Judging a Book by its Cover: Dust Jackets in Monash University Library Rare Books Collection

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Judging a Book by its Cover: Dust Jackets in Monash University Library Rare Books Collection 26 June 2014

Des Cowley, Rare Printed Collections Manager, State Library of Victoria.

I’m pleased to have been asked to say a few words here today as part of the opening of Judging a Book by its Cover. As some of you will know, this is Richard’s final exhibition in his role as Rare Books Librarian at Monash University. Like many of you, I have enjoyed Richard’s exhibitions over the years, in particular his incisive and eminently readable catalogues. I’ve admired the way he has linked his exhibitions to his acquisition program, developing and building a collection around a growing number of considered strengths.

Richard has always had a great eye and visual flare when it comes to books. Rather than replicate the historical strengths of the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne, he has used his knowledge and passion to develop Monash’s collection in new and interesting directions, particularly in the field of 20th century books, small press and fugitive publications, and ephemera. In recent years I’ve been struck by how many times I’ve looked up an item on Trove, only to discover Monash holds the only copy in Australia. The Monash Rare Books Collection will, I believe, be a treasure trove for future students and researchers in any number of scholarly areas. When combined with those collections at the State Library and the University of Melbourne, it is not hard to see why Melbourne is designated the home of rare books in this country.

I first met Richard in 1985, when he worked at the State Library of Victoria. We’ve stayed in close contact since then, and made the occasional foray together to antiquarian bookshops or book fairs. We share a number of interests when it comes to books and book history – one of which is an appreciation for the well-designed book jacket. Sometimes, this manifests itself in the simple act of pulling a book from the shelf and stating: ‘what a great jacket!’ But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? Judging a Book by its Cover pointedly argues the case for the dust jacket being considered an integral part of 20th century graphic design practice.

While dust jacket-like enclosures are recorded in the first half of the 19th century – and you will find several early examples on display here, including an 1860 edition of The Museum of Classical Antiquities – I think it is fair to say that the golden age of the dust jacket begins in the period after WWI. Prior to this, dust jackets were there to protect the binding, and it was common practice to discard them upon purchase. They often consisted of little more than author and title information, and perhaps some advertising; dull stuff in comparison to the decorative bindings that generally lay beneath.

Personally, I’ve always considered dust jackets as miniature artworks. Though commercially printed, they represent, by and large, original designs by artists and graphic designers. They go hand in hand with the development of 20th century modernism, drawing upon Art Deco, Futurism, Surrealism, and other movements for their design ethos. It is no co-incidence that Allen Lane employed leading European typographic designers such as Jan Tschichold, and later Hans Schmoller, when he founded Penguin books in 1935.

While there are a number of significant artists whose work is represented in this exhibition – Wyndham Lewis, Graham Sutherland, Edward Bawden, Eric Gill, Robert Gibbings, Salvador Dali – the reality is that the majority of dust jacket designers emerged out of a graphic design background. They generally worked for publishers, and the printed designs they created often bore no attribution. When I browse second hand bookshops, I can quickly spot the jacket designs of Hans Tisdall – and many of you will be familiar with his work from his iconic jacket designs for the UK editions of Hemingway – but rarely does his name appear on the publication itself.

In recent years, it has been gratifying to see the renewed attention paid to the history of 20th century book design. We’ve had Penguin by Design, Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design and any number of publications celebrating the look of books. Graphic design is the new black after all; and book designers now have cult followings. When Chip Kidd, the art director at Knopf, came to Melbourne a few years back, he was treated like a visiting rock star. More of us than ever before have a passing familiarity with the rising stars of book design: Jeff Fisher, Coralie Bickford-Smith, David Pearson, or in our own part of the world – Sandy Cull, Jenny Grigg, and Chong, Design Director at Text publishing.

In a recent discussion with Richard, we agreed that the perfect dust jacket is created when great literature meets great design. A case in point is the striking first edition of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, designed by Francis Cugat. Some of you may remember a copy on display at last year’s Melbourne Rare Book Fair, at Peter Harrington’s stand, for $140,000. I’m pleased – and I’m sure Cathrine is also – to see that Richard has settled for the less significant but no less striking 1948 Gray Walls Press edition, with a cover design by George Woodman – at a fraction of the cost.

Patrick White, Australia’s most significant novelist, was certainly well served by his book designers. White took a strong interest in art, and suggested modernist painter Roy de Maistre for the cover of his 1948 novel The Aunt’s Story. Later White novels would feature designs by well-known commercial illustrator Edward McNight Kauffer, artist Sidney Nolan, and one of my personal favourites – designer George Salter, who also produced designs for books by Camus, Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Julio Cortazar.

At this point, I’d like to briefly mention a few of the items on exhibit which stood out upon first viewing:

  • Vanessa Bell’s striking designs for Virginia Woolf.

  • The UK edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, designed by well-known espionage writer Len Deighton.

  • The late Martin Sharp’s dazzling design for Richard Neville’s Play Power, watered down dramatically for the US edition.

  • The two early versions of Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch – a clear case of the paperback reprint stealing the thunder from the genuine first edition

  • Alison Forbes design for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock – a genuine Australian classic.

  • Sam Taylor-Woods incredibly minimalist design for the Penguin Designer Classics edition of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night

Of course, aside from their purely aesthetic value, dust jackets often contain a range of important information – author profiles, portraits, blurbs by other writers, bibliographic data, price. It was traditional for libraries to discard jackets – I remember when I started at the State Library in the mid-1980s, jackets were routinely removed from all overseas publications and thrown en masse into boxes. When I asked one day what happened to them, I was told they were sent to a home for intellectually disabled children, who made collages out of them.
It has therefore fallen to rare books librarians to build representative collections that reflect the history and design of dust jackets. Certainly Richard Overell has followed through with this mission, as we can see from the selection on display around us today. The exhibition represents not just the highs - such as John Farleigh's magnificent design for his 1940 memoir Graven Image – but also the everyday, the commonplace, the pedestrian, which are no less important to the history of dust jackets – whether it be Girls Own Annuals, Chums, or the forgotten novels of Vera Dwyer or Marjorie Bevan.
Like the physical book, the future of the dust jacket is under a cloud. Increasingly publishers opt for a first release trade paperback, dispensing with the traditional dust jacketed hard cover. More disturbingly, e-book publishers seem to believe they can dispense with design altogether. It seems timely then to cast our gaze back upon the dust jacket’s glory years, when these designs must have appeared to readers and book lovers as so new, exciting, and – frankly – eye-catching.
I congratulate curator Richard Overell on another fine exhibition, and am pleased to declare it open.

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