“Compelling evidence that a good design is timeless” – The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970 by Martin Salisbury

This wonderfully designed book investigates the adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Cover design occupies an ambiguous place in publishing, designers like to think of it as a creative art while everyone else thinks the cover is mainly an advert to attract attention in a bookshop and to serve as an easy guide for retailers as they flick through information sheets for a hundred books in a half-hour appointment.

Martin Salisbury’s The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970 is an introduction to the best cover designers working for British and American publishers and a fascinating history of how jacket design has changed since then (Salisbury’s introduction and potted guides to individual artists are succinct, idiosyncratic and insightful). It’s noticeable how many of the artists who once worked in publishing are now justly celebrated for much more; Ronald Searle and Edward Ardizzone are more famous for their work inside the books, while Vanessa Bell and John Minton are canonical artists. Tove Jansson deserves a special mention for being the illustrator of her own book jackets.

The Illustrated Dust Jacket is a heartening look at good publishing. It becomes increasingly striking that many of the book jackets reproduced here were for novels that have stood the test of time. It includes Cleonike Damianakes’ designs for Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, which Ernest disliked for their drawings of Hellenic figures (they look like watered-down versions of Aubrey Beardsley’s figures) because of their “lousy and completely unattractive decadence i.e. large misplaced breasts.” Though they have lasted better than Hans Tisdall’s jacket design for the first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, which to a 2017 eye has an unfortunate similarity to the poster for Finding Nemo.

Other writers were luckier with their designers, and some of the original designs are, though amended, still on sale today. The original cover of Lampedusa’s The Leopard is recognisably that of the Vintage edition in your local bookshop today, while John Minton’s design for Roland Camberton’s classic London novel Rain on the Pavements is used on the edition currently being sold. The Illustrated Book Jacket provides compelling evidence that a good design is timeless.

The opportunity to observe the change in design over the century is fascinating. All the designs here use original illustrations instead of photographs (while the cover for J.B. Priestley’s Festival at Farbridge used a mural, a precursor for today’s novels that use grafitti art on the cover?) and do not contain review quotes. The title and author were once considered enough to convince a browser to pick the book up. It is particularly interesting to see the original cover art for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The UK edition illustrates one of the novel’s final scenes, an image of a teenager watching a young girl running towards a carousel with the New York skyline in the background. The US edition focused on an image of a horse on the carousel, with the New York skyline (again) in the background. The cover design for The Catcher in the Rye anyone aged under 60 will know is considerably plainer.

Any Cop?: A superior coffee-table book for the literary minded, and an imaginative showcase of the creativity at the heart of good publishing.

 

James Doyle

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