Saturday, August 29, 2009

An iconic book cover from 1876


The New Day
A poem in Songs and Sonnets
by Richard Watson Gilder
Illustrations engraved by Henry Marsh 1
New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1876
17.8 x 13.5 cm
[Design often attributed to Helena DeKay Gilder] 2

Gold stamped peacock feather on blue cloth over beveled boards. It is a brilliant example of the engraver’s art—both in the quality of technique used to execute it, and the illumination that emanates from the image. The extremely fine detailing in the stamping die makes the image shimmer as the book is held, with even slight movements causing one part or another to flash more brightly, and creates illusionistic dimensionality with flat gold stamping that made me touch it to see if it’s embossed.


Enlarged detail from The New Day. This peacock feather design has luminance achieved by hand engraving the lines at different angles, and crosshatching with different textures. Stamped in fine gold leaf, it is as beautiful and satisfying to look at as a master’s brushwork on canvas.
1.    The only credit given in the book is at the end of the contents, on the last page (p. 112): “The Decorations of this volume were engraved by Mr Henry Marsh.” Letters by Richard Gilder (arranged for publication by his daughter) indicate that Marsh based his engravings on Mrs. Gilder’s drawings. I have neither seen the drawings nor located them, so can’t attest to whether the engravings attempt to reproduce them, are suggested by them, or have little in common with them.

2.    This design has been attributed to the author’s wife, Helena deKay Gilder, by Willman Spawn and others. For example, the work by Randall Silverman at the University of Utah: "Connoisseurship of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Publishers’ Bookbindings," p. 28: “As of this writing, Helen DeKay Gilder is believed to be the first woman to design a publishers’ binding.”

The earliest commentary in my reference collection has no attribution for the design. In the 1894 pamphlet issued by The Grolier Club in conjunction with their exhibition Commercial Bookbindings, this volume follows the 1872 Fly-Leaves (see yesterday's blog entry) :
Four years later, in 1876, was published the next book among those chosen as in some sense types. This is an edition of “The New Day,” by Mr. R. W. Gilder, which has a purple cloth* cover stamped in gold with a peacock’s feather, the color showing through the gold lines with an iridescent effect quite realistic. 
The style of the feather on the cover is nearly identical to peacock feather illustrations on pages 7, 37, 81 and 105 of the book. But that does not mean that either Helena or Richard came up with the idea of using a single large feather coming diagonally from the corner. Perhaps it was thought of as a solo corner fleuron, reinvented from a Renaissance binding. It bears more than passing similarity to several corner tools I have used in hand binding leather books in period styles.

Dartmouth College has many letters from both Gilders to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Augustus was 23 when The New Day was published, and that was during the time they (Augustus, with Helena and Richard Gilder) founded The Society of American Artists (which apparently started with meetings at the Gilders’ house in 1874 and was established June 1, 1877). I believe Whistler was also in with Gilder, and of course Peacock feathers were a big motif of his at that time (he did The Peacock Room in 1876-77).

In 1875, while The New Day was being prepared for publication, Saint-Gaudens shared a New York studio with the artist David Maitland Armstrong, whose daughter Margaret was 8 years old. Margaret Armstrong developed into one of the era's most prominent book cover artists.

Mrs. Gilder is not known to have designed any other bindings. Perhaps a skilled artisan like Marsh could have engraved the stamping die for the cover. He was known for his delicate engravings of insect life, but those were wood engravings. Whether he also engraved brass or other hard metals that could be used for a die to stamp gold is presently unknown. His Boston company was Hitchcock & Marsh.  If you have access to any information about what sort of business they were in, or if they produced stamping dies, please let me know.

The copy I photographed above is blue. I have not seen a purple copy listed. Perhaps after 100 years the chemistry of the purple dye has changed, or maybe copies of the edition were issued on blue cloth. It is also possible that this color was called purple by the writer in 1894.

