Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"The Art of American Book Covers": a diappearing art preserved

Picture this: The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 (George Braziller Publishers, 2010) by Richard Minsky celebrates an almost-lost art that was once an integral part of book publishing. From the mid-ninetenth century to the nineteen-fifties, hardback book cover art -- with an endless variety of gilt lettering, embossed, silhouette, finely-drawn and sometimes experimental styles -- was part of the visual and often tactile appeal of the printed book.
In an era of increased leisure reading time and developing consumer demand, this form of illustration and commercial art became a marketing tool in the publishing insustry. An engaging cover drew the eye to an author's latest offering: book publishers relied on a talented group of artists whose names may mean little today but whose art remains on display in second-hand or antique shops, libraries, and museums.
Minsky's recent book, and his blog of the same name, contains a marvelous selection of book covers by artists whose names may have faded but whose art is a striking and still attractive form. Minsky, an artist himself, continues to curate the Center for Book Arts he founded in 1974, and his research provides historical background on a great number of these artists.

(cover for Aboard the Mavis, by Richard Markham, 1880)

Probably the most visually interesting art of his collection, several examples of which are reproduced here, is by an unkinown illustrator, for whom Minsky makes an educated guess of John LeFarge:
...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.

(cover for Mr. Bodley Abroad, by Horace Scudder, 1881)

In these days of reduced budgets and monthly articles forecasting the death rattles of publishing, it's unlikely this form of mass-market art will make a big return in any way except as an expensive, high-end luxury item. Ironic as it seems, the internet is becoming the default curator of book art for those interested enough to track it down. One site that describes itself as "delving daily into the arcane and esoteric of the book world" is here, and bibliophemera is another site that's worth a browse for its collection of book-cover art and other publisher-related items from the 1800s.

And for those willing to wear out shoe-leather in their home town, just browsing the shelves at your local library or book sale can turn up a find: that's where I bought a first edition of
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House from 1946 (for one dollar) with original illustrations by William Steig -- the artist whose later, wobbly line-drawings in the New Yorker featured a cranky but lovable monster named Shrek.

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