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By It’s Cover part II

It’s next time again.

One of the most satisfying aspects of doing this Blog is getting great comments from extremely bright people who get turned on by the topic. This month, I’m delighted to say, the articulate Art Historian, Henry Adams, has discovered the under-appreciated  bounty in his own book collection! He took the time to share his renewed enthusiasm for the covers of these books with the rest of us.

Henry writes: I’ve often buy books simply for their covers.  Somewhat perversely, I suppose to justify the expense, I often then sit down and read what’s between the covers, but very often the cover is the thing that spurs me to make the purchase.  In part this is a result of my art historical interests.  For example,  I can’t afford a painting by Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood, but it’s fun to collect books for which they made cover designs.

One of my favorites is Benton’s paper cover for Thomas A. Edison: A Modern Olympian by Mary Childs Nierney, 1934.  I have a copy with a cover that’s completely untorn, although I suspect that the color that now reads a gray was one a rich indigo blue.   The design show’s Edison’s first generator, the “long-waisted Mary Ann,” next to a modern generator, and his first cylinder phonograph next to a “modern” disk phonograph.  The jazzy design closely relates to Benton’s famous mural of America Today and Benton clearly worked hard on it.

When he was done he commented that he would rather cover fifty feet of wall space than work again within book-jacket dimensions.

Grant Wood also did several  designs specifically to serve as book-covers.  My two favorites are Plowing on Sunday by Sterling North of 1934, with a farmer swigging from a jug; and O, Chautauqua by Thomas Duncan of 1935 by Sterling North, with a aerial view of a circus tent which is remarkably modern and reminiscent of the photographs of Moholy-Nagy.

Around the turn-of-the-century it was common to produce very beautiful cloth book covers, which are often wonderful works of art in their own right.

The tradition goes back at least to the work of the great English designer William Morris, who made a magnificently decorative cover for an edition of the Vollsunga Saga that he translated from the Icelandic in 1870.  As it happens, the birds and foliage on the cover have nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book, but they a certainly beautiful in their own right. One of the most prolific cover designers of the 1920s was Margaret Armstrong, who did several striking designs for books by Henry Van Dyke, such as The Golden Key of 1926.  While her work was produced mostly in the ‘twenties, it’s basically art nouveau in character.

Perhaps the greatest master of this sort of design was Aubrey Beardsley, the great master of art nouveau, who made a number of remarkable covers.  My favorites are his wonderful creepy design of what I take to be poppies for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (first published, I believe in 1892, although my copy was printed in 1927; and possibly even better, his cover for the last book he illustrated, Ben Jonson’s Volpone of 1898.  The Volpone design I find particularly fascinating since it’s a wonderful example of art nouveau and yet at the same time, its free-form scattering of elements is strangely similar to the paintings of Jackson Pollock.  This is surely one of the great 19th century designs, in any medium.

Some other enjoyable covers:

A book cover by the great English architect Charles Rennie MacIntosh for A Book of Sundials, by Launcelot Cross, published in Edinburgh in 1914.

An anonymous book cover for Robert Louis Stevenon’s Island Nights’ Entertainments, 1893, which is modeled on a Polynesian tapa cloth and next to it wonderful multi-colored  design of a knight in armor by the noted illustrator J. C. Leydenecker,  created for a boy’s adventure book of 1926, The Crimson Conquest by Charles Bradford Hudson.

Finally, let me propose a candidate for the title of the greatest cover design ever.  It’s Matisse’s drawing of a ballerina for the cover of a book by Boris Kochno, Le Ballet, published by Hachette in 1954.  Kochno was the secretary and lover of Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes; and he also had an affair with Cole Porter.  His text (in French, of course) provides an excellent survey of the history of the ballet, with an emphasis on the extraordinary achievement of Diaghilev and his troupe.  But what’s most marvelous about the book is the extraordinary photographs of dancers, and the wonderful costume and set designs by figures such as Picasso and Matisse.  It even has an original Picasso lithograph as a frontispiece.

Somehow my parents picked up a copy of this book during one of their trips to France in the 1950s, and it was a major influence on me: the book that introduced me to modern art.  I was particularly fascinated by the line drawings of Matisse and the idea of trying to make a completely satisfying work of art with the most minimal possible means.  The cover demonstrates Matisse’s mastery in accomplishing this.  While the drawing is not precisely accurate in a photographic sense,  it perfectly captures the physique and movement of a ballerina.  People often say that Matisse’s drawings are flat, but what’s interesting is that the effect is far from flat.  It captures the physicality of the figure; it nicely evokes a sense of movement; and of course it’s beautifully placed on the page—or perhaps I should say, on the cover.  As I’ve said, it’s my personal candidate for the greatest cover design ever.  In its way it’s a perfect work of art.

Henry Adams

11 Responses to “By It’s Cover part II”

  1. Thanks so much to Henry for showing us these amazing covers! I also loved Henry’s reference above to Boris Kochno (1904-1990). It was very meaningful to me because I believe we have the last interview done with him before he died. We did the interview for Theatre de la Mode. I can remember how excited we were to have the opportunity as he was one of the last of the legendary ballet impresarios.