Friday, August 28, 2009

When did we leave the Victorian era?


by C. S. C. (Charles Stuart Calverley)
New York: Holt and Williams, 1872
17 x 11.5 cm

This binding was recognized early on as an important departure from existing cover designs. In the landmark 1894 exhibition "Commercial Bookbindings" at The Grolier Club, this book was chosen as: excellent example of the beginnings from which came the modern commercial cover of the first class. This is the “linen-duster” cover in which Messrs. Henry Holt & Co. bound their Leisure Hour series. The cloth is light drab linen, cool and inviting as a hammock, and is stamped in black, the title enclosed in a single border line, with a cobweb and a leisurely spider in the lower right-hand corner. This book was published in 1872, and since then the art of designing ornamental covers has flourished like a bay-tree; yet it is doubtful if any more popular cover has been made. It seems exactly suited to its use.
This design was kept for several years, and was replaced by a variant in mustard cloth that showed a greater oriental influence.

by C. S. C. (Charles Stuart Calverley)
3rd Edition; with a New Poem
New York: Henry Holt, 1872
(but actually 1882, see below)
16.9 x 12

The 1872 spider web design morphed into this version. Here we see a tree branch and more asymmetrical design, both characteristics of Japanese art that become common elements in American binding design. This became the uniform cover for Holt’s Leisure Hour Series, which included many titles, at least through Turgenev’s Annals of a Sportsman (1885).

This book is dated 1872 on the title page. The first “Leisure Hour Series” edition of this book (1872) had the other cover. The Publishers Note (between title page and contents) indicates this (third) edition is January 1873. The endpaper ads include the “Recent Leisure Hour Volumes” in the back, among which is Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, which was issued in 1882.

This points out a difficulty in dating cover designs. If it were not for the endpaper ads, we wouldn’t be able to place this copy later than January, 1873. We don’t yet know if there was an 1873 issue that had this cover. I have seen an 1875 “Leisure Hour Series” title with the earlier cover, so this design is likely later than that. It may in fact have first been issued in 1883.

We can look further back to see book covers with the spatial relationships of Modernism in the British Arts and Crafts movement, and the Aesthetic movement, both of which developed from the Pre-Raphaelites. An iconic design that connects these movements was published in Boston by Houghton, Osgood in 1878 on Bayard Taylor’s Prince Deukalion. The design is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was first issued in London on Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon (Edward Moxon & Co., 1865).

The cover looks like vellum over beveled boards, but is in fact cloth. The author was a friend of Swinburne, and also of Samuel Bancroft, Jr., owner of Bancroft Mills in Wilmington, DE, manufacturer of the vellum cloth for the cover of this book. Taylor was also a diplomat. He died in Berlin shortly after his appointment as the United States Minister to Germany, just a few weeks after this book was published.

The Rossetti design, with its simple adaptation of Japanese emblems, was then an anomaly in American publishing. What made it important was its influence on a young artist who began designing book covers a few years later.

Sarah Wyman Whitman was a gifted painter who was also a prominent hostess to Boston culture, married to a prosperous wool merchant. She was a student of the painter William Morris Hunt, and also studied in France with Hunt’s teacher, Thomas Couture. She met Couture and Hunt’s earlier student, the multi-talented American painter and illustrator John La Farge, who was responsible for the revival of stained glass in America, and apprenticed with him. Hunt had also studied with Millet, and brought the influence of the Barbizon School to La Farge and Whitman.

The earliest example of her book cover design is on Verses by Susan Coolidge, published in Boston by Roberts Brothers in 1880. Whitman adapted Rossetti’s concept of stylized Japanese medallions, creating what might be the first American "Aesthetic" binding.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reprise of the Stamped Cover

Monday's New York Observer had an article about the "new" trend in publishing--eliminating the dust jacket and stamping directly on the cover of a hardbound book.

The New Thing: Books Without Jackets

There has been some discussion of this among the rare book community on the Exlibris listserv. One of my comments was that the design that illustrates the article, No Impact Man, appears to be a stamped paper quarter cloth binding similar in format to what Sarah Wyman Whitman was designing for Houghton in the 1880s.

Welcome to The Art of American Book Covers

This blog is about book covers. The posts will mainly be about the "Golden Age" of American publishing, the period from about 1875 to 1930 when stamped cloth bindings brought innovative art and design into the homes of the reading public.

In the sidebar you can read posts from other blogs that present more recent cover art, which is mostly paperback book cover or dust jacket design.

Not all books published in the 19th century had cloth covers. To start the blog, here's a hardcover book published by Houghton in 1881 on Mr. Bodley Abroad by Horace Scudder with printed paper wrapped boards:

The artist is not identified, and this was before the era of artists' monograms, which will be a later subject on this blog. The cover is shockingly prescient for its time and can be associated with art movements that occurred decades after the book was produced.