THIS EXHIBITION WILL BE HELD AT NUNNINGTON HALL, NUNNINGTON, NEAR YORK, Y062 5UY
The Chris Beetles Gallery is back at the National Trust's stunning Nunnington Hall, presenting an exhibition of original book cover and dust jacket artwork.
Despite the old adage that you can't tell a book by its cover', there is much that can be learned from looking at book covers of the last two centuries. As well as providing much information, both verbal and visual, about the contents of an individual book, a cover also exemplifies aspects of the general evolution of style in art and design.
Long after books began to be printed in Europe in the mid 15th century, their covers still tended to be of a protective leather, sometimes plain, sometimes decorated. It was during the 19th century, that cloth covered boards came into common use, as an element of the developing technology of book production. The dust jackets that protected these boards included the first true illustrated covers, printed with advertisements. Then gradually the boards themselves became the carriers of words and images.
Victorian and Edwardian
Aubrey Beardsley was among the pioneers of British cover design during the 1890s, synthesising the Medievalism of William Morris with the asymmetry of Japanese woodblock printmakers to producing arresting icons of Aestheticism. His highly influential approach is exemplified by Snake Among Dandelions, the publisher's device that appeared on the back cover of each of the volumes of his illustrated edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1893-94).
The work of two brothers of William Heath Robinson for books by William Canton shows how the influences of Morris and Beardsley were variously assimilated. Thomas's cover for A Child Book of Saints (1898) enacts the earnestly medieval, while Charles's cover for The Reign of King Herla (1900) employs a sinuous vegetal line to more fantastic ends. That line reveals the close connection of British design of the time to Art Nouveau.
John Hassall successfully absorbed the strong outline and flat colour of another Continental style, that epitomised by the French poster art of Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Indeed, he so popularised it that he soon became known as the king of poster artists'. In applying it to books, including such sheet music as Barbara's Song Book (1900), he demonstrated how the covers themselves could work as advertisements.
Between the Wars
Perhaps of all forms, the children's picture book reveals the closest correspondence between a cover and what it contains. Here it is exemplified by the work of a ground-breaking generation of British women illustrators, active between the world wars, who made the child itself their hero or heroine. These illustrators took advantage of the fact that advances in colour printing could accurately reproduce the clarity and delicacy of their watercolour palettes so appropriate to a vision of innocence.
Honor Appleton lines up the toys with which her heroine, Josephine, plays, and who become her fellow characters, on the cover of Mrs H C Cradock's Josephine's Birthday (1920). Anne Anderson sets her protagonist against a nursery tea table, in a preliminary design for the cover of Natalie Joan's Cosy-Time Tales (1922). And, in designs for albums of piano music, Margaret Tarrant appropriately animates her juvenile figures into energetic attitudes. These images are all invitations to children and their parents to take part in the fun.
Helen Jacobs succeeds in making the school primers of Constance M Martin equally inviting, overcoming the restrictions of black and white by relating a child to the fantastic characters that readers will discover within.
Mid Twentieth Century
By the mid twentieth century, British book covers were showcasing a wide range of approaches to art and design.
Becoming a house illustrator for Hodder & Stoughton early in his career, John Morton-Sale fashioned a gentle variant of Neo-Romanticism, as is exemplified by his dust jacket design for Carola Oman's Nothing to Report (1940). Hand-written, ribbon-like lettering frames elegant figures engaged in an aristocratic pastorale.
Lynton Lamb was responsible for all aspects of book production at Oxford University Press by the late 1940s. His dust jacket for Henri Bosco's The Boy and the River (1956) is typical of his careful treatment, the supple italic lettering held in balance with the meticulous yet evocative naturalistic illustration.
Lamb discussed his ideas on book production with his friend and colleague, Edward Ardizzone. The most distinguished children's illustrator of the post-war period, and a man of many talents, Ardizzone developed full integration of word and image in the original concept for his pioneering series of Little Tim' picture books (begun in 1936). The title page to Ann of Highwood Hall (1964), a collaboration with Robert Graves, shows a late example of such integration, with the names of author and illustrator appearing in trompe l'oeil fashion on a piece of furniture within a room.
A decade later, another distinguished and prolific children's illustrator, C Walter Hodges, achieved something similar, wittily placing his name as author and illustrator on a banner across a street on the dust jacket to Plain Lane Christmas (1978).
At a time when Britain was strong on illustrator-cartoonists, out and out humour as well as wit was often employed as a tactic to engage a potential reader. This could be done gently, as with Fougasse's cover for Rosalind Hill's Both Small and Great Beasts (1953), or more bracingly, as with Ronald Searle's cover for the children's magazine, Young Elizabethan (1956). The latter shows Nigel Molesworth being forcibly returned to St Custards at the beginning of the school year.
Searle had an unsurpassed knowledge of the history of graphic art, and cultivated friendships with leading contemporaries in the field, including the Hungarian-born French artist, André François. Searle made a selection of François's drawings, entitled The Biting Eye (1960), and placed the jaunty image of Harlequin Drinking from a Bottle on the cover.
While François's painterly handling proved influential to a generation of British picture book illustrators, native painters themselves received commissions to design book covers. The petroleum company, Shell, proved a major patron of artists, and employed them to represent the wealth and variety of British landscape and heritage, as for the series of Shell County Guides, which included Keith Grant's take on Wiltshire (1960) and S R Badmin's on Yorkshire (1964).
Mid twentieth-century British book illustration is so strong that its versatility could be almost as well demonstrated through a focus on a single artist as through the comparison of a range of artists that is given above. Eric Fraser stands out as a particularly suitable candidate for such scrutiny, having had a long, dedicated career as an illustrator, working in a style that is at once highly individual and remarkably flexible. His success at establishing the look of Radio Times, when that magazine was known for its illustrations, is only the most notable of his many achievements.
As a designer of book covers, Fraser was for many years a mainstay of J M Dent and, especially, its Everyman's Library. Equipping himself with an impressive mental archive, he could adapt his strong line to almost any historical manner, be it the Norse world of The Saga of Gisli (1963) or the Chivalric environment of Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1956). However, he could apply himself as equally well to modern scientific titles, such as those by Robert de Ropp published by The Scientific Book Club. His dust jacket for Drugs and the Mind (1957) shows that he could be as bold in his use of colour as he was striking in his signature use of black and white and that he was as attentive to lettering as to imagery.
Though the artist has to compete with the photographer more often than he did in the past, diverse opportunities to produce new covers for books and other publications remain strong whether for a magazine celebrating the Royal Family (as in Roy Hammond's cover of 1992) or a paperback of a David Lodge novel (as in Paul Cox's of 1995). Yet, more than ever, it is the picture book format that stands assured.
While a picture book illustrator relishes the challenge of summing up a text a text that he or she has often written the resulting design is also a statement of distinction in a crowded market. Sometimes it is a well-loved character that stands out, as on Fred Banbery's cover for Michael Bond's Paddington at the Circus (1973). At others, a figure draws attention through clarity and colour, as on Emma Chichester Clark's covers for retellings of fairy tales by Andersen (1999) and Grimm (2002). If the illustrator is prized specifically for the diminutive scale of her characterful figures, as is Sara Midda, then she might succeed, and does, by playing with structure and apparent repetition in the highly populated grids on the covers of Growing Up and Other Vices (1994) and Baby Book (1999).
Equally seductive in its own way, each cover seems to echo the inhabitants of Christina Rossetti's poem, Goblin Market, in crying, Come buy, come buy'.