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.


  1. I wonder if you know that the Morgan Library has three letters from Howard Pyle to Ball, written in 1895 when "Stops of Various Quills" by W. D. Howells (with Pyle's illustrations) was in production. Ball, then working in Harper and Brothers' Art Department, evidently urged Pyle to design the book's cover, rather than having it done in-house.

  2. What a treat these are and how grateful I am that you shared them. As for Deland’s books, her first effort (The Old Garden and Other Verses) was her only book of poetry and it came out in 1887. At the time, books of serious poetry had blue covers, but she wanted to continue the theme of her book onto the cover, and the result was a flowery cover. I have no idea who did it (maybe her since she was a trained artist), and I also don’t know if the illustrator of a book is necessarily the same person who does the cover art. Do you?

  3. It was not common for the illustrator to design the cover, though there are many books where that is the case. It's a different skill set that included lettering, knowledge of bookcloths, and ways that stamping dies could be used with gold and colors. The Old Garden (1886) was lettered by Sarah Wyman Whitman, who may have chosen the floral cloth that was used, or perhaps it was suggested by Deland, or an art editor at Houghton. There may be correspondence that will reveal that detail if you want to pursue it, in the letters of Whitman or the Houghton archive.


  5. “It was not common for the illustrator to design the cover”

    In the case of serious works of the poetry, I don’t see that there was much design work to do in regard to the covers since they were all blue (the thought being that anything else would be frivolous).

    “The Old Garden (1886) was lettered by Sarah Wyman Whitman, who may have chosen the floral cloth that was used, or perhaps it was suggested by Deland, or an art editor at Houghton.”

    I did some research into the matter (through Ruth Maxa Filer’s biography of Deland). Deland’s friend, Lucy Derby, did so much to promote Deland’s literary career that it’s open to question whether she would have had a career without Derby. In the case of “The Old Garden…,” Derby found fabric, the design of which she thought would be suitable for the cover, and shared her ideas with Houghton and Mifflin (who were her long-time friends) and won them and their team over. It was also Derby who had the idea for the white binding panel with gold lettering.

    Filer’s 450-page biography (Margaret Deland, Writing Toward Insight) is excellent except for the extremely regrettable fact that there’s no index. It was self-published through Balboa Press, and I can find no information about its author or its copyright holder, Patrick J. Stern. Would you have any thoughts about where I can get such information? Until last October, I knew nothing about publishing and had no interest in first-edition books, so I’m working hard to overcome my ignorance, so I wouldn’t have you worry about talking down to me when there’s so very much that I don’t know. I’m even finding it impossible to find a site that lists all of the printings and editions that Deland’s books went through. I know from Filer that “John Ward, Preacher) was reprinted four times in three months due to its tremendous popularity (combined with the publishers skepticism regarding its reception), but I can’t find this information anywhere else. Finding sources is like trying to claw my way out of a dark hole.

    Thank you for the link.