March 15

Sir Sidney Carlyle Cockerell

“I think I am dying,” wrote Sir Sidney Carlyle Cockerell upon a set of postcards of the spring flowers in Kew Gardens, and sent them to his family and friends, postmarked this day in 1962. The fact that he was then in his ninety-fifth year and had been confined to his bed for a number of years, combined to produce alarm in the minds of those to whom the postcards were addressed. Wilfred Blunt, Cockerell’s biographer, lost no time in telephoning, only to learn that his subject was “in excellent form, sitting up in bed and eating a hearty breakfast.”

Cockerell did die in 1962, on the first day of May, thus bringing to a close a remarkable career during which he was the friend and correspondent of all of the prominent literary and artistic figures of England from John Ruskin to Sir Alec Guinness. Of them all, to Cockerell the outstanding person was William Morris, founder of the Kelmscott Press, whom he had met through an early interest in Socialism. Asked by Morris to catalogue the library at Kelmscott House, Cockerel1 remained his associate as Secretary to the Kelmscott Press and upon the death of Morris became his executor.

When Morris became seriously ill in 1896 with a tubercular ailment, he asked Cockerell to make plans to continue the work of the Kelmscott Press. Cockerel1 wrote in his journal on August 30th: “W.M. asked me whether I should be prepared to carry on the Press after his death, with Walker [Emery], and I said that I was in favor of its ceasing—as otherwise it would fizzle out by degrees, and the books already issued would suffer by inferior ones following them. He said he thought I was perhaps right.”

Throughout his long life Cockerell was engaged in some famous quarrels, upon a variety of subjects. On the other hand he was ever ready to act as mediator in the quarrels of his friends. Probably his greatest effort as a peacemaker was put forth unsuccessfully in the dispute between T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker concerning the disposition of the Doves Press type. When Walker had removed himself from the affairs of the Doves Press he desired to continue his own use of the types, for whose design he had been responsible. Cobden-Sanderson refused to allow the removal of the types from the Press.

Cockerell attempted to resolve the disagreement, writing to Cobden-Sanderson: “A modus vivendi has now occurred to me as possible—which is that you should have the sole use of the type for your lifetime, and that if you survive Walker it should remain your property, and that if he survives you it should become his. . . . for whatever your mutual exasperation may make you think of each other, each of you perfectly well knows in his heart of hearts that the other is the best of men and a valiant fighter in the cause of artistic and political progress. . . .”

Cobden-Sanderson unfortunately refused to cooperate, disposing of the types in the River Thames. By this action the private press movement suffered a loss of prestige which might otherwise have been avoided.

Cockerell’s greatest contribution to the arts, however, came in the years 1908–1937 when he was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, which he transformed—in the words of the art critic, Bernard Berenson—”from the dismal miscellany it used to be, into one of the finest museum buildings existing.” His interest in printing sprang from his love of medieval manuscripts on which he had made himself an outstanding authority, and from his activities as a bibliophile.

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