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Senate House Library

A Golden Cockerel Nativity


Written by
Tansy Barton, Manuscript and Print Studies

Just in time for Christmas, we have added a copy of one of the Golden Cockerel Press’s first group of illustrated stories from the Bible to our collections: The Nativity or The Birth of Christ from the Gospel According to Saint Luke (1925). Among the wood-engraved illustrations are an atmospheric nativity scene of the newborn baby Jesus in the stable and a frontispiece depicting Mother and Child attended by angels printed in red and black. The text is taken from the King James version of the Gospel of Luke and is also in red and black, following similar uses of red in typography in earlier private press books, a practice influenced by the use of red ink for rubrication in medieval manuscripts.


The Golden Cockerel Press was one of the major private presses of the 20th century and is particularly notable for working with a range of contemporary artists to produce original illustrations in a range of mediums for the Press’s productions.

The Press did not begin life as a private press dedicated to fine editions. Golden Cockerel was founded in 1921 with the aim of being a ‘co-operative society of authors and artists’ publishing works outside the interests of the main-stream publishing industry, producing editions of original work using small-scale craft printing methods. The Press’s founders and first owners, Hal and Gay Taylor soon found the financial and practical realities of running it did not meet their idealistic aims and in 1924 the enterprise was purchased by Irish artist and wood-engraver Robert Gibbings. The Press had already begun to move towards fine printing for the collector's market and under Gibbings it was to ‘produce the finest books only, books where text, type and decorations are most in harmony, and representative of the thought and atmosphere of our times and art.’

The Birth of Christ was part of Gibbings’s second set of illustrated books for the Press, published in 1925. Each book was illustrated by a different artist and was designed around the artist’s style and choice of engravings. As well as The Birth of Christ, the series included Sansom and Delilah, illustrated by Gibbings and The Song of Songs, with designs by Eric Gill, who would work on some of the Press’s most significant productions. The book’s engravings and design are by the artist and wood-engraver Noel Rooke. Rooke had a significant impact on the revival of wood engraving as an artform and for book illustration, exemplified by presses like Golden Cockerel and its contemporaries. He believed in the importance of creativity in both design and the engraving process itself, emphasising the importance of the artist-engraver. This is one of the few books Rooke illustrated and designed himself but as a teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, he taught many leading artists who went on to excel in wood-engraving including Gibbings and Gill.


Rooke designed the book’s typography and decorations, as well as producing the illustrations. Roderick Cave and Sarah Mason, in their history of the Press, describe this little book as having a 'curiously old-fashioned air’, recalling the earlier period of private press books and wood-engraving in the 1890s and the engravings of Lucien Pissarro. This can be seen particularly in the frontispiece. Rooke’s more traditional style was certainly a contrast with some of the presses more famous and modern illustrators and designers, such as Gill and David Jones and Gibbings’s developing, modern style of typography.

The book was acquired from the Ethel M. Wood fund to be added to the collection of the same name. The Collection comprises over 400 English and American Bibles, and has many of the earliest versions of the Bible in English in the Library including the Coverdale Bible (1550) and the Geneva Bible (1560). It also adds to our holdings of Golden Cockerel productions, mostly found in the Sterling Library’s Private Press collection. There are around 100 Golden Cockerel publications in the collection as well as prospectuses and catalogues. The collection includes several of the Press’s major works, such as The Four Gospels (1931) and the four volume Canterbury Tales (1929), both featuring designs and engravings by Gill.