The Art of Book Covers.

The Public Domain Review says “we thought we’d […] publish some of our favourites from the first hundred years of the book cover (as we commonly understand it today)”:

Inspired by rising literacy rates and advancing technologies, the nineteenth century saw the book transform from a largely hand-made object to a mass-produced product. In this new environment the book cover took on added importance: it was no longer merely a functional protection for the pages but instead became a key platform through which to communicate and sell the book. Prior to this covers had — bar a smattering of highly bespoke one-off creations (e.g. embroidered covers for personal libraries) — mostly been plain leather bound affairs. From the 1820s, with the rise of mechanical bookbinding, these leather covers of old gave way to new cloth coverings which, in addition to being inexpensive, were now also printable. A wide variety of cover printing techniques were employed over the decades: from embossing to gilt to multi-colour lithography. A totally new artistic space was opened up. As you can see in our highlights below it was one in which illustrators and designers flourished, producing a range of covers as eclectic in aesthetic approach as the myriad contents they fronted.

The covers are some of the most gorgeous I’ve seen. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. They are beautiful, and some are very unselfconsciously creepy.

    Did you see the multi-script eye chart at the bottom of the page?

  2. I’m not seeing it… unless you mean this?

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The links at the end seem to be different each time – I didn’t get yours either, and refreshing got me a new set.

  4. The multi-script eye test chart is here.

  5. Thanks, that’s amazing!

  6. I like the one for “Practical Taxidermy.”

    That was a far more successful book than its predecessor, “Impractical Taxidermy.”

  7. A number of those covers are very striking. I was particularly taken with some of the ones featuring celestial bodies. This includes Ignatius Donnelly’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. While Donnelly was a total crank (on all topics except his 1860s Radical Republicanism), his pseudoscience books did tend to have nice covers. More famous, and quite different in style, was the cover of his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World previously mentioned here.

    I also noticed Roscoe’s book on solar spectroscopy (a field that he really modernized), with the beautifully done absorption spectrum on the cover. I had forgotten, until I just read up on him again, that Roscoe was Beatrix Potter’s uncle, although that book came out far too early for her to have any influence on it’s illustration. Potter, for those who do not know, was a master naturalist in her own right and developed (independently of Simon Schwendener, who had proposed it somewhat earlier) the theory that lichens were a symbiotic combination of fungi and photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria.

    Some of those covers also had a lovely Art Nouveau look. In that regard, I was most struck by Költők Albuma. My least favorite of the covers was probably Dunsany’s, although that was no doubt in part due to my having seen it before. Still, I think the web design compares rather unfavorably to the spiderweb on the (much older) Friedrich Christian Accum treatise.

  8. One of those is “Richard Bowdler Sharpe. Sketch-Book of British Birds. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,1898”

    In what I assume is just an extremely weird coincidence (Bowdler!?), there’s a Monty Python sketch that hinges on the *expurgated* version of ‘Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds’:

    http://www.montypython.net/scripts/bookshop.php

    This is also the sketch that first exposed me to my favorite Dickens novel title spoonerism, “A Sale of Two Titties”.

  9. AJP Crown says:

    Sketch-Book of British Birds.
    In the same spirit is this, on Richard Kearton, “the Machiavelli of bird photography” and Cherry Kearton, who dressed up as a sheep and a tree trunk.

    The Public Domain Review is a gold mine. Thank you very much, Language!

    Designing book covers requires not only expertise in proportion and knowledge of typefaces but more talent and imagination than I’d first thought when I tried my amateur hand. The very best covers beguile you to open the book on the basis of one image, one promise, whatever the style or title and whether it’s summarising the contents or – it turns out, at the end – completely unrelated.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    there’s a Monty Python sketch that hinges on the *expurgated* version of ‘Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds’:

    Oh, that’s just sad. 🙁

  11. Narmitaj says:

    Note The Yellow Book prices – 5/- in the UK (25p in modern form) against $1.50 for the dollar price, so £1=$6 (it’s currently £1=$1.24).

    The Yellow Book cover is illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. I was lucky to catch the Tate Britain special exhibition of his work when I was in London a month ago, before lockdown. He packed in a lot before dying of TB at 25.

    https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aubrey-beardsley

  12. The oldest version of “don’t judge a book by its cover” I could Google is from 1878.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    1 Samuel 16:6-13 New International Version (NIV)

    6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

    7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the TOC.”

