Doves Press

Doves Press

The Doves Press: Simple Elegance

Essay by Stephanie Levasseur

To force ourselves into the forms of other times is to be affected, and to be useless for our time.

—T.J. Cobden-Sanderson


Paradise Lost

The Doves Press (1900-1917) was established by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker in England at the turn of the century. Cobden-Sanderson was the driving force behind the press, choosing the books to be published, the design of the books, and overseeing the day-to-day work of the employees. He was inspired in his work by William Morris (the man who began the revival of fine press printing with his Kelmscott Press) and set about trying to produce the ideal book. Although the aesthetics of the two presses were entirely different, the quality of the printing could never be called into doubt. In fact, “the Doves Press was one of the three great English private presses: Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene” (Tidcombe vii). Doves Press books are notable for being simple, yet elegant, often with lovely calligraphic touches and a commitment to ease of use by the reader.

Elegance in Simplicity

Emery Walker helped to set up the business and was instrumental in the design and production of the Doves type. It was Cobden-Sanderson who chose and designed the books to be printed. Cobden-Sanderson, who was running a bindery with his wife called The Doves Bindery, was inspired to begin printing by Morris, although he was critical of Morris’ design choices. Kelmscott was notable for the gothic nature of the books they printed and Cobden-Sanderson set about producing books with almost the exact opposite aesthetic value: “Cobden-Sanderson always sought to look forward, and disagreed with Morris’s blind reverence for the past” (Tidcombe 5). This criticism of Morris was unheard of at the time, and a good example of the strength of Cobden-Sanderson’s conviction that his designs were the ideal. “Unlike the elaborate mediaeval style of Kemscott 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 (Tidcombe vii).

Cobden-Sanderson was very picky about the books Doves Press was to print. He chose them for their literary achievements as well as for the typographical problems they presented, and sough to print a beautiful book without the help of applied ornamentation (Tidcombe 1). The Doves Press is known in particular for their version of The English Bible, Paradise Lost, and Men and Women, of which the latter two are on display. Cobden-Sanderson picked these books with care and his reasons for printing them are as follows:

THE ENGLISH BIBLE is a supreme achievement of English literature, if not of English thought. On the other hand PARADISE LOST, an unique monument of the English Language, is a sublime attempt to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men’ … MEN AND WOMEN and DRAMATIS PERSONAE are poetical presentments of the same positive position. (Tidcombe 1)

When the press closed in 1917 it was partially because Cobden-Sanderson believed that the press had completed its task: the creation of functional, beautiful books.

The same care that went into choosing the books to be printed also went into choosing the materials and design for the books. Along with Cobden-Sanderson’s “exquisite taste, willingness to experiment, and dogged persistence in trying to achieve absolute perfection in the composition and presswork . . .” was the effort put in by all his employees to create the ideal book (Tidcombe vii). The type used by Doves Press was based on Nicholas Jensen’s type from the fifteenth-century, much as Bruce Rogers’ Centaur type was. The lowercase letters of the Doves type were based on the type used by Jacobus Rubeus, also a fifteenth-century printer. The Doves type was produced in one size only: 16 pt. Emery Walker had a hand in creating the type;  it was drawn by Percy Tiffin, one of his employees, to Cobden-Sanderson’s standards (Tidcombe 14). That is, he wanted the type to be conducive to the creation of a lighter page and not overwhelmed by dark, heavy type.

The Doves paper contributed to the ‘lighter’ look, being “not only thinner, but smoother and creamier than Kelmscott paper” (Tidcombe 33). The paper was created for the Doves books and was always the same size (although sometimes uneven): 18.5 x 13 inches, which created a small quarto book. In addition to the uniformity of the paper, there is uniformity in the binding of Doves books that heightens their beauty and gives one a sense that the books were designed by a singular, committed mind. Doves Press books were bound at the Doves Bindery in full limp vellum, with the title stamped in gold on the spine. Cobden-Sanderson liked to have additional blank leaves at the beginning and end of every book for the protection of the content within. Some special editions in each run were printed entirely on vellum.

