Wednesday, February 17, 2021

499. Gleeson White's Designs Online

This blog has frequently mentioned the name of J.W. Gleeson White in the past and it is a pleasure to point out a new publication on the work of this critic, magazine editor and designer of bookbindings, monograms, bookplates, and much more. Recently the new issue of The Private Library arrived with an article by Simon Cooke: '"A Designer of No Ordinary Gifts": Gleeson White and Trade Bindings'. The issue is dated 'Spring 2019' — the magazine is usually published with a delay of a year or two, and much of the material in this article had been available on The Victorian Web for a year or so.

Gleeson White (editor), Practical Designing (1893)
Cover designed by Gleeson White

In his essay, Cooke wonders why the work of Gleeson White has remained so underexposed in comparison, for example, with the work of Ricketts or Laurence Housman; after all, his oeuvre is significantly larger (if we only count the bookbindings):

Working between 1887 and 1898 , Gleeson White produced around fifty original trade covers on cloth and paper. Employed by the publisher George Bell as his art editor (1893-8) and tasked with producing attractive volumes, he was Bell's primary designer of casings for art books and poetry, as well as undertaking a series for miscellaneous handbooks on growing fruit, the military skills required by the navy, vegetarianism, biographies, and histories.
(p. 6)

Cooke provides a checklist of these designs and, like the quoted paragraph, it does shed light on his status of relative obscurity. Ricketts and Housman served a more exclusive audience that embraced modernism in poetry and art (Art Nouveau), while White mainly designed books that did not end up in their collectors' cabinets. At the same time, one might note that his reach among readers was much more widespread, but these were precisely readers who cared less for good contemporary design. His designs are less revolutionary, but they are solid, often brilliantly splendid, and (not unimportantly) not too expensive to produce. 

Cooke examines the extent to which White's designs meet his own criteria (he wrote or edited several articles on design, including Practical Designing in 1893). Cooke is right to say that too few papers have been published on White's binding designs, and it is a pity that he missed an early article by Edward F. Strange: 'The Decorative Work of Gleeson White', published only a year after Gleeson White's death — it appeared in The Library (December 1899). He could have quoted Strange on page 19 where Cook discusses White's lettering:

In strict accordance to criterion 2 [the size and style of lettering], he stresses the principles of clarity by employing large and unambiguous titling, characteristically enclosed in a frame or outlined in black. [...] Quite unlike the cramped titles by Ricketts and Housman, which are often placed into a corner, these prominent panels are an important part of the bindings' visual impact.
(p. 19)

They were less fashionable and spoke more directly to the general public. Strange, who knew Gleeson White well, wrote a first-hand account of the design of these title panels:

He never counted as lost the time spent on the mere adjustment of his label even when the book-cover had no ornament; and the choice of the type, the spacing, and general setting out of it were, I know, often considered by him the first and chief matter in the whole design. Many of his covers would, for this reason alone be worthy of the attention of the student of book-making; while a series of the title-pages that, at one time or another, he put together, might be most reasonably collected for the same purpose.
(Strange, p. 17). 

Strange also points out a subject that Cooke does not bring up:

Gleeson White was a great lover of the end-paper; and it is rather extraordinary that he did so few.
(Strange, p. 16).

I would not be surprised if Cooke's article gives a new and strong impetus to the collecting of Gleeson White's bookbindings. An additional merit of Cooke's article is that he points to a previously unused source of research: a collection of 290 sketches, mock-ups, preparatory drawings that is preserved in the Hougton Library, Harvard University. Images of all these are online at Harvard Library Viewer. And to this we owe the knowledge of the existence of a sketch of Gleeson White's dust jacket for The Pageant, of which no traces had been found before. The wrapper itself forms part of this collection (described as a proof, it is in fact the folded wrapper).

The Pageant (1897): folded dust wrapper designed by Gleeson White
Drawings, circa 1870-1898. MS Typ 571
Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

The Pageant (1897): sketch by for the wrapper, designed by Gleeson White
Drawings, circa 1870-1898. MS Typ 571
Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

The design sketch consists only of the lower segment of the front cover, with a series of flowers (later they became tulips), the publisher's name, the year of publication (in roman numerals: 1896, later corrected to 1897, although the book was published at the end of 1896) and the beginning of the address 93 St [93 St Martin's Lane] (omitted). Later, the price was stated at the bottom right.

For The Pageant, see also blogs:

77. A Paper Wrapper for A Pageant466. The "Outer Wrapper" of "The Pageant" for 1897