  14. AJP Crown says:

    I have a question that’s perhaps very remotely connected to book covers, perhaps not. I read here (halfway down):

    She was quite delightful, slightly cracked and absolutely hopeless for the Antiquariat Primula.

    What does it mean? It’s an interview, one of many, with a London rare-book dealer. This man Chancellor specialised in Gardening and had German business connections, so I’m wondering whether he simply meant primulas (primroses) illustrated in antiquarian collections but in that case why the capital A? I won’t be offended if no one but me cares about this.

  15. Antiquariat is German for ‘second-hand bookstore,’ and I presume Antiquariat Primula was such a store that specialized in gardening books. He sounds like an unpleasant person, but I loved the line “I regret to this day having given the Queen a discount.”

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    He sounds like an unpleasant person, but I loved the line “I regret to this day having given the Queen a discount.”

    Unpleasant persons can be relied on for such lines. I like his self-deprecating panache and coy placename-dropping. I probably would have found him intolerable in person, but there’s no law requiring me to hobnob with people who produce funny interviews at the end of their life.

    Books and languages are foundation stones of social distancing. It is of no concern whether the Buddha had B.O.

  17. I moved my stock to the Swiss canton of Thurgau and opened a shop in a pretty house called the Villa Primula.

    It’s not clear whether “Antiquariat Primula” is literally the name of his shop, or just a playful way he refers to it.

    I was a little surprised when I saw the interview subject was John Chancellor, but then I looked at his picture and saw it wasn’t the famous NBC journalist.

  18. It’s not clear whether “Antiquariat Primula” is literally the name of his shop, or just a playful way he refers to it.

    Ah, good point.

  19. John Paget Chancellor’s brother Alexander Chancellor was one-time editor of The Spectator and The Oldie in the UK.

    He (John the bookseller) was father of Anna Chancellor, “Duckface” in Four Weddings and A Funeral. Some of his other children made some sort of literary connections through marriage: Eddie married Martin Amis’s former wife Antonia and Katharine married Will Self.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    Thank you, all three. It would have been obvious even to me if I hadn’t skipped the sentence about opening a shop in a pretty house called the Villa Primula.

    He sounds like an unpleasant person
    Well, almost certainly a Conservative but that’s the case with far too many gardeners. “He was an enfant terrible who loved to make himself shudder,” said his sister Susanna.

    Unlike the bespectacled newsreader he’s not famous, but his daughter Anna Chancellor is a well-known actress. Another daughter married Will Self.

  21. AJP Crown says:

    Damn. I can’t remove my repeat of Narmitaj, because somehow I’ve lost my 15 min. editing privilege.

  22. AJP Crown says:

    Some of his other children made some sort of literary connections through marriage

    John Chancellor was a publisher – for some years at Sidgwick & Jackson until he was fired by Lord Longford.

  23. When someone says “I behaved like a monster” I tend to believe them (just as I learned eventually not to date women who proclaim “I’m not a nice person”). And I didn’t like “a woman in her 80s called Cohen” — everybody else gets a first name, but I guess the surname tells you what he wants you to know about her.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    almost certainly a Conservative

    From TFA:

    This country was in a disgusting state at the time – Heath had lost the election and I could hardly bear to be here with the frightful Wilson government.

    Evidently a Blairite of some kind (possibly avant la lettre.) One must be charitable.

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    A deontic sentiment tempered with considerations of social utility. So many thoughtful people end up in this predicament. They stock up on charity as one lays in Halloween sweets for the kiddies.

    I’m not knocking it, you understand. It’s just that I prefer to muddle through while sniping at the more analytical careerists.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve been panic-stockpiling charity, and now I’ve got great heaps of it lying around unused.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    Like toilet paper, it’s a long-term investment. I would hold on to it even though prices are rising.

  28. SFReader says:

    Are any of them related to explorer Richard Chancellor who in 1552 discovered Russia by mistake?

  29. AJP Crown says:

    they reached the Scottish coast and were driven ashore by a storm at Pitsligo near Aberdeen on 10 November 1556. Most of the crew, including Chancellor, lost their lives. Only the Russian envoy and a few others survived and reached London the following year.
    The following year? It takes 7 hours by train.

    almost certainly a Conservative
    From TFA:
    the frightful Wilson government.

    D’oh!

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Yeast is the new toilet paper.

