A beautiful Twelfth Night

Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. Sarah Hovde, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library, reveals a 1932 edition of Twelfth Night with beautiful engravings by Eric Ravilious.

Twelfth Night, the last of the twelve days of Christmas, is typically celebrated on January 5 or 6 (sometimes to coincide with the feast of Epiphany). Traditionally, it was a time of feasting and celebration, and also of role reversal, with servants or peasants leading the feast instead of the lord and lady.

Like the holiday, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night features copious celebrations and merriment, sometimes to excess. It also plays on the titular night’s themes of reversal, such as having its protagonist Viola dress as a man. The first performance of Twelfth Night that we know of (thanks to John Manningham, a law student who attended the performance and wrote about it in his diary) took place in February 1602, but it’s possible that there were earlier performances.

Like the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night was first published in the 1623 First Folio (which may be coming to a city near you this year!), but has been published many times since. The edition below is from 1932, and is a great example of the era of the 20th century private press.

William Shakespeare. Twelfth night; or, What you will. With engravings by Eric Ravilious. 1932. Folger Shakespeare Library.
William Shakespeare. Twelfth night; or, What you will. With engravings by Eric Ravilious. 1932. Folger Shakespeare Library. (ART Vol. f262)

This Twelfth Night was published by the Golden Cockerel Press on April 12, 1932. The Golden Cockerel Press was a prominent British private press which operated from 1920 to 1961, and along with others such as the Doves Press and the Ashendene Press, helped revive fine printing in the 20th century, particularly in Britain. Following in the tradition of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement (exemplified by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press), the private press movement emphasized craftsmanship, and valued the design of the book as much as the text inside. Many private presses even designed their own unique typefaces to further set their works apart; the Golden Cockerel Press’ typeface, shown in the photograph of Twelfth Night‘s colophon below, was created by type designer Eric Gill, who worked with the press early in his career.

Twelfth night colophon

Among the private presses, Golden Cockerel was especially known for its promotion of the art of wood engraving, which had fallen out of fashion as photomechanical illustration methods better suited to modern mass production eclipsed it in the last decades of the 19th century. The engravings in Twelfth Night are by Eric Ravilious; though Ravilious was probably most famous for his pastoral watercolors (and his tragic early death), he was also a prolific and talented wood engraver.


The binding is by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, a renowned bookbinding firm known for their ornate work, which often included elaborate gilding and sometimes even precious stones (you can see more of their bindings in the Folger’s Bindings Database). Fittingly for the lighthearted plot of Twelfth Night, though, this binding is simple and whimsical, featuring the play’s characters in miniature.

Planning a Twelfth Night or Epiphany feast of your own to finish out the holiday season? The Shakespeare’s World project has uncovered a recipe for a Christmas tart!