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Fine feathers

Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design, by Joseph Connolly

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design Joseph Connolly

Faber and Faber, pp.281, 25

This is a glorious book with one crippling flaw. Let’s put the ecstasy before the agony. Faber and Faber, founded in 1929, commissioned some of the best book jackets of all time; Private Eye, retracting its claws for once, called the firm Fabber and Fabber — of course that applied to the authors as well as the designs. A few of the designs seem dated in a bad sense, but most of them are joyfully, exhilaratingly redolent of their time — especially the art deco and ‘Contemp’ry’ ones.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — an update on ‘Fine feathers don’t make fine birds’ — but you can judge a lot of these books by their jackets. When you see the front of Arnold Whittick’s Eric Mendelsohn (about the German modernist architect), with the sweeping round shape of a characteristic building, you know what’s within is likely to be similarly striking — and it is.

Joseph Connolly’s book is mainly pictorial — one long panorama of Faber covers, in broadly chronological sequence. The man who designed more than anybody else was the German refugee Berthold Wolpe, Faber’s in-house artist.

He was a brilliant designer, though I have never liked his quirky Albertus type, which I feel belongs more on the façade of a Chinese restaurant than a book of poems. Others who designed for the firm are Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, David Jones, Charles Mozley and Rex Whistler. Apart from the visual feast, this book is worth buying for two things: Joseph Connolly’s delightfully off-the-cuff, informal history of the firm and recollections of his own associations with it, first as a writer on modern editions, later as a novelist; and (printed for us by Connolly) Lawrence Durrell’s hilarious letters of complaint to Wolpe about the designs for his novels. The sustained moans cry out for an honoured place in one of John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Crackers, but I can’t resist stealing a little of his thunder by giving you the opening of a Durrell letter to Wolpe of 1961 about the jacket for The Dark Labyrinth:

Dear Mr Wolpe,

It was good of you to send the cover mock-up. But what am I to tell you honestly? It seems to me beyond words horrible; and yet this is offensive to say to an artist of experience like yourself. This dreadful puce! And I really think that two drunken snails dipped in permanganate could have produced more aesthetically pleasing shapes…

Now for the agony. Not only is there no caption under any of the plates in Connolly’s book; there is nowhere in the book that tells us, in any convenient way, who designed them and when. Yes, there is a list of designers and illustrators at the end; so, for example, under Bawden, Edward, we are referred to book titles on seven different pages; but if you wanted to know (and I did) who designed that fine jacket for Whittick’s book on Mendelsohn, you’d have to look through the whole list of 118 artists to find the answer, which is (I might have guessed it) Berthold Wolpe.

What was behind the crazy decision (a) to have no on-page captions (beyond a ten-year timeframe for each design) and (b) no reference to a set of captions at the end of the book — which would itself have been a minor penance? Two possibilities occur to me. One is that the compiler and publisher did not know who designed all the jackets. The other possibility is more sinister: the ever-increasing power of the designer — I mean, in this case, the designer of Connolly’s book. Designers simply hate the intrusion of words. You see that in the design of modern buses. We used to read, on both the fronts and backs of buses, all the places they were stopping at. The other day, walking along Victoria Street SW1, I came up behind a No. 24 bus. All it had on the back was the number 24 in a neat little panel — so you’d have no notion where it was heading. If you did a Linford Christie and hared round to the front of the bus, all you’d find there was ‘24 Pimlico’ in a sans-serif type — no mention of where the bus would be stopping on the way. As John Betjeman used to mutter, gazing scornfully at some modern horror — ‘Clean lines!’.

Similarly, this book leaves us without a clue. As you will have already gathered, I am a fan of Joseph Connolly, who put it together. I would have credited him with more gumption. (This is more Forrest Gump.) But those designers are tyrants. They will reject an illustration, however germane it is to the author’s argument, if it is not quite up to their crisp-as-a-matron’s-wimple standard. (Forgive me, dear designer of this book, if you have not been tyrannical; but, if you haven’t I am still waiting for an explanation of this ghastly horlicks.)

Designers are still mighty important. Speaking as an author, I want the jacket of each of my books to scream across a bookshop: ‘BUY ME!’ Too often they have been in dun colours with hard-to-decode titles. The worst ever was my picture book on John Betjeman; the jacket of the first edition could be politely described as chocolate brown and his indecipherable signature was used as title. Connolly’s book shows exactly the difference a good or great designer can make.

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