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."