line screen, which nobody detected--but it did the trick.

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John Dreyfus, founding member of ATypI in 1957, President from 1968‚73, and now Honorary President, is also the President of The Printing Historical Society, the recipient of the 1996 Gutenburg prize, and author of A Typographic Masterpiece, a definitive analysis of the production of The Four Gospels by the Golden Cockerel Press.

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Click here to return to the list of ITC Golden Cockerel essays.

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