Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gold-Stamped Publishers' Bindings of the 19th Century

XI. Designer Bindings & the End of the Century > Introduction

While bindings executed in the early part of the century were designed by the binder, at the end of the century, publishers began to enlist painters, architects, and decorative artists. The artist would draw the design, select the cloth and colors with the publisher, then leave it to the bindery to make his creation a reality.

In England, some artists began signing their cover designs as early as the 1850s. Attempts to lift the general run of designs from mediocrity were given new energy by artistic movements late in the century. Influenced by japonisme, art nouveau, and the arts-and-crafts style, artists replaced mechanical over-ornamentation with clean, sophisticated designs on smooth cloth.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle introduced Japanese-influenced style to book covers, with their designs for the publisher F.S. Ellis. However, as Sarah Whitman complained in a talk in 1894, "japonisme" was rapidly debased: "a combination of bad French art mixed with Japanese art; scrolls and arabesque...mixed with a bit of Japanese fan, the suggestion of a sun, a stork, or strange diagonal lines, so beautiful in pure Japanese art but so fatal and terrible on a book."

In the 1880s, artist-designed covers began to appear in the United States. Sarah Whitman was one of first of the many American designers who proved that commercial bindings could be artistic, and the artistic, commercial.

Even before the 1890s, publishers had used house styles for their covers to separate their books from the common herd. John Lane not only named the artist-designers in his advertising, but used the new style as a way to distinguish the productions of the Bodley Head and position them as modern.

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