Time was when a book cover called for an artist’s eye, a draughtsman’s pen, or a designer’s brush. Be it for a new-fangled paperback, or a traditional paper book-jacket, discerning publishers commissioned work of the highest order. Through economy of line and subtlety of colour, the essence of the text, factual or fictional, shone through the designer’s work; luminous, expressive, sometimes challenging. The book designer was an artist, the artist a book designer; the roles were not mutually exclusive, both were laudable, both worthy of respect.
To be called a graphic artist was not a pejorative title, but one to be embraced. To be called upon to embellish and enhance a book was a commission as important, as relevant, as any commission for a portrait, landscape or mural. Book design became an applied art that many in the mainstream, and indeed the avant-garde, both sought and accepted.
For much of my reading life I’ve admired the work of three artists in particular. In each case their book-related designs stand proudly alongside their wider portfolio of work. I became a connoisseur of book design at a relatively early age. Connoisseur sounds rather grand (forgive me) although in this context I simply mean that subtle transformation from reader to a more conscious state of book lover. From a humble admirer of the words to a hopeless initiate into the seductive arts of the book beautiful.
The artists of the eighteen nineties, Beardsley and Ricketts perhaps foremost, paved the way. Their designs, usually in ink, described a new and startling economy of line. The initiated could read the influences, certainly, but the shock of modernity, rid of all unnecessary embellishment, lit a lamp so bright its influence still shines.
During the heyday of the mass-produced book, both pre and post-war, the new wave of artists carried the torch. For me Eric Fraser, John Piper and David Gentleman stand at the forefront. Their book cover designs, now eminently collectible in their own right, swung the aesthetic compass needle towards work of subtle and compelling beauty. Pared down, sparse, seemingly simple – description can be deceptive, labelling no less so. But in their covers we can find honesty and integrity, fearless economy of style, singular and compelling vision. Their designs came to define the book, to capture its essence; an indelible image inseparable from the written work itself.
Each of these artists shares a particular but deep resonance for me.
As a child the Radio Times, excepting the occasional cover, was a thing of curious monochrome. The paper or magazine (it’s been called both in its time) meant different things to different people. To some it was a newspaper (albeit with a narrow world view of programming and entertainment), to others a ubiquitous guide to the what and when of radio, and later television.
But not least, it was a gallery of sorts. And on its cheap paper walls I first saw the work of Eric Fraser. His pen-and-ink illustrations, especially when seen in the original, share the clarity of line with the best of 20th century wood engravers. His is an expressive, stylised, and eloquent art; wonderfully suited to the classical connotations of many of his commissions. Each drawing possesses a startling immediacy, happily suited to the time criticality of weekly programming and publication.
My introduction to John Piper came as a consequence of my fascination with that school (I use the term loosely) of artists that included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, and Paul and John Nash. The architectural and landscape elements of their work held sway; came to define the way I saw buildings and places; tutored my aesthetic eye. To this day I often see through Piper-tinted glasses; British landscapes imitating art; Piper’s places.
David Gentleman’s ubiquitous designs similarly caught my imagination, and helped re-awaken in me the love of a deceptively immediate art. As Alan Bennet has written, there’s something of the spirit of Bawden and John Nash in David Gentleman. There are hints too of Joseph Crawhall’s enigmatic woodcuts. But Gentleman is his own gentleman, a great innovator of design, equally comfortable with a postage stamp or a London Underground platform mural. His beautiful designs for The New Penguin Shakespeare series, 1968-75, are indelibly imprinted on my schoolboy’s mind.
Recently there has been a welcome and long-overdue trend (albeit a slow one) towards a re-adoption of the artist’s book cover. Rarely, though happily, we can determine a conscious move away from the ubiquitous airbrushed images, the photographic montages of screen adaptations. A mindful step towards a more artistic interpretation. We need look no further than the beautiful covers designed by Ed Kluz in recent years to witness that.
Once-upon-a-time, in the misty monochrome of memory, less really was more.
Long may it remain so!