Library Acquires a Doves Bible Leaf on Vellum

Special Collections and University Archives has recently acquired a printed leaf from a vellum copy of the esteemed Doves Press English Bible.

This leaf from the first book of Chronicles (p. 119-120, vol. II) is an excellent example of the fine presswork and craftsmanship of Arts and Crafts bookmaking, an international art movement that emulated forms and decorations of the past and championed social and economic reform.

Doves Press was founded in 1900 by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker, a bookbinder and photo-engraver respectively. The works of the Doves Press and earlier established Doves Bindery were aligned with the overall aim of reviving fine printing and bookmaking of the past. Cobden-Sanderson did not adhere as closely to the Medieval codex model as his famous contemporary, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. Morris wanted to copy the scribal tradition wherein the two-column design, illumination and rubrication was used. In Cobden-Sanderson’s idealized book, he sought to create a work that elegantly wove typography, printing, and binding together.

In 1900, Cobden-Sanderson published a treatise on these views in The Ideal Book or Book Beautiful. “To force ourselves into the forms of other times is to be affected, and to be useless for our time.” Unlike the elaborate mediaeval style of Kelmscott books, the pages of Doves Press books are starkly simple and elegant, which, as an aesthetic, served to revitalize the printing world as much as Morris’ fine press books.

The English Bible in five volumes was published in a run of only 500 copies by the Doves Press between 1903-1905. Its elaborate craft and design places it among the most beautiful books ever made. One of the great achievements of this Press was its development of a new font design. The Doves type was based on types designed by the 15th century Venetian printer, Nicolas Jenson, and similar to Morris’s earlier Golden Type. Cobden-Sanderson had the design cut by the renown punch-cutter, Edward Prince, who had cut the Golden Type for Morris. The Doves Press produced all its books using a single size (16 pt.) of this type.

In an article in the Literary Supplement to The Times (12 April 1917), the author mourned the closure of the press and praised their work:

Perhaps of all the books The English Bible is the one at which criticism stops short, so perfect is it in the proportion of its page, the sparing and judicious use of red, the admirable arrangement of the poetical portions. It is a noble book which will bear comparison with the great examples of typography of all time.

Cobden-Sanderson and the Doves Press achieved renown when Cobden-Sanderson revealed he chose to destroy the Doves type, by sinking it in the River Thames in small packets at a time, rather than let it pass to his business partner Emery Walker. In an endeavor that took about five months, Cobden-Sanderson tossed a total of 2,600 pounds of type, across a half-mile trip at least 170 times in winter — a great task for a delicate 76-year-old man. In 2013, the Doves type was digitally recreated by typographer Robert Green who led a team to find and recover 151 original sorts from the bed of the Thames in November 2014.

Detail of Doves Type

This new acquisition of the English Bible leaf will provide researchers with a contrasting vellum specimen to the full edition of The English Bible printed on paper, also held by Special Collections and University Archives. It is thought that only a handful of special editions in each run were printed entirely on vellum.

Vellum (derived from the Latin word vitulinum meaning “made from calf”) is prepared animal skin or “membrane” used as a material for writing on. Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation and the quality of the skin. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a “herse”), and scraping of the skin with a crescent-shaped knife (a “lunarium” or “lunellum”). To create tension, scraping is alternated with wetting and drying. A final finish may be achieved by abrading the surface with pumice, and treating with a preparation of lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink.

Vellum is an exceptionally difficult material to use with a hand press. Paper is made of fibrous material which absorbs the introduction of ink more precisely. With vellum, wide fonts, such as that used by Doves Press, are challenged by thinner lines and the parchment resists the ink on impression. Printing on vellum also smudges very easily if extreme care is not taken to allow for a lengthy drying time. For these reasons and more, the Doves Press use of vellum for a five volume work is an extraordinary accomplishment in the history of the book.

The Library’s collection also includes two other notable Doves Press works, including Tennyson’s poems and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

[Source: Tidcombe, Marianne. The Doves Press. London: New Castle, DE: British Library; Oak Knoll Press, 2002.]


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