Authors over the centuries have reflected on the seasons in prose and poetry. In the 1930s and 1940s the Private Press movement brought together author and artist to give expression to the rhythms of nature and the weather of the seasons. The two books illustrated were both produced by The Bodley Head publishing house as limited editions with woodblock-engraved illustrations.
The first book, The Twelve Months, was illustrated by the Irish artist and author Robert Gibbings; the text was written by the British novelist and essayist Llewelyn Powys. Robert Gibbings was most noted for his work as a wood engraver and sculptor. Gibbings purchased and ran the Golden Cockerel Press from 1923 to 1933 and influenced the revival of wood engraving by artists. In 1920 he founded the Society of Wood Engravers. Members working in Sussex included Eric Gill, John Nash, Lucien Pissarro, John Nash, Gwen Raverat and Eric Ravilious. The society ignited a revival of wood engravings where the designs and the blocks were created by the artist, making that vital connection between the artist and the final print.
The Twelve Months was published in 1936. This copy, with original green morocco binding, was signed by both artist and author and editioned 44/100. The signed page also notes that the book was printed on Wolvercote Rag Wove paper by John Johnson at the University Press, Oxford, acknowledging everyone involved in the creative process. The essay on January opens with a quotation from William Shakespeare:
“When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-who!-a merry note.”
The chill and cheer of the winter season, captured in Shakespeare’s words, is brought up to date by Robert Gibbings’ depiction of skating. The angular line of the rushes and the open spaces in the composition emphasise the harshness of the season. This is contrasted by the sweeping curves of the skaters and the hills, which are softer and more hopeful.
The second book, Almanack of Hope, published in 1944 by The Bodley Head, contains a series of sonnets on the months of the year by the British journalist and writer John Pudney. He was known for short stories, poetry, children’s fiction and non-fiction. His sonnet for January provides a more uncompromising articulation of the month of January, though he ends with the sentence:
“So I in January look for grace, Iron-fast by season, lack-love, boughs all bare.”
John Nash’s wood engraving echoes the author’s words. Here the water butt and drainpipe have overflowed and the water has frozen in jagged outline, echoed by the undressed trees outlined against the sky. The aconite flowers appear hopeful but are poisonous; this is a bleak season.
This winter, Sussex has been ravaged by some bleak weather. The wind and rain have transformed the landscape and one can’t help but wonder how Robert Gibbings and John Nash would have depicted these scenes.
In years gone by, writers would note that as the days in January lengthened, so the cold increased. Perhaps we have already had our share of winter this year but if the cold does come, let’s hope it arrives with the good cheer a beautiful book can bring.