Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Beautiful Gift for Book Lovers

If you are looking for something beautiful and inexpensive for someone who loves books, The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 is perfect. It was designed in gift book format, is exceptionally well produced in full color with images of about 150 gorgeous books, has a top quality gold-stamped cloth binding, and rave reviews of the content.

If you tried to get a copy earlier this year and discovered that none were available in stores or online, that's because the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out in three weeks. The second printing finally arrived, and it is again in your local bookstore and in stock at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Click for a  free PDF preview

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Huffington Post review

There's a nice review of The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 today in the Huffington Post.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thomas Watson Ball

 Gilian the Dreamer
by Neil Munro

Dodd, Mead, 1899
cover by Thomas Watson Ball, unsigned

The covers of T. W. Ball were completely neglected by scholars of binding design for many years. Gullans and Espey did not mention him in their 1979 essay in Collectible Books, despite listing “The Major Designers” and “Other Noteworthy Designers.” 

Ball worked in several distinct styles and rarely monogrammed his work. So what makes me think the wonderful 1899 abstract landscape on the cover of Gilian the Dreamer (above) was his? Fortunately, Ball compiled a portfolio with some of his binding designs, likely for the purpose of showing these to publishers. His portfolio was acquired by the collector Robert Metzdorf, who loaned it to Sue Allen in 1972 for an exhibition she organized in Chicago. 

The portfolio passed from Metzdorf ’s estate to the University of Rochester in 1975. Only the front covers are in it, with no spines or indication of publisher or date. That made acquiring copies of the actual books to photograph more of a challenge. Gilian the Dreamer is not in the portfolio, but several similar designs are, and that is the basis of the attribution. The Mistress of the Ranch (1897, below) is in the portfolio, and shows that Ball was working towards this level of abstraction at least two years earlier.

The Mistress of the Ranch
by Frederick Thickstun Clark
Harper & Brothers, 1897

 Old Chester Tales (1899, below) uses similar trees with a more realistic townscape.

Old Chester Tales
by Margaret Deland
Harper & Brothers, 1899

Last September I wrote about Variants and More Variants. Below is a variant of the cover at the top of this post. The obvious difference is that the title and author on the top one are gold on the cover and spine, and below are silver.

Gilian the Dreamer
by Neil Munro

Dodd, Mead, 1899
cover by Thomas Watson Ball, unsigned

A more subtle difference, which would have struck the author on first glance, is that his name is spelled "Munroe" on the gold copy and "Munro" on the silver. The latter is correct. The interiors of the books appear to be identical. The mis-spelling suggests that the gold version was the first impression of the stamping.  The error was apparently discovered early on, as one of our subscribers has the gold version with the name spelled "Munro."

Ball often painted in the Pointillist and Impressionist styles. He made many nautical paintings; his fascination with ships and the sea influenced his cover art. The Merry Anne (1904, below) uses decoratively textured fields to create the feeling of the water’s surface by translating the impressionist technique of his painting to the medium of die-stamped cloth. 

 The Merry Anne
by Samuel Merwin
Macmillan, 1904

Fortune’s Boats (below), done for Houghton in 1900, features a gorgeous combination of gold and silver with stylized silhouettes. 

 Fortune’s Boats
by Barbara Yechton
Houghton, Mifflin ,1900

A combination of Ball’s styles appears in a series of designs for Houghton beginning in 1901 with In The Levant (below). That cover is in his portfolio, and similar covers use silhouetted buildings on a gold background. Each design features different Ball elements.

In The Levant
by Charles Dudley Warner
Houghton, Mifflin, 1901

English Hours
by Henry James
Houghton, Mifflin, 1905

Thomas Watson Ball was a master of creating covers that used silhouettes, either for the complete design or for particular elements of it. His 1900 design for Lords of the North by A. C. Laut (below) is particularly interesting because there is a reflection of the silhouette in the water--or is it a shadow? The smooth ripples from the motion of the canoe and the smaller ripples further out tell us about the speed of the canoe and the breeze. The angle and length of the shadows suggest the position of the sun.

 Lords of the North
by A. C.  Laut
F. Taylor, 1900

In several other designs Ball sets the silhouette against a striated sky, patterned water, or both. In Visiting the Sin (below) he creates compelling and evocative images with silhouettes in a flattened pictorial space.

Visiting the Sin
by Emma Rayner
Small, Maynard, 1900

Many of Ball's binding designs can be identified by several features seen above, particularly the stylized trees, striated skies, and use of panels. There are several other styles in which he worked, which will be the subject of a future post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book is Out, Reviews are In

The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930 is now in bookstores and available online.

Here are some quotes, with links to the full review:
"Whether you curl up and read it, shelve it for reference, or place on the coffee table, this is one book you don’t want to miss."

