“You Can’t Tell a Cover by Its Book: Representative Book Covers by or Attributable to 'MA'”.
Seller ID: 1827 (2)
Four book covers designed in the art nouveau style by Margaret Armstrong for popular titles of the day (Van Dyke’s The Unknown Quantity, Fisherman’s Luck, Companionable Books, The Valley of Vision), matted to gallery standard in antique gilt frame (60 cm x 50 cm). Armstrong often signed her covers with the initials 'MA' fitted into the design. You Can't Tell a Cover by Its Book. At the turn of the century, in 1900, two principal designers of book covers and book decoration generally were Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842- 1904) and Margaret Armstrong (1867- 1944). In that year Whitman's career was coming to a close. Her cover designs and decorations had enhanced the work of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Celia Thaxter, and Sarah Orne Jewett-- friends and acquaintances of the busy Beacon Hill matron whose work in stained glass can be found in Harvard's Memorial Hall, keeping company with windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany; in Trinity Church, Boston; and in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe of which she was an early supporter. For the most part Whitman's design work was commissioned by the Boston firm Houghton Mifflin for whom she completed perhaps three hundred book covers, many for editions of classic American writers such as Henry Thoreau. Typically her designs exhibit a restrained, elegant interpretation of the Arts & Crafts style in which, as it were, she had been brought up. Margaret Armstrong's work as a designer, like Whitman's, was influenced by an association with L. C. Tiffany. While Whitman was commissioned to design stained glass windows for several important buildings and started the Lily Glassworks to produce decorative glass objects, Armstrong's father had at one time in his varied career worked for Tiffany as a stained glass designer. This influence finds expression in many of Whitman's and Armstrong's designs for book covers. As one commentator put it, "Like Whitman, Armstrong usually worked in a vocabulary of ornament, rarely producing a purely pictorial design." Armstrong's design for Van Dyke's Fisherman's Luck, for example, uses stylized images of fish decoratively, as elements comprising a sort of golden chain. Generally speaking, both Whitman and Armstrong decorated their covers rather than using illustration to advertise the book's contents. (This probably works better for some titles than for others-- it's hard to imagine, for example, a decorative Armstrong cover for Jack London's White Fang). Armstrong designed book covers for several publishers but did most of her work for Scribner's, producing for them upwards of 150 cover designs, many in the Art Nouveau style of the day featuring lush fruits and entwined vines. Often these images of a burgeoning Nature were framed or highlighted in bold gilt, producing an effect suggestive of a stained glass window. These stained glass covers enhanced the entire Scribner's series of books by Henry Van Dyke for which Armstrong was the sole designer. Van Dyke was an energetic churchman, professor, and occasional diplomat who also wrote popular books of enthusiastic piety even while serving as advisor to his friend and fellow Princetonian Woodrow Wilson. But in this case, at least, the cliche about telling a book by its cover has been turned on its head, for Armstrong's striking, glimmering cover designs remain as attractive and interesting as ever; whereas the books themselves, all the many volumes of industrious uplift produced by Van Dyke, have almost without exception long ago vanished from popular literary and theological fashion. References Charles B. Gullans. "Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings." Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA (1991) "Beauty for Commerce: Publishers' Bindings (1830- 1910)." Rare Books and Special Collections, Library, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY (n.d.)
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