Wednesday, March 13, 2019

398. Gleeson White's New Ideal Book

Gleeson White (Joseph William Gleeson White, 1851-1898) supported the work of Ricketts in many ways, and managed to squeeze in his name in quite a few essays on art and book art that he published mainly during the 1890s in magazines such as The Studio, The Magazine of Art, The Pageant, and The Decorator and Furnisher.

The Journal of the Society of Arts of 15 February 1895 published a paper that Gleeson White had read to the Society ten days earlier. It mentioned Ricketts and Shannon among the few artists that revived the art of wood-engraving by engraving their own blocks in a time that was 'in full swing of process reproduction'. (See Gleeson White, 'Drawing for Process Reproduction', in: Journal of the Society of Arts, 15 February 1895, p. 277-286).

Gleeson White (photo: Frederick Hollyer)
The essay is interesting for several reasons, it touches on the subject of book design, commercial publishing, and modern printing processes. (A 2013 blog post discussed a bookplate for him, designed by Charles Ricketts.) In 1897, Gleeson White would use the term 'book-builder' for lack of a better word - 'graphic designer' is how we would call a 'book-builder' now.

In 1900 - Gleeson White died in 1898 - the French publisher Vollard published an artist's book with poems by Paul Verlaine and lithographs by Pierre Bonnard: Parallèlement.

Parallèlement (1900) [copy: Princeton University Library]

In this book, illustrations and texts frequently share the same space, with the rose-coloured lithographs intruding into the lines of poetry. This was quite unusual, revolutionary even, and would become a starting point for artists' books in which image and text intertwine, and fuse materially, while artists and writer collaborate on a new concept that merges words and imagery.

However, in 1895 Gleeson White already noticed that this kind of fusion was about to happen, and he didn't approve. He wrote:

It would be hard to think of any artistic topic with ideals more widely separated than, say, the Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer, with its hand-made paper - archaic ornamentation and antique type, symmetrically disposed on its pages - on the one hand, and the latest French or American edition de luxe, with its shiny paper, its fine woodcuts, or half-tone blocks, and its erratically arranged page, with illustrations splashed here and there, straying into the margin and at times, in pale shades, wandering underneath the type itself. 
('Drawing for Process Reproduction', p. 278).

This is an interesting depart from the common assumption that the intertwining of image  and text took form around the time of Vollard's publication in 1900. Gleeson White, apparently, doesn't like the intertwining of illustration and story, and he was not alone, but he was remarkably early to see it happening in magazines in France and America.

Furthermore, when Gleeson White published this essay in February 1895, William Morris was very much alive (he would die a year later), working on his Kelmscott Press books. Morris, of course, had been the author of a famous essay on 'The Ideal Book'. 

William Morris, 'The Ideal Book' (edition in A. Marta Ferreira, A Book on Books)
Gleeson White argues that the private press book is not the ideal book:

Instead of trying to raise illustration by retracing our steps, and trying to make a system which sufficed for a simple civilisation work under quite new conditions - would it not be better logic to accept machine printing, shiny paper, the process engraver and his works, and by mastering these new conditions - as the artist most assuredly can master any conditions if he set his mind to the effort - to create new ideals, and set up new standards of taste and beauty. [...] To create a new ideal of a perfect book, with its pages illustrated by modern methods, printed by steam-power, and produced at moderate prices; to leave such a standard, that future ages, removed from the strife of tongues to-day, should deem characteristic of the twentieth century, and beautiful because it fulfilled harmoniously the conditions which called it into existence, seems worth trying for - worth many failures by the way.
('Drawing for Process Reproduction', p. 278).

I guess that Ricketts and Shannon had found an intellectual patron in Gleeson White and discussed each and every idea that he published. In fact, while they had in a way followed the path of William Morris, and had published their own magazine The Dial with original wood-engravings and lithographs instead of reproduced drawings and paintings, they were on the verge of issuing another magazine that would make use of the modern processes, The Pageant. Some critics (the Dutch artist Jan Veth among them) would deplore the use of process blocks, and indeed, when Ricketts and Shannon embarked on their most ambitious book art venture, The Vale Press, they retraced their steps, and decided to include wood-engravings in these privately printed books. All this shows that there is not just a straight line, from the publication of The Dial to the establishment of The Vale Press; there were by-ways, diversions, meandering of thoughts. The issues were part of an ongoing debate about the art of printing, book art, and modern printing. For the books of the Vale Press, we are reminded, Ricketts didn't always print from the wood blocks, he used electrotypes. 

The ideal books, according to Gleeson White, needed a book-builder, a term that he would coin in an 1897 essay. In 1895, he wrote:

One mind should be apparent through a book or periodical. If it could be the artist, it would be ideally the best; but a number of artists must needs be employed on a single volume in certain cases, and, as their time is too valuable to be spent on practical details outside their craft, even if one granted their agreement in these matters, there must needs be an actual art-editor - not merely one nominally so-called, but a man fairly conversant with all those questions involved - one who could be trusted to consider every one of the thousand and one items which go to build up a beautiful book. The binding, the end papers, title-page to colophon, arrangement of blocks, every detail small or great - all should be in accordance with one standard of taste.
('Drawing for Process Reproduction', p. 284).

One mind should design the whole book, he argued, and Ricketts adopted this idea when founding The Vale Press, not only designing the type himself, or the watermark, but also ordering the paper, ink, and binding materials, and designing the page layout and the illustrations.

Gleeson White deserves a monograph of his own, although archival material is scarce, and it will be a hell of a job to write a book about his life and his views on art and book design. Anyone?