  31. Lars Mathiesen says:

    A strange fact: Hoarding in Denmark focuses on toilet paper and yeast. The reminiscence of a transport strike in 1998 or so when those two products were actually not available for weeks.

  32. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ajp
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscovy_Company
    “Chancellor drowned, but [the Russian envoy] Nepeya managed to reach the coast, where he was taken hostage by the Scots for a few months before they allowed him to travel on to London.”
    So I have no doubt the Russian envoy would have liked to proceed with more haste to London, as you say someone like that could command post horses and probably make the trip in less than a month, even if the ship needed repairs.

  33. Yeast: so many people are cooped up at home who have for years said “I’d love to bake my own bread but I don’t have the time”, plus many of them are stuck with children to amuse, so “Cm’on kids, let’s make bread!’ has become a popular activity. This has resulted in a shortage of conventional bread yeast at the shops.

    My wife has been baking bread for years, and if you search around there are sources for all sorts of sourdough yeasts from various different places. People have been collecting and exchanging them for centuries.

    Currency: In the years just prior to WWI, one British pound was normally reckoned to be about five US dollars.

    Overstruck Spanish American 8 Real coin issued by the Bank of England with a value of 5 shillings to supplement a deficiency in British regal coinage. The coins were struck by the Soho Mint, Birmingham between 1804 and 1811 though all bear the date 1804.

    These Spanish dollars were also commonly circulated in the US.

    This has led to a British slang usage of “dollar” meaning five shillings.This can be observed in pre-decimalisation Andy Capp comic strips, among other places.

    Book covers: When I was young I had the opportunity to read many Kipling works (the Jungle Book, etc.) in the old red bindings with the gold elephants and swastikas. I was a bit too young to really wonder about the swastikas.

  34. Lars Mathiesen says:

    The Danish yeast run was slightly different — the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown measures at around 7 pm on March 11, and by 9 pm there was no yeast or toilet paper on the shelves. I don’t think most people had time to plan out kitchen activities so quickly, it was cultural memory and ‘me first’ instinct.

    I too used to have a scion of an ancient and much fabled sourdough in my possession, but when I lost it in a move and had to start another from yoghurt and fruit peels, the rye bread was just as good after a few iterations. (Bread / beer yeast doesn’t like to cohabit with acidophilus and its ilk, so you need a wild strain).

  35. AJP Crown says:

    When someone says “I behaved like a monster” I tend to believe them

    Well define ‘monster’. Hitchcock’s “A LOT of people think I’m a mon-ster” (see the start of video 2 here) or a parent’s “The children have been behaving like absolute monsters” isn’t quite the same as ‘Hitler was a monster’ or ‘Rupert Murdoch is a monster’ because the latter two are intended more seriously than metaphorically. His sister said “He was an enfant terrible who loved to make himself shudder,” and I thought that was a brilliant summing-up she’d probably thought about for years.

    I learned eventually not to date women who proclaim “I’m not a nice person”
    And (I hope) not to work for people who proclaim that they are.

  36. AJP Crown says:

    I can’t fix that (no current editing function).

  37. Fixed, but I’m concerned about the lack of editing function. Is anybody else unable to edit their comments?

    And (I hope) not to work for people who proclaim that they are.

    It must be nice to be able to pick and choose your bosses based on perceived personality. I work for anyone who will pay me regular.

  38. And frankly I don’t like bosses in general, anarchist that I am. I look for different qualities in a boss (regular pay) and a significant other (warm fuzzies, as they used to say).

  39. Also, I hope you’re not defending Hitchcock as a person — he was a real asshole to women. (Fortunately, I have no problem separating the artist from the art.)

  40. I mean, I don’t think there’s much of a significant moral difference between Hitchcock and Rupert Murdoch, it’s just that the latter didn’t make great movies.

  41. AJP Crown says:

    It must be nice to be able to pick and choose your bosses based on perceived personality. I work for anyone who will pay me regular.
    How important it is probably depends how closely you have to work with them. I once had a boss who is still said (by others*) to be a psychopath.

    *Ok, this judgement was partly based on his driving a BMW

    I don’t think there’s much of a significant moral difference between Hitchcock and Rupert Murdoch
    The moral difference is maybe that Hitchcock would never work again if he were still alive whereas Murdoch carries on with impunity.

  42. True. We’ve advanced in some directions, but there is a long way to go.

    *sings “Ça ira”*

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