This is almost a film from the forties in book form – I’m thinking of A Canterbury Tale in the sense that it echoes the opening titles. You can hear the peal of bells and the fonts are as crisp as if lit by the silver screen, ancient art and (for the time) modern technology in perfect union.
This isn’t a faux-gothic recreation of Merrie England: the cover is a perfect example of stylised 1930s design, as beautiful a logo as you’d find anywhere – I imagine it happily at home on Broadcasting House. The fabric cover is rich hopsack, a homespun warmth that is cool in its simplicity, breaking from the leather and gilt tradition as beautifully as the Johnathan Cape Florin pocket books of the early thirties.
The bluntness of Eric Gill’s font puts the William Morris-ish dropped capital in the spotlight…
…and there is nothing muted about the colour, which updates as brightly as the splashes of orange on thirties ceramics.
Cries and Criers of Old London was published in October 1941, not long after the city had been blitzed. It might be affirming the familiar to a shell-shocked city, just as A Canterbury Tale would speak to the nation, but there is a darker side. The cuts are bold and roughly medieval, with The Scream or the Black Death coming to mind now and again.
It’s a poignant book: while the bells peal joyously in A Canterbury Tale and Cries and Criers, the folk in the streets knew they would only be ringing to warn them of terror.
Claire Leighton trained in England at the Slade School (which also produced, over the years, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Rex Whistler) and later emigrated to America. This wood-engraving is one of twelve that she produced for an American illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights in the 1930s. I think it’s brilliantly composed, particularly in the way Cathy’s hair is swept by the wind into the crows and the clouds.
In winter the frost is always there before it comes to us; and deep into summer I have found snow under that black hollow on the north-east side…
You will, perhaps, think the building old and dark at first…
These engravings also formed the inspiration for the design of the 1939 film version with Laurence Olivier. Leighton researched her subjects thoroughly and her interpretation may have kept some Hollywood invention in check – there is still a genuine atmosphere to be found in this film today.
Woodcuts by Reynolds Stone from the cover of The Official Guide to Windsor Castle (1949), found in a Ludlow charity shop. More of his work is here.