Thursday, November 18, 2010

Journal of the Pilgrim Fathers a Reason to Give Thanks

by Cokie Anderson

Title page and frontispiece of the Golden Cockerel Press Pilgrim Fathers (1939)

In Pertelote, the bibliography of the Golden Cockerel Press from October 1936 - April 1943, the partners of the press express their surprise that this account of the Pilgrims' journey to America and their subsequent travails there, "printed from an exceedingly rare volume [from 1622] in the British Museum, did not attract more attention among our American patrons. We know them to be interested in history: must it only be history other than their own?"

The text here was edited by Theodore Besterman (1904-76), an interesting character described by the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) as a "psychical researcher and bibliographer," not a combination one sees every day. Born in Poland, he grew up in Britain, and claimed to have educated himself at the British Museum Library. He was interested in psychic phenomena, and from 1927-35 he served as the investigating officer for the Society for Psychical Research, where his sometimes critical writings on the subject of mediums and spiritualism caused the Society's most prominent adherent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to resign in protest. In the 1930s, he devoted himself more wholeheartedly to bibliography, lecturing on the subject at the London School of Librarianship and penning the classic The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography (1935).

Besterman's interest in American history, familiarity with the collections of the British Library, and participation in the private press movement (he had a short-lived press of his own, the Guyon House Press, which was destroyed in the air raids of 1940) made him a ideal choice to edit this 140th publication by the Golden Cockerel Press. Founded in 1920 with the intention to print fine editions of important well-known books as well as new literary works of merit from young authors, the Golden Cockerel Press was purchased in 1924 by the illustrator and wood-engraver Robert Gibbings. "Under his direction," says press historian Roderick Cave, the press was "transformed into the principal vehicle for the renaissance of wood-engraved book illustration that took place in the years between the wars."

One of Geoffrey Wales' striking illustrations

The wood engravings in Pilgrim Fathers are by Geoffrey Wales, an art teacher pleased to accept a low fee in order to have his illustrations published. Cave describes them as very much in keeping with the subject matter and the typeface (Poliphilus) chosen for the book, being "deliberately 'rough' and chapbook-like." Gibbings and his partners felt that this was "one of the nicest books we have ever made--agreeable in its proportions, tasteful binding, beautiful paper, elegant typography, and exceptionally pleasant and dextrous engravings, all harmonizing with the charming content."

Denise Lubett's cartographic binding for Pilgrim Fathers

In the copy shown here, the original black morocco-backed paper baords have been replaced by a striking binding that at first glance does not seem to be pictorial; however, upon closer inspection, the clever tan-on-gray-green design presents a clear, if stylized, resemblance to the coastline of Massachusetts, at least as it was understood by the Dutch mapmakers of the first half of the 17th century. The area depicted comprises the coastline from Cape Cod northward through Boston into the southern portion of Maine, and the cartographical delineation corresponds to Blaeu's "Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova," which first appeared in 1635. It is the work of Denise Lubett, who studied bookbinding under John Corderoy at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and at the London College of Printing. She set up her own binderies in England and France in 1966. More restrained that Lubett's usual colorful and flamboyant work, this unusual cartographic binding is an excellent match to the design and spirit of the contents.

This book represents some of the things I am most thankful for in this season of gratitude: fine printing, private presses that preserve that art and craft, beautiful bindings and the artisans who create them, people who love books, and last but far from least, the country that emerged from those pilgrims' original quest for freedom.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Besterman, Theodore. The Pilgrim Fathers. (Golden Cockerel Press, 1939) 254 x 165 mm. (10 x 6 1/2").3 p.l. (including the frontispiece), 7-87, [1] pp., [1] leaf (blank). One of 300 copies. With eight woodcuts by Geoffrey Wales. Pertelote 140; Cave & Manson 140 and pp. 147-49.

All images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email