  2. un ete dans l'ouest

    When seeing last month’s blog, I immediately had two thoughts. First, as a visual creature, I am drawn to books and albums by the cover art like so many others. Secondly, I thought about the France and my time there. Ironically, for a society bathed in culture, the covers of their books seemed to be designed in the former Soviet Union. All the books share the same dull shade of beige with merely title and author of the cover. Since that time, I have continued to purchase french books which continue to be produced in this austere fashion. I guess they believe in the motto, “do not judge a book by it’s cover”. They obviously do not know what they are missing.

  3. Tom: A terrific edition.

  4. What a joy to have By Its Cover to start a day, start a thought, spring a review of encounters with books and their covers! Just wonderful. I will add later more thoughtfully, but for now…….

  5. A lovely selection indeed, thank you Henry for your wonderful contribution! Recently I have been thinking about book covers, but more for a selfish reason. Mine! The idea happened last year. Knowing the impact that coffee table books have in the market, I thought of creating my own art book of my portraits of paintings and drawings. Last year I needed to update my portfolio and discovered that publishing a book of my art was not only more cost effective, but much more aesthetically pleasing! So after much research, my partner and I found a high-end Japanese printing company with a subsidiary in the US. We designed the book and the results have been quite popular with my current and past clients, some of whom have ordered copies for themselves. Since each book is printed “on-demand,” I can change the contents and the cover to feature a particular client’s portrait(s). I feel excited with the control I have over a “new cover” once the opportunity of ordering a new book happens, I have to decide if the cover will depict a close up, a detail, or an image of the entire portrait I painted. What’s fascinating of these possibilities, is that thanks to the advances in the internet and the printing companies, one now can have one’s own book. In my case, any of my clients can have “The Art of Juan Bastos” lying on their coffee table, with a portrait of a loved one on its cover. Many times my portraits may be on a second floor of a home, and few guests may see it, nevertheless, the irony is that the coffee table book in the library may have more exposure, than the six feet tall portrait hanging somewhere in the house.

  6. Dear Tom,
    I totally agree, and admit that many times an appealing cover pushes me to buy a book. I think choosing the right image, the good design, the cool font it’s a kind of art or, at least, high end craftmanship.
    Many years ago I even think that making the graphic design of books and long playing would have been my ideal job. It involves a bit of everything: you can put together a text, or maybe just what the title reminds you, with any painting, photograph, reproduction of this and that…
    Anything can work along with something else. Different languages talk together to work together. I think that movies and soundtracks are just the same matter (and another thing I deeply love).
    A curious thing is that all the various Italian editions of “The Catcher in the Rye” don’t have anything on the cover. They are completely white, just the author’s name and the title. It seems nobody dares to make an association with the novel.
    As for me, I can say that the Italian edition of “Barney’s version” has the author’s portrait on the cover. And I couldn’t image Barney with another face.
    Hugs,
    Luca

  7. I apologize that last night, trying to make corrections at my English, I forgot to paste the simplest and most important thing.
    What a beautiful, beautiful collection!
    Luca

  8. Lovely book designs. My own favorites are by the American wooodcut artist J.J. Lankes who illustrated many of Robert Frost’s books. They were also friends and kindred souls. Also, the first book that Scribners ever published was Melville’s Moby Dick. Bennett Cerf persuaded his friend Rockwell Kent to design the dust jacket and provide illustrations. Scribners first edition printing showed “Moby Dick” in large letters, followed by “Illustrations by Rockwell Kent”. They had inadvertently omitted Melville’s name.

  9. Thanks for the wonderful reflection! I now have the desire for Henry to show us his favorite illustrations– because what I remember tends to be from the inside, rather than the cover of the books. As a child, I read a marvelous book of fairytales with illustrations in very ornate Russian detail, with very pale blonde princesses with bejeweled hair, and forests like filigree on Faberge eggs.
    I also loved the art nouveau designs in my favorite book– “The California fairytales”. There is one plate of a house above the sea in Los Angeles, with the window reflecting the gold of the sunset and mesmerizing the person watching. Of course the illustrations in so many books are wonderful, including the whimsical Thurber drawings which seemed so simple. Like the beautiful Matisse drawing above, capturing in a fluid line, so very much! AGAIN, a great invitation to thought, memory, and insight! Thanks!

  10. PS. Perhaps you can give us a link or a little more on the books Juan Bastos makes– it sounds very exciting to be able to recreate individual books in response to a particular person’s desire to see his art. It makes me think about the potential to let people choose WHICH poems they would want to download into a book from me! Such a potential interaction between artist and audience is quite thrilling!

  11. We read aloud with relish your monthly “Diary of a Film maker.,” including the recent one devoted to book covers. At Lainie’s I related recollections of my London friend of decades ago, Morley Kennerley who was a partner of the prestigious publishing house of Faber and Faber.He related stories of his partners including Tommy who surprised him by his commercial sense and his insistence often on writing the promotional blurbs on the paper dust covers of books that were about to be published. As Morley unfolded this observation, it became clear that his friend and partner was T.S. Elliot. So a lot may be enjoyed even before opening the book!