"A perceptive introductory essay makes excellent use of both small illustrations within the text and reference to larger illustrations in the main body of the book to offer perspective on the place of these works and their often anonymous creators within the context of the trends in art and design of the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

"One look at Dodd, Mead and Co.'s 1880 wraparound cover for Richard Markham's Aboard The Mavis will instantly explain why someone (you) will want to procure Minsky's book."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bright and Matte Gold

One of the most beautiful techniques employed on publishers' bindings was stamping in bright and matte gold. This could be accomplished with a single impression of a specially engraved die. Microscopic textures were added to parts of the image by various processes. Physical methods would be to engrave a stipple or cross-hatch pattern with a burin, or to roll or press a pattern with a mezzotint rocker or similar tool. A chemical method such as aquatint can also be used to texture the die.

The effect is to make the gold reflect bright and dark in different parts of the image as the light hits it at different angles. This would draw attention to the book in a bookstore window or store display as someone walked past it, and also creates dramatic shifts in light as the book is held and turned at different angles. 

The First Violin
by Jessie Fothergill
Illustrated by G.W. Brenneman
New York: Brentano’s, n.d., ©1896
two volumes 21 x 13.8
[unsigned, Lee and Henry Thayer?]
Two-tone gold stamped black cloth
with original cloth dust wrappers and slipcase.  

Above is a scan. Below is a flash photo, with the light at a different angle. The vines on the front cover that are light above are dark below. The texturing on the back cover is symmetrical with that of the front cover. The curved spine in the photo is not that much darker than the covers, but the covers are flat on to the flash and the reflection of the light in the gold is too much for the camera. 

The enlarged scan detail below makes it easier to see the technique.

The above design is attributed to Lee Thayer (of The Decorative Designers firm) by John Lehner in TBR #4, March 1992 [Trade Binding Research Newsletter]. Charles Gullans felt that the release date of this design was a few months too early to be a DD production, and the 1840’s derivation of the style indicated late work by an older designer. He suggested (in a letter to John Lehner) that it might be by H. L. Parkhurst, who is known to have designed the signed binding below for this edition.

The First Violin
by Jessie Fothergill
Illustrated by G.W. Brenneman
New York: Brentano’s, n.d., ©1896
two volumes 20.9 x 14.1
[signed HLP, H. L. Parkhurst]

Lehner’s points are more compelling. In an e-mail to me, he wrote “The lettering is the best overall example of the early DD work...dingbats, a flamed L, the cross bars pushed to the top, dingbatted o’s, the graceful R, the diagonal part of the N intersecting RHS above the bottom corner. Just wonderful. Not to mention the Lee Thayer repeat design using one of her favorite leaf forms.. a gothicky leaf based on the thistle, used on other works such as Red Cap Tales, and the T Y Crowell reprint of Kenilworth by Scott ca. 1900 and finally, The Strathmore Quality Book Paper sample book where she uses them on the cover, tp, and borders to introduce each type of paper, changing the two colors.” He notes the “trumpet E” in his TBR article.

I agree with Gullans about the 1840’s reference, but the reinterpretation like this of earlier motifs was not uncommon among the younger designers. The repeat design is reminiscent of Will Bradley’s work, as in Lucile (1897).

Lucileby Owen Meredith (Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton)
Illustrated by Madeleine Lemaire and C. McCormick Rogers
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., n.d., ©1897
23 x 14.4
[signed B, Will Bradley, Bambace A28]

There is similarity in movement to the vines above on The First Violin in the DD design on The Epic of Hades (1897?), and also a similarity to the Bradley design above. Artists paid attention to what others were doing and freely copied what they liked. This often makes the attribution of unsigned cover art difficult.

The Epic of Hades
by Lewis Morris
New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, n.d.
17.3 x 11.7

The Rosary
by Florence L Barclay
Illustrated by Blendon Cambell
Decorations by Margaret Armstrong
New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons:
The Knickerbocker Press, 1910, “June”
22.5 x 15.5 cm.
[MA, GE 17]

by Josephine Daskam
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, October
An unread copy with uncut pages
19.8 x 13.3
[Lee Thayer, signed DD]

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Art of American Book Covers: 1875-1930

I am pleased to announce that George Braziller is publishing a trade edition of my work on American Publishers' Bindings titled The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930.  It will be in full color and have about 150 images.

It will have a stamped full cloth cover, in keeping with the content. Above is a scan of the sample from the bindery. It is a practical demonstration that the effects created during the Golden Age can be revived on trade books using modern technology.

I have also designed a full cloth slipcase that will have a stamped spine, and am wrapping the book in it with a clear archival 3 mil polyester (as in "Mylar") dust jacket.  There will only be 100 signed and numbered copies of the First Edition in this slipcase. A pre-publication discount subscription to it is available today at

There is a link on the web page to a downloadable PDF with some sample pages.

I am so thrilled that George wanted to do this book--there is no other publisher I can think of that would have done this at the quality level this will be.  He is featuring it as the opening double page spread in his 2010 catalog.

