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How the Jacket Sells the Book

Written By AJA Symons

Taken from Art and Industry Vol. 22 No. 132. June 1937

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AFTER the war was over, electric signs returned to Piccadilly Circus, whence they had been banished by Count Zeppelin, and dust wrappers, which had been banished by war-time scarcity and Acts of Parliament, returned to books. But they returned to suffer a quick change in a changing world. Already we forget that the book-jacket, as we know it today, is virtually a post-war invention. It is true that certain publishers had used paper wrappers to protect their wares from sun and dust as far back as the eighties, but these early " dust-wrappers " were either completely plain or announced little more than the name of the author and the title and price of his work. This unadventurous reticence continued, with a few exceptions, until 1914.) when dust-wrappers were abandoned for the dust of battle. In die years after the armistice, however, advertisement renewed itself like a snake that had cast its skin new forms of publicity were devised daily; and the erstwhile humble book-wrapper not only reappeared, but shared in the general transformation from a khaki to a many coloured world.

Gradually it has become more flaunting, more dramatic, more highly coloured and more expensive, until now, forgetting its former modesty completely, it has become the most noticeable, and sometimes the most agreeable feature of the book that it at once adorns and protects. Is this a good thing or a bad ? Are we to regret or welcome the upstart growth ? I must confess that for several years I regarded the book-jacket as the enemy of tie cover it conceals; I regretted every penny spent on it, convinced that each penny had been economised from the already niggardly sum allowed for cover-costs. Beneath the gayer and gayer jackets I foresaw duller and drabber books, gradually deteriorating until the old claim, that books are the best of all furnishings, would be true only while the covers were covered up. Fortunately I was wrong (though for a time it seemed otherwise), and I am grateful for this opportunity to recant.

Recognising in time that if new books were not to become exclusively the appendages of circulating libraries (and there was a real danger of this for several years), they must be made permanently attractive to the possible purchaser, the more enterprising publishers are giving us today trade-bindings that can match the best productions of the continent, and justify the book-loving claim that firelight glowing upon the backs of companionable books is as inspiring to look at as a rainbow or a dish of trout. There is a renaissance of cover design; and in the light of it the book-jacket can be acquitted of evil influence and admitted as another and powerful instrument for improvement of book production. Yet even now there is a menace in its power.

So far the book has been a stable and conservative thing, which has changed less than almost any other servant of civilization since first it entered on its beneficent servitude. In size, type, and order, our books differ little from those used two hundred years ago; folio, quarto, octavo : Gara-mond, Caslon, Baskerville ; title page, test, index : all these are familiar, customary elements, added to or changed by a slow process of growth that left the core of book-production unaltered. But the jacket, now that its duty is advertisement and the commanding of attention, is neither familiar nor customary. Change and novelty are its necessities ; it claims a license of innovation altogether outside the gradual modifications that had so far made the history of the printed book. And it is inevitable, in my view, that the freedom and technical methods at present employed in the production of book-jackets should find their way into the business of making books.

The lessons that they teach will not be forgotten when they have been learned. We are on the eve of changes. The illustrations that accompany this article have been chosen from examples produced almost entirely during the past eighteen months; and they offer, I believe, a representative selection of the best work now being done in Great Britain. They show in miniature all the tendencies which have developed in book-jacket design, and indicate the ways in which this new technique is likely to influence typography. Two of these tendencies—the popularising of new or revived mediums and the bringing into public notice of particular artists with strongly marked personal styles may be seen united in the work of Mr Barnett Freedman. Mr. Freedman is a gifted and original artist, who has played little or no part in the general book production of recent years— unlike Mr. Eric Gill or Mr. Stephen Gooden, for instance. Nevertheless, Mr. Freedman's mastery of the lithographic stone is likely to be at least as influential in future as the wood engraving of the one or the copper engraving of the other.

Barnett Freedman has one very remarkable book to his credit—the illustrated Memoirs of an lnfantry Officer; and he has repeated the lessons taught in it by the almost equally impressive Lavengro, and in a long series of jacket designs in which lithography and coloured paper have been brought together in a union that both demands and satisfies attention. His bold three-quarter heads and personal lettering have changed the aspect of our bookshops. Already the force of his example may be observed in the jacket designs of other hands (observe Mr. Ritchie, p. 216) which compliment both master and pupil. Barnett Freedman is as lively an influence as Lovat Fraser was ; and may well play, in relation to lithography and our time, a part resembling that of Beardsley and the process block in the nineties.

Another artist whose work enjoys a favour which approaches that of Freedman is Mr. Rex Whistler; and he. too, has exerted a strong influence on other jacket designs—witness Barbosa's two pastiches in his manner, pp. 226-7. Mr.Whistler was, however, well known to the bookish public before he transferred the witty delicacy of his period line to the service of the book-jacket. Eric Fraser, however, demonstrates as forcibly as Barnett Freedman the invasion of the sedate typographical world by new manners. He uses, in the main, two complementary styles; bold line drawings, reproduced by zinco block and printed in black on red paper (p.220) and symbolic fantasies of colour, reproduced by three or four colour line (p. 220). Mr. Fraser's work, which has been freely used for fiction jackets, is in agreeable contrast with the dreary and conventional coloured scenes, taken from the story, still used with maddening lack of initiative by many of the larger publishing firms.

Unexpectedly, in view of the great popularity it has enjoyed during recent years, the woodcut finds few exponents among jacket designers. Nor, more unexpectedly still, does photo-montage or trick photography. Large type superimposed on line blocks has been used effectively for certain classes of books (p. 222) and the Curwen Press continues to make excellent use of its fine repertoire of specially designed borders. Indeed Curwen and other printers have shown that typography alone can produce jackets as noticeable as those created by any other method, and more economically. The interlining of a boldly set title with descriptive matter in lower case is one device (p.22i)which will probably be used more and more frequently : a simple line design printed on white on a coloured ground is another. The title page is probably the means by which these, and other innovations will find their way from the jacket into the book. In one instance (Siamese white) it has done so already.

As the illustrations to this article show, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and Edward Bawden are among the artists who have executed jacket designs in recent months, though of these three only the last named works in this field with any frequency. But it is a pity that even occasional works by distinguished artists (and there must be thirty in England alone who have designed fine jackets) should be given no more permanent life than the dust-wrapper can offer. An excellent example has been set by Messrs. Faber and Faber, who have several times recently duplicated their cover designs as fly titles in the finished book. If this could become a general practice, the book-jacket would not only be assured of a lasting place on our shelves but also, by its added importance, offer a more tempting opportunity to the artist. And by submitting to the discipline of typographical unity with the book it serves, the jacket would remove the last of those suspicions with which it had been regarded from its birth .

AJA Symons 1937

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