Book covers commissioned from a designer first made their appearance in the 1840s. It was during this period that the design of covers for a particular work took off, designed by significant figures, such as Owen Jones, Noel Humphreys, Sir Henry Cole, and John Leighton. Breaking new ground was the Home treasury series for children – it featured colour-printed covers to renaissance designs, with Cole probably influencing the choice of these designs.
A pictorial binding, signed ‘Staples Sc’ for Thomas Staples. L. M. Budgen, Episodes of insect life, 3 vols. (London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, 1849-1851 ; bound by Westleys & Co.), s QL467.D6.
In the 1850s there was a notable increase in bindings signed with designer’s initials, presumably so that artists could be recognised for their work, although signatures are not always easy to detect; some may be widely spaced, perhaps one initial appearing at the top of the spine and one at the bottom, whilst others may be so minute as to be almost imperceptible without a magnifying glass.
A binding designed by John Leighton, with his initials (JL) appearing on the spine and front cover. John R. Wise, The New Forest (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1863 ; bound by Leighton Son and Hodge), r DA670.N5W4.
This simple but effective design is signed with a monogram beneath the author’s surname on the front cover; we’ve been unable to identify the designer. F. Harald Williams, Confessions of a poet (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1894) r PR5709.W36C6.
The most prolific designer of the Victorian period was John Leighton, many works being signed ‘JL’, although he executed a number of bookbinding designs for J. and J. Leighton (his father and uncle’s bookbinding business) under his pseudonym Luke Limner. Throughout his career he designed bindings for nearly every leading London publisher, but it was Longmans who provided Leighton with opportunities to make more complex designs, as well as textual illustrations.
John Leighton’s design for Doyle’s A Chronicle of England. The gold design, on brown pebble-grain cloth, is an excellent example of a symmetrical design. Unusually, the cover design is also signed with the name of the die-cutter, the words ‘Timbury Sc.’ appearing on the bottom right-hand corner of each cover. James Doyle, A chronicle of England B.C. 55-A.D. 1485 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864 ; bound by Edmonds & Remnants), r DA130.D7.
Some further examples of a bindings designed by John Leighton, all signed ‘JL’. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion: a romance (London: David Bogue, 1853 ; bound by Leighton Son & Hodge), r PS2273.H8F7 ; The lyrics of Ireland (London: Houlston and Wright, 1858 ; bound by Leighton Son & Hodge), r PR4892.L8A2 ; Sunshine in the country (London: Richard Griffin and Company, 1861), Photo PR1195.C67S86.
The 1870s have been noted by some as a retrograde period for book cover design, where abstract decoration became more and more meaningless. Yet this is not true of all bindings, for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Hughes, and William Morris were active during this time, designing covers in complete contrast to the general style of the period.
Two further effective designs by D. G. Rossetti. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The collected works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2 vol. (London, Ellis and Elvey, 1890), r PR5241.R8; M.F. Rossetti, A shadow of Dante (London, Oxford, and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1871 ; bound by Burn & Co.), r PQ4390.R7.
William Morris, like Rossetti, rebelled against the style of the times. These two examples are the only two blocked cloth book cover designs which Morris produced, the second making its first appearance in 1890. William Morris, Love is enough (London: Ellis & White, 1873), r PR5078.L7 ; William Morris, The earthly paradise (London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), r PR5075.A1E96 Copy 2.
Dislike of over-ornamented book covers (of which John Leighton had been a pioneer) became a leading feeling amongst Arts and Crafts designers by the late 1880s. Artists such as Charles Ricketts, Walter Crane, and William Nicholson, active in the 1890s in cover design, were collectively responsible for a revolutionary change; emphasis was now on the artistic as distinct from decorative.
These two bindings are typical of arts and crafts book-cover designs. The one on the left is, I believe, designed by Joseph William Gleeson White. Practical designing (London: George Bell and Sons, 1893), r NK1510.W5 ; Reginald Fanshawe, Two lives: a poem (London: George Bell and Sons, 1894), r PR4699.F16T9.
By the end of the nineteenth century bindings commissioned by designers were evocative of simplicity and natural manufacture. Would Archibald Leighton have seen the irony that in 1891 the Winterbottom Book Cloth Company introduced a cloth called “Art Vellum”, which allowed the texture of the weave to be clearly seen, a feature which he had endeavoured to cover up?
Assistant Rare Books Librarian