Gay Colours, Brave Crow
The Cockerel books were sumptuous; printed on vellum or handmade paper, and often bound in pigskin or morocco. They were illustrated with engravings in wood and copper, and often printed in unusual typefaces. Even in the 1930s they sold for up to 100 guineas each, although my father also turned out small and exquisite books for as little as 2s 6d. Now they can sell for a thousand pounds or more in the salerooms.
The output of the Golden Cockerel Press is chronicled in four bibliographies – Chanticleer (1936), Pertelote (1943), Cockalorum (1950) and Cock-a-Hoop (1976). The last mentioned was the 214th book to come from the Cockerel Press, and perhaps the final one.
Reading these bibliographies brings back many memories: of animated conferences between my father and authors or artists in the rose-filled gardens; of my mother, Lettice, busily at work sketching local trees, belfries, steam locomotives, my grandmother’s caravan, or tombs; of my father correcting galley proofs beneath a beech on the prehistoric fortress of Croft Ambrey. Sometimes there would be journeys in his ancient Jaguar to get artists’ and authors’ signatures, the signed ‘special’ issues.
After learning the craft of printing, like William Morris before him, at the Chiswick Press, my father entered publishing with a small press named after our family crest – The Boars Head Press, whose books were ‘written, designed, printed and embellished by Christopher and Lettice Sandford, and published by them at the sign of the Boars Head in Heathercombe, near Manaton, Devon.’ Heathercombe was a thatched farmhouse in a combe underneath the moors. My mother had studied art at the Chelsea Polytechnic with Graham Sutherland and other teachers. My father printed the books.
My favourite Boars Head book is Primaeval Gods, with poems by my father and illustrations by Blair Hughes Stanton. It is bound in light green with golden fly-leaves. ‘I was thinking of the vernal green of spring and how the sun gets suddenly brighter in the spring,’ said my father. In this book he prophesied that ‘Civilisation shall fall and be utterly destroyed. And a new people shall awaken in a green and pleasant land to sing God’s song.’ The print runs of these books were small, usually not more than 100.
After publishing some 10 books, my father felt that he needed a larger enterprise. In the spring of 1933 he heard that the Golden Cockerel Press, run for most of its life by Robert Gibbings, was for sale. Already this press had produced many magnificent books, with engravings by Gibbings, David Jones, Eric Ravilious, and others. Perhaps the finest is the Four Gospels, with illustrations by Eric Gill (1931). Volume 90, my father’s first, was The House with the Apricot, by H.E. Bates.
By number 97, The Book of Ecclesiastes (1934), printed in orange and black with 16 wood engravings by Blair Hughes-Stanton and some copies on vellum, he felt that he had found his feet. ‘Our press work in this book,’ he wrote, ‘is judged to be almost perfect. The engravings, which leave their finest white lines (which must not be lost) are the hardest in the world to print. They were, however, printed at one impression with the type.’
About six books a year were published, among them, in the two following years, The Golden Bed of Kydno, by Evadne Lascaris, perhaps the highest point of my mother’s career as an engraver, and the Cockerel Song of Songs, also illustrated by her.
The war came and my father, now a soldier, with his job of training guerillas to sabotage the Germans should they ever occupy Shropshire, Herefordshire or Monmouthshire, also still managed to produce fine books.
By 1950 my father felt that ‘The Golden Cockerel [has] achieved in collaboration with its artists, everything that could be done to develop engraving in black and white.’ He decided to break new ground by turning to colour. As a result, John Buckland Wright did the wood engravings for Salmacis and Hermaphroditus in golden yellow, grey and blue (which produced green when combined). And in September 1955 came a peculiarity, Against Women, a Satire. ‘I had such fun with this book,’ my father explained. ‘It was a mad 16th century Welshman’s idea of how wicked women are, and I felt I would go along with him and make the book as exciting as I could. John Petts, the artist I chose, used a pale blue, a pink, an ivory yellow and a dominant black. The women really are wicked creatures, and all the more desirable for that. For the binding of the specials I thought that real snakeskin would be gloriously appropriate, but I discovered that unfortunately it is perfectly beastly stuff to touch. Eventually I compromised with some purple Indian lizard skin.’
Public tastes changed and time was at length to decree that the long innings of the Cockerel must come to an end. My father wrote, in 1958; ‘Has the Golden Cockerel any place in this new world of scientific discovery and achievement? I suppose that science is complementary and not antithetical to the arts, and that some of our children may have the leisure and inclination to enjoy themselves not only in speedboats and hovercraft but also in their private libraries with books.’
David Chambers, the editor of Private Press Books, wrote in the catalogue to an exhibition of Cockerel engravers: ‘It cannot be said that the days of the great private press in Britain are over, but for the moment there is not one press commissioning work from young engravers in the grand way that was the Cockerel’s. The collection of engravings must make collectors pray for a new Cockerel to rise, a Golden Phoenix, in the dawn of a new day.’
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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