This irresistible book explores the art of the book jacket; a form of illustration that came into its own in the 1920s.

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“The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920-1970”

By Martin Salisbury

Thames & Hudson, 200 pp., $39.95

We are cautioned to avoid judging a book by its cover, yet that is precisely what publishers hope we will do. Dust-jacket illustration, which came into its own in the 1920s, has long deserved recognition as a serious art form.

If any doubt remains, Martin Salisbury’s splendid survey, “The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970,” should dispel it. In these pages, he describes how utilitarian commercial designs became an “important branch of the applied arts” and gave rise to manuals, guilds and exhibitions by those who saw not only artistic possibilities but also a new avenue of work for illustrators who relied on freelance commissions.

Book jackets are, admittedly, a peculiar art. The most memorable ones usually approach a book indirectly. In fact, Salisbury says that “visual metaphor is often more effective than explicit representation in the distillation of the text into image.” At its best, a classic jacket, joining hand-rendered lettering with traditional portraiture and landscape painting, became an appealing glimpse into a book, welcoming readers inside.

The first dust jackets, known as “wrappers,” were not usually prized or conserved by their owners. The earliest ones existed quite literally to keep dust off cloth bindings. In fact, they were often discarded by shopkeepers as a courtesy upon purchase. But by the 1920s, as jackets became more colorful, they also became more meaningful to the reader’s experience.

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Not all were pleased. Max Beerbohm wrote cantankerously of them “violently vying with one another for one’s attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and colour.” It is this supposed “crudity” that makes jackets, like that for Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (a book curiously missing from this volume), so desirable to collectors today.

Some dust-jacket illustrators overshadowed authors themselves. Rockwell Kent was so much more famous than Herman Melville in 1930 that his name alone appears on the Art Deco jacket for Random House’s “Moby-Dick.” That edition features Kent’s majestic pen-and-ink drawings, which some credit in part for renewed interest in a novel that originally languished after suffering poor reviews and public indifference.

Readers of different ages will be moved to fondly recall jackets that first caught their fancies in youth, such as Edward Gorey’s jaunty illustration for Kingsley Amis’ “rollicking misadventure” “Lucky Jim,” Arthur Hawkins Jr.’s hand-lettered design for James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or Milton Glaser’s psychedelic hues for Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Among the more charming are those that contain whole landscapes when folded out, such as the green vales of Stanley Badmin’s jacket for “Local Style in English Architecture,” panoramas that sadly could never have been fully enjoyed while wrapped around T.D. Atkinson’s book.

Some original art exerts a nostalgic allure so powerful that publishers retain it for later paperbacks, as one finds with the New Directions edition of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with modern-primitivist art by Alvin Lustig.

Leading art movements wound up on display in bookstore windows. A lively Bloomsbury sensibility can be appreciated in Vanessa Bell’s designs for her sister Virginia Woolf’s books, published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. In the 1920s and ’30s, dynamic Art Deco styles, such as Aubrey Hammond’s, thrived alongside rosy-cheeked knights and pioneers of Brandywine School artist N.C. Wyeth.

Editor Maxwell Perkins enlisted Cleonike Damianakes to appeal to female readers when publishing Hemingway and Fitzgerald. By the ’40s, the bizarre surrealism of Ukrainian-born Boris Artzybasheff proved ideal for works of fantasy by L. Sprague de Camp. Meanwhile, illustrations for the flourishing genre of crime writing were, contra Beerbohm, “suitably garish and melodramatic.”

A brief idyll following the Second World War had designers yearning for earlier Romantic styles and “spiritual connection” before the onset of increasingly abstract late-modernist designs like those of Czech artist and writer Adolf Hoffmeister for new editions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This marked a change, Salisbury writes, “from poetic contemplation to one of assertive aspiration as technology and consumerism started to take hold.”

It also led to the use of a machine called a Grant Enlarger, which allowed designers to quickly trace photographs for what were frequently unimaginative covers, a technology, rued by many, that presaged the use of digital-design software decades later.

Salisbury’s book shows that the greatest jackets tint our experiences of the books they grace. He guides us with easy authority through a delightful graphic history of all-too-often underappreciated literary pleasures and reminds readers just how much wonderful art they may have hidden away on their shelves. For those who never paused to think much about jackets, this book will be a revelation. For those who do, it will be nothing less than a thrill.