Monday, February 27, 2012

Thomas Watson Ball

If it's been quiet on this blog for two months it's not from neglecting the subject.  To the contrary, I've been acquiring and studying the covers created by Thomas Watson Ball (1863-1934), and now have an exhibition up in the gallery.  You can see the first photos of the installation here.

You may recall some of the earlier posts of work by TWB, on May 24, 2010 and May 11 last year. Do read those to get some background on the extent to which  his work was neglected, and the reasons he was unknown to Gullans and Espey when they wrote their seminal 1979 essay on publishers' bindings. Recently I have discovered many more examples of his work that are not in the Ball Portfolio, suggesting he is one of the major designers of the period. The serious research on Ball has only just begun, and it's likely that many more of his covers will be discovered in the coming years.

The purpose of the current exhibition and catalog is to give researchers, collectors, booksellers, librarians and curators enough examples of the styles in which he worked to enable identification of unattributed bindings. It also might suggest creative concepts to bookbinders and cover artists.

Here are two T. W. Ball non-portfolio covers you may not have seen. This one is certainly by Ball, and is the earliest we have seen in his "skyline silhouette with clouds" style:

School Boy Life in England
by John Corbin
Harper and Brothers

From 1894-1900 Ball worked as an art editor for Harper's, and there are many covers he did for them that we know of. He also produced freelance work for others, particularly Dodd. By 1900 he was working for many of the northeast publishers--McClure, Phillips; Frederick A. Stokes; Silver, Burdett; J. F. Taylor; Small, Maynard; Houghton, Mifflin; and others.  The one below is almost certainly by Ball, with the trees and hills he had used since at least 1897 on The Mistress of the Ranch (Harper), and clouds in matte and bright silver, similar to those in silver and gold on Ships That Pass in the Night (Dodd, also 1900). The lettering of "the" is identical to that on Lords of the North (J. F. Taylor, also 1900). The unusual element is the arched panel, the first of his we have encountered.

The House Behind the Cedars
by Charles W. Chesnutt
Houghton, Mifflin

Rip Van Winkle
by Joseph Jefferson
Dodd, Mead

There are currently about 70 different book covers in the exhibition, plus variations. More are on the way here. These include covers with paper onlays, an embossed cameo, and other features we have not previously seen in his work.

Pre-publication discount subscriptions to the limited edition catalog are now available.     Click here for information and online ordering.

From book covers Ball moved to toiletries and cosmetics, working first for Colgate (1901-1907), where he created their iconic typeface (also used on his book covers) and then for the upscale Richard Hudnut (1910-1913). We are now on the track of what appear to be book covers from his post-Hudnut days and will keep you posted. More biographical information is on the way as well.

If you have a cover that you think might be a T. W. Ball, please do get in touch.  If it's one we know about I'm glad to confirm it for you, and if it's new to me, I'll get excited!


  1. I have wondered for some time about the Frank Bullen books for Appleton. The capital T is like Ball's, as are the ships. What do you think? -- chris

    1. It's possible. I've thought about it. The designers copied each other's work and styles all the time, so because something is in one artist's style doesn't always mean that's who did it. There are several books in the current Ball exhibition that have a similar issue. I may include the Bullens as another example.

      Jay Chambers of DD was particularly adept at Ball-style designs.