The book-cover, as a field for surface design, appears at first sight to offer in its many varieties a less restricted field for invention than perhaps any portable object of common use which demands the attention of a decorator.

Yet in no field of design are certain qualities more essential to success - qualities, too, outside the particular conditions of the various methods, and processes used in the production of book-covers.

These are, in chief, tastefulness and sense of scale and proportion, important enough it will be said in all design, but narrowed down to the limited field of the book-cover, and in full view of its object and purpose, they become all-important.

Limited, for instance, to the narrowest demands of utility - an inscription or title on side or back needful to distinguish the outside of one book from another, questions of choice of scale, of lettering in relation to the size and proportion of the cover, of the choice of the form of the lettering and the spacing of the letters upon the cover immediately arise.

Now the side of a book-cover presents a flat surface within rectangular limits, varying in size according to the folding of the sheet of paper which determines the size of the book to be covered - folio, quarto, octavo, and so on.

The book itself is a rectangular object as it lies on the table. It is a casket of thought at its best, at its worst it contains records or human remains of some kind.

The rectangularity, however, is what will influence the designer, from the spacing of his block or tablet of lettering, to the intricate arabesque of the most elaborate gold tooling.

The best cover designs are those, to my mind, wherein the feeling of the angularity of the enclosure is expressed or acknowledged in this way, but of course it may be felt and expressed in a variety of ways.

In the old stamped leather and pigskin bindings of the early days of printing of the books from Venice and Basle, for instance, a frequent and very satisfactory plan was to form a series of borders, one within the other, from the edge of the book, enclosing a central panel, left plain except for the title, stamped or inscribed upon the upper part of this plain panel. The borders were formed of stamps of different patterns, heraldic devices, scroll-work, emblems enclosed in straight lines. These designs are often models of scale in book ornament, and being carefully spaced and composed of repeating elements, have a delicate and at the same time rich effect.

Binding in Black Morocco, with Medallions and Coat of arms, by Thomas Berthelet (Sixteenth Century)

Binding in Black Morocco, with Medallions and Coat-of-arms, by Thomas Berthelet (Sixteenth Century)

I need not dwell upon the splendid jewelled and silver mounted manuscripts of the scriptures of Byzantine times, which called in the work of other craftsmen, since I presume one is dealing rather with the design of surface ornament as a matter of mass and line adapted to the ordinary conditions of the book-cover.

The method of stamping the coat-of-arms of the owner boldly upon the centre of the sides in gold upon leather covers, used from the sixteenth century and onwards, has a dignified effect, and these stamps, whether heraldic or of abstract ornamental elements, are often beautiful examples of rich and effective spacing within narrow limits, the enclosing shape or boundary indicated only by the edges of the device, which fits into its invisible shell, as it were, without effort and without any sense of cramp-

The designers of the stamps either blind or. in gold must have been in close touch with the designer of printers' ornaments - initial letters, headings, borders, and the like - if not in some cases identical with them, and to this no doubt we owe that sense of scale and proportion in the ornamentation of the earlier bindings.

In gold-tooled designs the necessity of their having to be composed or built up of certain restricted elements, or separate tools, the ingenious combination of which produces the delicate arabesques of line and leaf and floral forms we admire as the crown and glory of the binder's craft, has also contributed to the preservation of scale, since the tools must necessarily be limited in size.

Binding in Black Morocco, with Arms of Edward VI, by Thomas Berthelet (Sixteenth Century)

Binding in Black Morocco, with Arms of Edward VI, by Thomas Berthelet (Sixteenth Century)

Before the recent revival in this craft, in which so much is due to the taste and skill of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson, there was a tendency towards over-small, frittered and meaningless detail in gold tooling, and binders were given to mechanical repeats of stock tools and stamps.

Yet repetition of forms or lines may be used tastefully as well as in a commonplace way.

Few methods in tooling- a book-cover are more appropriate and satisfactory than the diaper, which is sometimes used all over the cover, and sometimes covers the inner panel only.

The decoration of the back of the book-cover requires particular care. In gold-tooled bindings the ornament may effectively be concentrated upon the back, which of course must include the title, leaving the sides plain.

