Books That Wear Their Art on Their Sleeve

The paper wrapper of a book is not called a "jacket" for nothing. It is distinctly sartorial. Like clothing, it plays a dual role: protective (thus "dust" jacket) and expressive - even to the point of display.

Like human dress, book jackets are designed as outward presentation.

Without its attention-grabbing jacket, a book may turn out to be comparatively plain - boards of brown or green cloth, perhaps.

The jacket shown here is from a series of books published in England since 1945 by Collins (now HarperCollins) called "The New Naturalist Library." The books, written by experts in specific aspects of natural history in Britain, ranged widely - anywhere from bumblebees to finches, from grasslands to the seashore, from reptiles to wild orchids. They are connected with a postwar move to escape indoor specimens and slides, and to study nature outdoors - as it had been done, often by amateurs, in the 19th century.

The books are academic, but meant to be accessible to amateurs. One of the publisher's keenest boasts is that each book featured a number of color photographs (although today the early ones look like period postcards!).

The series is still coming out. The most recent volume is about ladybirds.

The New Naturalist books have become "collectable." And no serious collector would dream of buying any of the 81 volumes without its dust jacket - in good condition.

For New Naturalist book collectors, the rule is the opposite of the proverbially sound advice that one should not judge a book by its cover.

The New Naturalist covers are special - outstanding examples of a genre. It was established from the start that they should not be photographs, but lithographs based on painted designs: art, in fact. They were the unremitting and inspired work - from 1945 to 1985 - of two married artists working as a team, Clifford and Rosemary Ellis.

The Ellises had made a name for themselves in the 1930s for a number of striking posters, followed by some cover designs for novels. They also designed wallpaper. Educators as well as artists, they ran an art school near Bath, England. Apparently, they had no complicated hang-ups about the status of "commercial" art. They were popularizers; yet their posters and book covers were also part of a high-minded fashion for using serious art - images that might well stand in their own right as paintings - to perform such persuasive and appealing functions.

At their art school, the study of natural history was part of the syllabus, according to Peter Marren, author of a recent book about the 50-year history of the New Naturalist series called "The New Naturalists" (published by HarperCollins). The importance the Ellises gave to natural history was a primary reason they were so well suited to the job of designing New Naturalist covers.

Their designs, remarkably consistent over four decades, are bold, deliberately eye-catching, somewhat abstracted epitomes of each book's subject or some significant aspect of it. They are squarely based on painstaking observation, but they are "designs," not textbook illustrations. They have a certain freedom of individual vision and style (early covers were even initialed and dated like paintings), as well as being crafted to perform a function. A limited range of colors was used to great effect, alternating between soft subtleties and startling brilliance - not unlike nature itself.

Among the illustrations in Marren's book are examples of the various stages in the Ellises' work on certain designs, from first idea to printer's proof.

The one called "The Folklore of Birds," with an owl heading straight for us in a night sky, shows how an almost childlike, primitive original sketch is refined and firmed and fitted into the format requirements: a front with a title band dividing it into main image-space and narrow upper margin, and a spine with further information and a touch (here, the crescent moon) that works tellingly when the book is lined up with others on a shelf, but is also consistent with the main front image.

Marren quotes a letter from Clifford Ellis to the author of one of the New Naturalist volumes that sheds light on the Ellises' aims. Among other things, he writes that "a book jacket is by way of being a small poster; it is part of the machinery of book selling. Though, obviously enough, the jacket should be in keeping with the book it contains, it is unwise to consider it an opportunity for an additional illustration. An illustration, as against the jacket, can be seen ... free from the competition of not always very mannerly neighbours." He adds that "the forms and colours" of a jacket "should make a very clear and distinctive image. If it does its job, the book will be taken down and opened...."

The irony is that the collectors of these books derive as much pleasure from them unopened as opened, and this is because the Ellises designed cover after cover that not only splendidly "did its job" but is immensely appealing in itself - quite regardless of "the book it contains."

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