The Word Embodied: Scripture as Creative Inspiration in Twentieth-Century Book Arts
March 1–June 15, 2019
The Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Galleries
The transmission of culturally significant texts, especially Scripture, has always been a serious task. In the manuscript era, scribes paid strict attention to the precise copying of the Bible so as not to corrupt its sacred message. Scripture was thoughtfully laid out in columns and surrounded by generous margins. Vivid features including initial letters, rubrication, and decorative flourishes both aided the reader and sought to embellish and glorify the Word of God. Illustrations sometimes further magnified written works with narrative depictions of biblical stories. Away from the written page, artists portrayed people and events of Scripture in drawings, paintings, and sculptures.
With the advent of moveable type larger audiences had access to the Bible. Early typeface designers created elegant fonts based on script while book designers continued the tradition of hand illuminating initial letters and other decorative elements. As the technology matured, handiwork was replaced by more expedient printing methods. Over time, efficiency, speed, and cost continued to drive further developments in mechanization and the division of labor. By the nineteenth century, industrial practices had advanced in book production and related trades. Critics reacting to what they saw as the deterioration of quality formed the Arts and Crafts movement, which sought to revive traditional hand crafts and promote thoughtful design. Prominent in this movement was William Morris (1834–1896), an artist and designer who profoundly influenced the course of printing. Morris looked to the past both for manufacturing techniques and aesthetic principles. The Kelmscott Press, which Morris established in 1891 and operated until 1899, produced richly decorated volumes inspired by medieval manuscripts and early printed books. Kelmscott publications constitute a bridge between early printers and those in the twentieth century who would embrace the self-conscious articulation of principles but reject Morris’s aesthetic as backward.
At the beginning of the century, T. J. (Thomas James) Cobden-Sanderson (1840–1922), co-founder of the Doves Press, began printing truly modern works characterized by austerity in design and typographic precision. He established an aesthetic that would shape the course of fine press printing for decades. In The Ideal Book or Book Beautiful (1900), Cobden-Sanderson outlined a personal philosophy that established the clear communication of a text’s central message as the preeminent responsibility of a printer. He cautioned against the use of decoration and illustration, lest the illustrator overshadow the work of the author or, worse, use it merely as pretext for the publication of her or his own work. Regarding the Doves Press Bible, Cobden-Sanderson wrote, “Let me desire for it the most beautiful frame possible … set forth, not ornamentally for a collector’s toy, but severely, plainly, monumentally, for a nation’s masterpiece, for a nation’s guidance, consolation, and hope!” Cobden-Sanderson’s principles and designs resonated with a generation of typographers, printers, and critics, leading many to condemn the decorative exuberance of Morris’s Kelmscott press.
Yet as the century progressed, variation developed in both ideology and practice, especially regarding illustration and decoration. Some presses specifically aimed to exhibit the work of renowned artists, such as Michèle Forgeois, Marc Chagall, and Salvador Dalí, while others sought to balance illustration and text. Later twentieth-century artists viewed the book itself as the medium for artistic expression, developing innovative designs meant to convey their personal interpretations of texts or to evoke responses from readers. Instead of directly illustrating the biblical narrative, artists like Ron King employed abstract images to convey emotion, while Natalie d’Arbeloff sought to convey the disorienting experience of prophetic visions. In 1983 Andrew Hoyem, founder of the Arion Press, said, “Unlike the proprietors of private presses in the past… I am more interested in a more varied approach. We are not just following in the footsteps of our predecessors.”
Twentieth-century printers and artists developed aesthetic principles that articulated the power of the book to influence the reader’s experience of a text. They endeavored not simply to copy or illustrate Scripture but to embody it in a meaningful form. Whether austere or exuberant in design, these books were conceived to give countenance to the spirit within. Consideration of what constitutes the book arts in the twentieth century and today inevitably confronts a variety of terms, including fine press, private press, livre d’artistes, artists’ books, and others. Such terms are often misunderstood and conflated, and they may in fact overlap. The purpose of this exhibition is not to define the boundaries of these categories nor to assert an orthodoxy, which itself would merely be subjective. Rather, here we explore the book as a creative expression and the wide array of inspirations, methodologies, and realizations experienced and expressed throughout the period.
Artists and printers produced innovative and evocative presentations of Scripture in the twentieth century, which they modeled on new ways of thinking about printing, illustration, and the book itself. The diversity of expressions arose from an array of personal philosophies, which some individuals articulated in print.
Perhaps the most notable of these was T. J. Cobden-Sanderson of The Doves Press who published at least four titles between 1900 and 1922 in which he delineated aesthetic standards and principles for the education and practice of book workers. In The Ideal Book or Book Beautiful (1900), he advocated for unity and balance among lettering, illustration, and layout. He further cautioned against illustration and decoration as potentially overshadowing the message of a text. Exacting, opinionated, and didactic, Cobden-Sanderson endeavored not simply to describe his own process but to promote his principles for application by others. He even produced works advocating his vision for the unification of trade guilds and the design of cities. The title of his 1922 publication, Cosmic Vision, suggests the breadth of his ambitions.
Lewis and Dorothy Allen of The Allen Press also emphasized harmony among the elements contributing to their concept of the ideal book, but unlike Cobden-Sanderson, the Allens did not eschew illustration. In their 1981 bibliography, they defined eight virtues: significant text, graphic work by a major artist, typography, hand-craftsmanship, quality materials, the suitable use of color, and an appropriate box or binding, all united with “delicacy, restraint, and apparent casualness without evidence of sterile formula…”
Contemporary book artist, Susan Allix, states that she “uses the book as a creative medium.… All the books are made by hand, but they are thought of more as paintings or sculptures than craft works.”
Writing about her press, Robin Price said, “The press exists for the passion of making finely crafted books by hand which integrate literature and art.” The point of emphasis in this opening statement is passion, a personal experience shaped by the sensuality of books as physical objects, the spirituality of the words to which she is drawn, and her artistic collaborators who share an affinity for the text.
Women in Book Arts
The casual reader of the classic histories of twentieth-century fine presses will not see the names of many women, yet close readings of the catalogs and bibliographies of individual presses reveal the critical roles women played in every element of book design and craft, from composition and printing to illustration and binding. Names most familiar from the start of the century will include the illuminator Florence Kingsford Cockerell and the award-winning binder Katharine Adams, both of whom are featured in this exhibition. Throughout the century women performed every role in the making of fine press and artists’ books, from collaborative craftsperson to founder and proprietor of presses. Binders include Helen Warren DeGolyer, Claudia Cohen, Sarah Creighton, and Tara Devereaux. Illustrators include Joyce Alexander, Michèle Forgeois, Gertrude Hermes, Hester Sainsbury, and Barbara Benish. Women have held, and continue to hold, leadership positions in the business of book making, as well. Katharine Frazier, Director of the Cummington School of the Arts, founded that institution’s press; Dorothy Allen, Rosalind Randall, and Joyce Alexander each founded and ran presses with their spouses; and the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Flemington, New Jersey, established a press of their own. The latter twentieth century has seen the rise of the individual book artist, such as Susan Allix, Natalie D’Arbeloff, and Robin Price. These artists often design, print, illustrate, and bind their work entirely on their own, though many also develop collaborative relationships. This exhibition features sixteen works in which women are expressly credited for their contributions. The names mentioned here are simply representative and opportunities abound to explore further the histories of these artists and craftspeople.
Letterform: Calligraphy and Type Design
Letterform excited the imagination of artists and designers throughout the twentieth century. Presses frequently created their own typefaces, often based on historical antecedents found in fifteenth-century printed books. The Doves, Ashendene, and Golden Cockerell presses were among those that developed proprietary fonts. Joseph Blumenthal created the Emerson typeface used by his Spiral Press and which he also made commercially available to other printers. Bruce Rogers designed his Centaur typeface in 1915 and later modified it for use in the Oxford Lectern Bible. T. J. Cobden-Sanderson suggested that all book workers study calligraphy in order to “keep type alive under the influence of an ever living & fluent prototype.” But calligraphy did not simply inform the development of typefaces. It is sometimes found as an extra embellishment in printed books. Calligraphic work done by hand takes considerable time. The examples featured here limit such handiwork to the creation of extraordinary initials, as seen in the Arion Press Bible and The Voice of the Prophets by St. Teresa’s Press. In other cases, artists and presses chose to write out entire texts by hand but then employed some method of printing, such as wood engraving or lithography, to reproduce the manuscript text for the entire edition. Examples in this exhibition include the work of Ben Shahn, the Turtle’s Quill Scriptorium, Boxwood Press, and Pear Tree Press.
Inspiration and the Selection of Text
“We don’t recall what guided us towards the Bible, although when in the spirit, we always worked religiously,” stated Lewis and Dorothy Allen about The Book of Genesis published by their Allen Press. Other printers and artists were more explicit regarding their sources of inspiration. Most presses were not religiously oriented. The sole exception in this exhibition is St. Teresa’s Press, which published In the Beginning God . . . to commemorate the first manned lunar flight. Some artists credited formative, personal experiences of Scripture, including Ben Shahn, who completed two editions of Ecclesiastes; Marc Chagall, who produced three biblical works; and Bernard Alan Solomon, who produced his own translation for the Boxwood Press edition of the Song of Songs. Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the Biblia Sacra were commissioned by his friend Giuseppe Albaretto, who hoped to inspire Dalí by virtue of the contemplation he expected the work to require. Other printers were inspired simply to produce editions of great literature. The Psalms of David and Others from the Arion Press showcased the sixteenth-century English translations of Arthur Golding. Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, who identified throughout his life as a non-Christian, explained in the Catalogue Raisonné of the Doves Press that one purpose of the Press was “to print in a suitable form some of the great literary achievements of man’s creative and constructive genius.” He characterized the English translation of the King James Version as “a supreme achievement of English literature, if not of English thought.”
I would like to thank Daniel J. Slive, Head of Special Collections, for giving me the opportunity to curate this exhibition. I would also like to thank Ronald Patkus, Vassar College, for sharing the knowledge and experience he gained in writing his book on private press Bibles, which provided a critical starting point for my own research. I would especially like to thank my colleagues at Bridwell Library for their assistance in putting together this exhibition and catalog. This was a truly collaborative effort that greatly benefited from editorial review provided by Jane Lenz Elder, Jon Speck, and Rebecca Howdeshell. Jon and Rebecca additionally leant their artistic sensibilities, offering suggestions for featured openings when it was difficult for me to narrow down my options. They and Bridwell Director, Anthony Elia, further made excellent suggestions for additions to my initial selection of texts. Jon further designed the physical exhibition, Rebecca designed the online exhibition, and both worked with me on preparing materials for this catalog, which was designed and printed by Bradley Hutchinson. Lastly but certainly not least, I would like to thank the many artists, printers, and others who generously granted permission to publish images of the featured works, including: Natalie D’Arbeloff, NdA Press; Frances McDowall, Old Stile Press; Robin Price; Ron King, Circle Press; Andrew Hoyem, the Arion Press; the Oxford University Press; Julie Markey at Artists Rights Society (ARS), Susan Allix, Willow Press, and the Brandeis University National Committee.
R. ARVID NELSEN