When the sides are decorated the back must be the link to connect the obverse of the book with the reverse - unless we like to say front side and back side.

But I am trespassing upon the binder's province. The cloth cover seems to be a sort of compromise, though often agreeable enough. Our continental neighbours issue their books in limp paper wrappers, expecting them to be bound as a matter of course. This may account for the high state of the binder's craft, as a craft, in France. Here, our publishers vie with each other in issuing their books in attractive cloth

Binding in Stamped Calf

Binding in Stamped Calf, with Panels representing the Emblems of the Passion, with Unicorns as Supporters, and the Arms of France and England, with Tudor Rose, etc. (Sixteenth Century) gilt covers which at one time were intended to rival the gold-tooled binding. Of late we have seen every kind of eccentricity upon book-covers both in design and execution, gold, silver, black and white, and various colours being used in cloth printed covers, and designers often going far in the pictorial direction. We may see the influence of the poster, but still more so when we come to the printed paper cover which imposes still fewer restrictions upon the designer, in fact, none at all, except that of space - unless his sense of fitness imposes limits upon himself; yet cloth covers have perhaps shown more licence than the printed paper cover of late.

The cover printed in few and frank colours and varnished for protection from wear has had a considerable vogue for Christmas books of the lighter sort and for those principally intended for children. These were, when first introduced, rather shocking to the bookselling mind, which went by weight and the amount of gold on a cloth cover, in appraising literary and artistic worth in the market.

When a certain thin square volume for which I was responsible was modestly offered at 5s., the usual test being applied, the answer was, "This will never do!" - the public, however, was of a different opinion.

It may be said for the cover printed in colours, when it encloses a book printed in colours, that it has a certain fitness, and for the rest must depend largely upon the designer.

The illustrated magazine cover has exercised a good deal of artistic ingenuity, and always presents the problem of the treatment of lettering as an essential part of the design, as indeed it always should be. There is something attractive about the angular and abstract forms of letters used in contrast with the free lines of the human figure and drapery, or floral ornament, or heraldry, and in a cover design to be printed from a line block the designer may indulge his feeling for these contrasting elements.

Binding of Oak Boards covered with Stamped Calf

Binding of Oak Boards covered with Stamped Calf, with Panels Representing the Baptism of Christ and St. George and the Dragon, by John Reynes (Sixteenth Century)

Here again the influence of the poster has come in, the conditions of the magazine cover in its struggle for existence on the bookstall being similar to the struggle for pre-eminence upon the hoarding among its larger commercial cousins. In the covers of the magazine, the illustrated weekly journal, and the railway novel we see the popular side of cover design and decoration, largely intended in the first place to attract attention, with a view of immediate sale.

Like all competitive processes with a commercial object, while certain qualities such as a kind of force or eccentricity may be evolved, it generally leads to deterioration on the artistic side. The final test of all design, and especially design of book-covers - the apparel of our companions and friendly counsellors - seems to be wrapped up in the question: "Can you live with it?"

One may admire the skill and celerity of a juggler and conjurer, but it would be uncomfortable to sit frequently at table with a professor of the craft who was given to whisk away one's dinner napkin, swallow the knives and forks, or discover the roast mutton in his neighbour's pocket.

Binding in Brown Calf, inlaid by the Wotton Binder (Sixteenth Century)

Binding in Brown Calf, inlaid by the Wotton Binder (Sixteenth Century)

So a sensational book-cover may startle us by its audacity, but it is apt to stare at us horribly upon the drawing-room table - and we can hardly be expected to re-furnish entirely to suit its complexion.

A painter I know tells me that there are two classes of pictures - "pictures to live with and pictures to live by."

Books or book covers might be divided as books to be taken care of and books to use.

The aristocracy, in their morocco and gilded coats, seem too costly and precious to handle every day and be dimmed by London smoke and dust. Few could duplicate their favourite books, so in the end the quiet cloth cover with its plain lettering is welcome for work-a-day, while, do as we may, the motley crowd in paper will press in and flaunt their little hour, "yellow and black and pale and hectic red," driven like leaves before the breath of passing interest, some, perhaps, at last finding rest, and resurrection, in the portfolios of the careful collector.