Again, the web page for this is:

This cover is stamped with a single die in one stamping, using the technique I developed for the cover of the first volume of A.merican Decorated Publishers' Bindings, 1872-1929.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Great Unknown Cover Artist 1879-81

 [This was originally posted Friday, October 9, but had a technical problem and had to be reposted.]

The first post on this blog showed the 1881 cover of Mr. Bodley Abroad, a design decades ahead of its time. Here are four more covers that are clearly by the same artist:

The Bodleys on Wheels
by Horace E. Scudder
Houghton, Osgood and Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1879
Printed paper wrapped boards and over spine cloth

Aboard The Mavis
by Richard Markham
New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1880
Printed paper wrapped boards and over spine cloth

Brother, Sister and I 
Frontispiece, title page, and other Illustrations by Kate Greenaway
(monogrammed K.G., engraved by John Greenaway, monogrammed J.G.)
several other illustrators and engravers
New York, London and Paris: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.
n.d., ©1881 by O.M. Dunham
Green cloth spine, blank. Paper wrapped boards

Captain John Smith
by Charles Dudley Warner
Henry Holt and Company, 1881
Greenish tan cloth stamped in black, gold
and orangewith design wrapping to spine
and the orange stampingof the front
repeated in blind on the back cover 

Who could possibly have done these? My thoughts keep returning to the painter and stained glass artist John La Farge.  The authority on La Farge has advised me that there are no records of his having done any book covers.  If they are not by his hand, it looks to me like it may have been his influence.  We know that he taught several of the earliest and best  book cover artists--Sarah Wyman Whitman and Alice Cordelia Morse learned from him, and Margaret Armstrong grew up with La Farge as a neighbor and family friend.

To my way of thinking, the lack of evidence that he did book cover commissions does not rule him out.  It was several years later that artists monograms began to appear regularly on covers. La Farge illustrated many books,  knew the publishers and their art directors, and would be a likely artist for a cover commission.

If you have any other notions about who may have done these covers, or any other opinion, please do not hesitate to post a comment. 


[ unfortunately an early comment from BIBLIOMAVEN was deleted in a technical glitch. It had a link to the excellent blog, where there are images of another cover by this artist:

Salmagundi Booktopia:
By far these have become some of my favorite book covers on your site. They look a little pre-Dada to me. To find one of these would be a dream. Thanks for posting them.
January 17, 2010

Sarah Wyman Whitman

Among the first of the artists who transformed commercial binding design, Sarah de St. Prix Wyman Whitman was a hard working visionary who in many ways represented the modern woman. She was a successful portrait painter, had a stained glass workshop, and designed hundreds of books for Houghton, many with simple lettering, like Timothy’s Quest below.

Timothy’s Quest
by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Boston and New York:
Houghton Mifflin and Company,
Cambridge: The Riverside Press, n.d., © 1890
18 x 12
[unsigned, Sarah Wyman Whitman]

Whitman's pictorial designs for better editions were generally decorative stamped forms with Arts and Crafts elements and Art Nouveau motifs. Her distinct use of lettering, floral decoration and hearts was adopted by other designers.

Dorothy Q
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
Illustrated by Howard Pyle
Boston and New York:
Houghton, Mifflin and Company,
Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1893
20.1 x 13.1
[unsigned, Sarah Wyman Whitman]

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
by Lafcadio Hearn
Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company,
n.d., ©1894
21 x 13.7
[unsigned, Sarah Wyman Whitman]

 The Country of the Pointed Firs
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Boston and New York:
Houghton, Mifflin and Company,
Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1897
17.5 x 13.2
[unsigned, Sarah Wyman Whitman]

 The Marble Faun
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899
17.1 x 11.9
[signed SW in a flaming heart on back cover, Sarah Wyman Whitman]

The earliest known binding by SWW is from 1880, a variation of a Rossetti design that was posted here in August, along with some biographical information--see When did we leave the Victorian era?

There are many resources you can view online to see more of  her work and read about her life. Knowing the work of this important artist is essential to understanding the development of American publishers' bindings.

Sarah Whitman bindings at the Boston Public Library
Sarah Whitman in PBO
PBO database: bindings by Sarah Whitman
Sarah Whitman bindings at the University of Rochester
Sarah Wyman Whitman by Betty S. Smith (Harvard Magazine)
Reflections on a Design by Sarah Wyman Whitman by David Gehring, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Francis G. Hutchins' essay on the Sarah Whitman's Lowell window at the First Parish in Brookline, MA

Te comment below was posted January 17, before I had to delete and re-post this article due to a problem with the system.
Rebecca Rego Barry said...
I'm thrilled to see SWW on your blog. Her work is beautiful! Coincidentally, I posted a blog entry about her on the Fine Books Magazine Blog recently after acquiring an edition of Thoreau's Cape Cod designed by her.