Doves Press

Unique to the Doves books was the calligraphic touches provided by Cobden-Sanderson’s friend, Edward Johnston. He worked closely with Cobden-Sanderson to produce beautiful, hand-drawn titles or ornamental touches for the Doves books. Although the ‘flourish’ in the calligraphy was kept to a minimum at Cobden-Sanderson’s request, it is difficult not to be delighted by this evidence of care and human consideration on the page. These colourful additions pop off the page and serve to turn what might otherwise be called a stark and austere design into something elegant and understated  in its simplicity.

Books on Display

Two years after the press had begun, Cobden-Sanderson undertook his biggest trial yet: the printing of Paradise Lost. Printed in 1902, Paradise Lost is a fine example of what made the books printed at Doves Press so special and, according to Cobden-Sanderson, his ideal book. Split into twelve books rather than ten, Paradise Lost was the largest book yet printed at the press. The beginning of the book is graced by a striking heading printed in red.

Paradise Lost

The heading was “calligraphed by Johnston and made into a woodcut for printing by C.E. Keats . . .” (Tidcombe 40). The roman capitals so adored by Cobden-Sanderson can be seen exemplified in this carefully calligraphed heading. In the rest of the book can be seen initials, in red and blue, hand-drawn by Johnston. Every copy of Paradise Lost is unique due to the individual calligraphy of the initials. All in all, “4000 initials had to be put in” (Tidcombe 40). Cobden-Sanderson’s commitment to his vision can be seen in the patience he displayed while waiting for Johnston to complete his work before the binding could begin. The patience paid off, however, since Paradise Lost is truly a handsome book.

Men & Women is a book of poetry printed in two volumes by The Doves Press in 1908. It is commonly believed to be “one of the prettiest and most colourful of the Doves Press books...” (Tidcombe 56). Edward Johnston played a large role in making the book as beautiful as it is. Cobden-Sanderson allowed him some space to work, given the nature of the poetry. The contents page is embellished in blue and green with Johnston’s calligraphy spreading up the page like so many spring flowers. More flourishes can be found in the margin before the beginning of every poem. Even with this freedom, Cobden-Sanderson was very specific about the colours of ink used: “Johnston had to spend a good deal of time mixing inks and doing trials to get them right” (Tidcombe 56). As with Paradise Lost, the initials and flourishes were drawn by hand in every copy.

Men & Women

The colophon in Men & Women was also written by hand, a bit of a departure from the norm. The colophons of Doves Press books are worthy of mention for another reason. Cobden-Sanderson was of the opinion that every person who had a hand in the creation of the book should be credited, so the colophons in his books are more dedicated to the people involved rather than the designer or the type of paper used, etc. With all the care that went into the creation of these books, it is no wonder that their beauty endures to this day.

While it is true that the books endure, the same cannot be said for the type. The partnership between Cobden-Sanderson and Walker began to fall apart almost at once. Cobden-Sanderson felt Walker was too much the businessman and Walker was irritated with Cobden-Sanderson’s expectation that he would have more of a hand in the press. At the close of The Doves Press, Walker fully expected to be given The Doves type. Cobden-Sanderson, however, did not believe that Walker was entitled to it in any way and couldn’t bear the thought of the type being used for commercial purposes. When he knew that the press was closing he undertook the destruction of his type. For weeks he would take a walk after work, carrying several pounds of type with him to the Thames where he would throw it in the river. He managed the complete destruction of his own type (including the matrices) so that it could not be used and the exact same type could not be re-cast again. As one might imagine, Walker was not well pleased and he sued Cobden-Sanderson’s wife after the man had passed away.


Over the 16 years that The Doves Press was in business, Cobden-Sanderson managed to produce 40 books bound in 45 volumes. The perfectionism and dedication he displayed served him well, leading to the creation of some of the most simply elegant books of the 20th century. His version of the ideal book in which the design did not get in the way of the reader’s ability to see the author’s message proved to be terribly popular, especially once The Doves Press closed.

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Works Cited

Tidcombe, Marianne. The Doves Press. London: The British Library, 2002.