One could walk the entire history of fine printing on the spines of great Bibles. Bibles have been the crowning achievements of many of the world’s greatest typographers and printers, from Gutenberg to Baskerville, to the Doves and Oxford Lectern Bibles of this century. Add those who have tackled the Bible in part, such as Gill’s Four Gospels, and the importance of this single text to the entire history of printing becomes evident. Today, the Bible is still the typographer’s, illustrator’s and printer’s Everest — for the stature of its past interpreters and for the size, scope and scale of the text itself.
The world is about to see the result of the most recent ascent of this typographic mountain: Barry Moser’s Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, to be published later this year in a folio edition of 450. This will be the only significant Bible of the twentieth century to be entirely illustrated by a single artist.
Barry Moser is one of America’s greatest wood engravers, illustrators and bookmakers. Since 1970, his Pennyroyal Press in Western Massachusetts has produced such stunning limited editions as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (an American Book Award winner), Frankenstein and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He also illustrated the celebrated Arion Press Moby Dick.Moser is a big bear of a man with a full white beard and a soft, Southern accent (the only vestige of his youthful days as a Bible-thumping preacher in Tennessee). Ever since he composed his first line of hand-set type,Moser has dreamed of doing a Bible — but there were three significant obstacles to be overcome. Two and a half years ago, the solutions to all three of these obstacles presented themselves and Moser took the plunge into what has become the biggest, most ambitious project of his career.
The first of the obstacles was the worldwide shortage of quality engraving blocks, especially in sizes suitable for full-page illustrations. As Barry planned to illustrate every book of the Bible (now totalling 234 illustrations), the shortage of blocks seemed an insurmountable problem. Moser found the solution in a technology called Resingrave, a new engraving medium invented by, ironically, Richard Woodman of Redwood City, California.
As a teacher, Moser had come across Resingrave before, but had always assumed it to be a cheap plastic imitation that could not possibly perform like wood. One day, he actually put his prejudices to the test and tried the stuff for himself. He was instantly converted. Apparently, Resingrave does behave very much like end-grain boxwood and the prints Moser makes from it are virtually indistinguishable from those he engraves on boxwood. With the invention of Resingrave, Moser’s vision of a fully illustrated Bible had become possible — in theory.
A new letterpress technology
The second major obstacle in Moser’s way was the size of the text itself. Printing the Bible in letterpress is a huge job for any fully staffed press. The metal alone would sink an ocean liner, and the labour required to set the foundry type by hand (or Monotype type by machine) would submerge any small printing operation. Again, technology came to the rescue in the form of computer layout programmes and polymer plate technology. Bradley Hutchinson, proprietor of Digital Letterpress in Austin, Texas, has raised polymer printing to the highest level and it was natural that Moser should turn to him as a key partner on the Bible project.
Hutchinson started working with polymer plates after years of working with metal type, often alongside Richard-Gabriel Rummonds of the Plain Wrapper Press in Verona. In this technology, pages are laid out on the computer and output to negatives, from which polymer plates are exposed and cured. As in letterpress, the type is raised and produces a relief impression. Critics of the technology have commented that the resulting page can seem ‘too even’, an odd criticism given the lengths to which most printers go to achieve such balance.
The first text pages of the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible speak for themselves. Their quality holds its own with the best letterpress printing and rises to the level of Moser’s own stunning illustrations.
Backing the Bible
The final obstacle between Moser and his dream was perhaps the most prosaic: money. Devoting three years to a single project would be prohibitive unless a sponsor or patron could be found.
Enter Bruce Kovner, the chairman of Caxton Corporation, a global investment company; Kovner has collected Moser’s work for years and had once offered to support any project that Moser might like to undertake. Moser approached Kovner with the outlines for the project and the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible was born.
Kovner has studiously avoided the limelight in his own industry and has taken a ‘silent partner’ role in this project as well, giving Moser the rarest of all gifts: total artistic freedom. Patrons of this generosity and vision are rare enough in the general art world; in fine printing they are virtually unheard of.
The summit is in sight
With the three major obstacles removed, Moser set out to climb his Everest. Those who have visited the base camps and seen the results so far can testify to the importance of this book. It will be without doubt a unique contribution to the rich history of the printed Bible and to the book arts in general.
Moser’s illustrations throw fresh light on the most interpreted stories in Western civilization. The typography (set in Matthew Carter’s Galliard and Mantinia) is clear, crisp and austere, in the Doves tradition. The paper (soft, creamy Zerkall Bible for the primary edition and Twinrocker handmade for the Deluxe) insists on being touched. The refined binding, in two volumes (by Claudia Cohen and Sarah Creighton of Easthampton, Massachusetts), uses full limp vellum with a simple gold stamp. In these days, when the ambitions of fine printers and book-makers are so often curtailed, it is inspiring to see how high it is still possible to climb.
Doug Kessler is, with his brother Jason, making a documentary about the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, provisionally titled A Thief Among the Angels.