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Artists of the Book: Late 19th- to Early 20th-Century Publishers' Bindings

Sketching ramblings

Boughton, George Henry. Sketching Rambles in Holland. With cover design by Edwin Austin Abbey; illustrations by the author and Edwin A. Abbey. New York: Harper & Bros., 1885. (Watson Library, Publishers Bindings 356)

Last month, 125 librarians, educators, curators, conservators, collectors, and dealers were invited to celebrate the design, manufacture, and conservation of late 19th- to early 20th-century publishers' bindings and hear new research on some of the period's most important designers. The impetus for this full-day event was the acquisition of over 500 American decorated trade bindings by the Thomas J. Watson Library since 2014. This collection consists of a representative group of books designed by over 70 artists, including Maurice Prendergast, Elihu Vedder, and Sarah Wyman Whitman, and an in-depth collection of over 200 books designed by Alice C. Morse as well as an archive relating to her oeuvre.

Bindings symposium

Participants of diverse professional backgrounds, all with an interest in book history and the decorative arts, contributed to the synergy of the event. Photo by Andrijana Sajic

The symposium began with an introduction by Ken Soehner, Arthur K. Watson Chief Librarian in Watson Library, in the Bonnie L. Sacerdote Lecture Hall. Ken introduced six presenters from the Museum and professional community, whose presentations were documented by the Museum and will be available online in the near future. A complete list of presenters is at the bottom of this post.

Motor Pirate

Paternoster, G. Sidney. The Motor Pirate. Cover designed by Blanche McManus Mansfield; frontispiece by Charles R. Sykes. Boston: L. C. Page & Co., 1904. (Watson Library, Publishers Bindings 326)

From the presentations, you can see that the program developers (Ken Soehner, Constance McPhee, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, and I) aimed to address the manufacture and design of book covers in relation to the larger fields of the decorative arts, visual arts, book history, and the conservation of publishers' bindings. We hoped that a dynamic program in concert with an enthusiastic audience would generate a burst of scholarly research on all aspects of these designers' work.

In the morning session (video available here), Richard Minsky (Center for Book Arts) speculated about the influence of John LaFarge on decorated binding design and showed how the designs preceded many art movements. Todd Pattison (NEDCC) gave two talks, one on the under-researched role of women in the production of books, and the other on conservation treatments for publishers' bindings. Holly Phillips (Watson Library) shared Watson Library's access policy and collecting guidelines for publishers' bindings and showed many stunning examples. My presentation shared new research on Alice C. Morse and showcased the Morse collections in Watson Library and in the Department of Drawings and Prints, as well as Morse's original design drawings from the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. These collections now make it possible to track the evolution of Morse's working methods and design motifs in stained glass and book cover design, and to provide a foundation to determine the chronology of her designs.

In the following example, you can see Morse's cover for Washington Irving's Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, both its original watercolor half-design, and a use of similar motifs in a design for a stained-glass window.

Alice C Morse

Left: Designer: Alice Cordelia Morse (American, 1863–1961). Author: Washington Irving (American, 1783–1859). Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, 1893. Putnam (New York, NY). Cream cloth covered boards with gold decoration; Overall: 8 7/8 x 14 3/16 in. (22.6 x 36 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Alice C. Morse, 1923, Transferred from the Library, 1956 (56.522.55). Right: Drawing, Design for a Book Binding, ca. 1887–1903; Designed by Alice Cordelia Morse (American, 1863–1961); USA; brush and gouache on paper; Mount: 20.4 x 7 x 0.1 cm (8 1/16 x 2 3/4 x 1/16 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1943-33-1-19

Stained glass design

Drawing, Design for stained glass, late 19th century; Designed by Alice Cordelia Morse (American, 1863–1961); USA; brush and gouache, graphite on paper mounted on tan illustration board; Image: 13.8 x 8.2 cm (5 7/16 x 3 1/4 in.) Sheet: 7.2 x 11.8 cm (2 13/16 x 4 5/8 in.); Gift of Alice C. Morse; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2009-6-20

During the afternoon session (video available here), Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen (The American Wing) shared many examples of artist/designers' work in book cover and stained-glass designs, focusing on the work of Sarah Wyman Whitman, Margaret Armstrong, Alice C. Morse, and Ann Vanderlip Weston. Constance McPhee (Department of Drawings and Prints) followed with a biographical and professional study of David Maitland Armstrong and his daughters, Helen and Margaret, which included many photographs of Margaret Armstrong and her friends exploring the western United States for precious examples of flora. At the end of the program, Todd Pattison put on another hat to show the audience examples of the conservation techniques he has used to repair publishers' bindings while retaining their original structural features; he reminded us that boxing is the safest and best solution.

Following the lectures the Library hosted a reception in the Florence and Herbert Irving Reading Room, during which participants had the opportunity to view over 50 examples from its collection of American publishers' bindings and from the collection of the Department of Drawings and Prints. Among these were works designed by Edwin Austin Abbey, Thomas Watson Ball, Will Bradley, Decorative Designers, Charles B. Falls, Frank Hazenplug, Rockwell Kent, Blanche McManus Mansfield, Alice C. Morse, Amy Richards, Amy Sacker, Bertha Stuart, Lee Thayer, Margaret Nielsen Armstrong, and Sarah Wyman Whitman.

Enjoying books

Symposium participants enjoy the bindings in Watson Library. Photo by Jared Ash

Members of the Armstrong family

Two members of the Armstrong family, Helena Bienstock and Cynthia MacKay Keegan, attended the symposium. Here they look over a volume of the original paintings for Margaret Neilsen Armstrong's masterwork Field Book of Western Wild Flowers. Photo by Jared Ash

Armstrong flower

Margaret Neilson Armstrong (American, 1867–1944). Opuntia Basilaris, May 1912. Watercolor and brown ink over graphite, with page design indicated in graphite; sheet: 13 11/16 x 9 15/16 in. (34.8 x 25.2 cm). Gift of Helena Bienstock, Cynthia MacKay Keegan and Frank E. Johnson, 2010 (2010.341.2 [23])

Watson Library's American publishers' binding collection is available to any registered library patron. Visit WATSONLINE to see all American publishers' bindings and books about them.

List of Speakers

Richard Minsky, Founder, Center for Book Arts. "Revising Art History: The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930."

Todd Pattison, Senior Book Conservator, Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). "Machines or Women? The Industrialization of 19th-Century American Publishers' Bindings."

Holly Phillips, Associate Manager, Collection Development and Special Collections, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "An Introduction to Publishers' Bindings in the Collection of the Thomas J. Watson Library."

Mindell Dubansky, Museum Librarian for Preservation, Thomas J. Watson Library, Sherman Fairchild Center for Book Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Alice C. Morse Collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts, The American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Women Designers of Stained Glass and Book Covers: Whitman, Morse, and Armstrong."

Constance McPhee, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Armstrong Family: Artists, Bookmakers, Illustration and Cover Design."

Todd Pattison, Senior Book Conservator, Northeast Document Conservation Center. "The Conservation of Publishers' Bindings."

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