June 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

"The Book Beautiful" on Display in Delaware

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, opened last week an exhibition of book cover design called The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920. Whatever your favored term--pictorial bindings, publishers' bindings, or decorative cloth bindings--or movement--Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, or Pre-Raphaelitism, the idea here is to chart "the sweeping changes in book design, inspired by technological developments, marketing strategies, and shifting ideas about art."

The Scarlet Letter copy.jpgIn the Victorian and post-Victorian age, technological change made books easier to print and market widely. It also created an unusual backlash: artists like William Morris turned away from the mass production of books and returned to the 'old-fashioned' methods of letterpress and hand-illumination. He believed in creating beautiful books through the use of quality materials and integrated design. It wasn't long before that aesthetic was adapted and commercialized by major publishers for their mass-produced, but still eye-catching publishers' bindings.

"People wanted beautiful books in their homes, both for viewing pleasure and as a clear status symbol. The new interest in books as works of art attracted an expanded group of consumers, a burgeoning middle class with more disposable income," said Rachael DiEleuterio, librarian and archivist at the Delaware Art Museum.

Camp-Fires and Guide-Posts copy.jpgMorris and his fellow British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti feature prominently in the exhibition, as do American designers Sarah Wyman Whitman and Margaret Armstrong. The selections on view are largely pulled from Mary G. Sawyer's 2009 gift of more than 3,000 books to the Delaware Art Museum's Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives. Several items from noted Delaware bibliophile Mark Samuels Lasner are also included among the fifty-plus books and posters on display.

If you can't make it to Delaware before the exhibit closes on August 27, check out the online version.

                                                                                                                                         Images: (Top) The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), Binding designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum. (Middle) Camp-Fires and Guide-Posts, by Henry Van Dyke (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1921), Binding designed by Margaret Armstrong (1867-1904), Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum.