Friday, December 2, 2016

To Autumn: John Keats and Margaret Armstrong

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;”

-- autumn has come and, unbelievably, is nearly past.  Outside it's overcast with not much of autumn's characteristic crispness, and only a few leaves remain on the trees.  But inside we have a crisp binding to share:  The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited with notes and appendices by H. Buxton Forman.  Complete edition.  New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., c1895.

Before we take a closer look at the design, I hope you’ll bear with me for an anecdote about finding this particular book.  I’ve been travelling to bookstores in search of trade bindings for several decades and browsing for them is not as daunting as it might seem at first.  Although they are generally not displayed with the front covers out, and you’re usually confronted by shelf after shelf (or wall after wall) of book spines, it becomes almost second nature to recognize the look of a book published before 1920, and more often than not to be able to tell in what decade, the 1890s for example, the book was published.  Sliding the book out – not by the headband please! – and glancing at the cover only requires a few seconds, after which the book is either in your pile or back in position and you’re on to the next.  I was once in a bookshop in a small town in northeast Ohio which specialized in small press fantasy and horror titles, comics and ephemera, older paperback science fiction and some general stock, with much of the non-genre books gathered in one place on a range of shelves.  Since trade bindings can be found in almost any subject I glanced over the shelves and, to my great surprise, I spotted a likely candidate almost immediately.  Keats, of course, described my feelings perfectly in his sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 
When a new planet swims into his ken; 
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— 
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

I remember the scene in that small town bookstore looking something like this:

 The spine of the book had the look of a publication from the first decade of the 19th century and something about the grape vine decoration looked very familiar.  

Elisabeth Cary.  William Morris.  New York: Putnam, 1902

Detail of grapevine

When I pulled out the book and looked at the cover I knew from the lettering on the cover that this was a Margaret Armstrong design, and her monogram confirmed it.  This, however, was a title that I did not recognize.  There will be more on that later.  In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the cover

As discussed in an earlier post, Margaret Armstrong, who designed this cover, almost never designed a pictorial cover and even less frequently included any human feature in her designs.  Instead her work was ornamental and this cover is no exception.  The cloth is a dark greenish-blue, with four major motifs: a (Grecian) urn on a pedestal with the inscription “Adonais”, a laurel wreath, a frame of grape vines and grapes, and a scroll with the book’s title.  The urn and grape vine motifs represent two of Keats’ best known odes: To Autumn

Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run”

and the Ode on a Grecian Urn.  The urn and pedestal might also be seen as a funerary monument to Keats, particularly with the “Adonais” inscription (referring to Percy Shelley’s “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”).  The laurel wreath also represents Keats poetic achievement and is a common motif on bindings of poetry books.  The spine design continues the theme with more grape vines and grapes wrapping the title.  To the right of the wreath is Armstrong’s monogram.  As a final indicator that this was meant to be a quality production, the top page edges are gilt.

Another feature of the design is the interplay of gloss and matte gold which is hard to see in the scan of the binding.  The actual cover, however, changes its appearance depending on how the book is held and how the light strikes it.  In the design, the grape leaves are the only parts of the design that have a matte finish.  When the book is tilted so light reflects off the vines, wreath and scroll the immediate result is a three-dimensional effect with the gloss gilt appearing to rise above the surface and the white and matte gold moving into the background.  This effect is complicated by the leaves that appear to rest on top of the vines (particularly the large leaves below the corners of the scroll and the single leaf at the upper central scroll), and the bunches of grapes which lay over the vines in some places and appear on the same plane as the leaves in others.  The image below shows this effect to some degree but cannot substitute for the cover itself.

The shape of the design is also characteristic of a number of Margaret Armstrong covers, with a wider portion above and a narrower below; in this case the change in dimensions is defined by the bottom of the scroll (although the two leaves provide a transition to the lower portions).  This shape is certainly not exclusive to Armstrong, but it does provide a visual link to a number of her other designs, some of which are pictured below.

Aside from the design there are two factors that make this book and this particular copy special.  The copy is in very good condition which is unusual in that white stamping was often the bane of the binding process.  Although white was often used for lettering it was used much more sparingly as part of the design.  For whatever reasons, white was particularly subject to damage such as flaking and rubbing on cloth bindings.  It’s not at all unusual to see a well preserved design with all or most of the white lettering gone, or heavy chipping to a scene.  Some designs featured large areas of white such as snow scenes or flowers on novels or travel books.  Almost invariably some of the white has disappeared on such bindings.  Against the darker cloth this type of defect is particularly noticeable.  This copy has almost no such damage to either the finer features of the design such as the delicate handles of the urn and the numerous grapes, or to the broader areas of white such as the monument “steps.” 

The second and more important consideration is that this book has a previously unrecorded Margaret Armstrong design.  Charles Gullans and John Espey, in their 1991 checklist of Armstrong bindings, list 314 items (1).  They are careful to make the point that they did not believe that they had found all that there were, and that two new designs had been brought to their attention as the checklist was going to press.  Indeed, a number of others have been found and mentioned since the checklist appeared, but this is not one of them.  The final item in the checklist, number 314, is given as an addendum and, coincidentally, seems to be related to the Keats volume in that both of them were published by Crowell.  The book is The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Edward Dowden, with no publication date.  They note that the Dowden edition was continually in print from 1894 in numerous bindings, and in 1907 a series of books of individual poets’ works were issued in the “Crowell’s Poets Illustrated Holiday Edition,” with newly designed covers.  They speculate that the Shelley book was probably included in this edition (2).  This gives a clue as to when and why our Keats volume was published.

The only date given on the volume is the copyright date of 1895.  Like the Shelley poems, the H. Buxton Forman Keats was also kept continually in print in a variety of editions since 1895.  Crowell regularly issued and reissued titles with no date of publication, or with only the original date of publication or copyright date, so all we can often say is that a book was not published before any date given.  The always fascinating and informative Lucile Project (3) adds much context to Crowell’s publishing practices.  This publisher alone issued over 180 “editions”/series of Owen Meredith’s Lucile, and treated other worthy works with similar zeal.   If indeed this book was published as part of Crowell’s “Illustrated Holiday Edition,” we could place it around 1907 in Armstrong’s later period.  

I've seen the Crowell "1895" Keats on a number of occasions with all of the copies either rebound or bound in red cloth with minimal decoration (lettering and a blind-stamped ornament).  Which brings us full circle to my anecdote on finding trade bindings.  Based only on online descriptions from booksellers or other sources, the likelihood of finding this book online is extremely low—not knowing that it exists makes it even more unlikely.   Trade bindings are usually not described in any detail beyond "decorative" or "illustrated cloth", and to include Margaret Armstrong’s name in the description a dealer would have to be familiar with her “MA” monogram and think it important enough to include.  Many dealers include pictures for selected books and this can be a help, but many dealers do not.  An online bookseller’s description of condition also often needs to be taken with a peck of salt—one person’s “very good” is another person’s doorstop.  The move to online bookselling has had enormous benefits, particularly for known item searching, but for discovering materials such as decorated bindings there is still much that needs to be improved.  I enjoy searching thousands of booksellers’ stocks while drinking coffee in a familiar setting—but I treasure that “stout Cortez” moment in an Ohio bookstore.

(1) Gullans, Charles and John Espey.  Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings.  Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles, 1991.

(2) Their citation is to the Publishers Trade List Annual for 1907 to which, alas, I don’t have ready access.

(3) If you’re not familiar with this extraordinary resource by Sid Huttner at the University of Iowa, check out the website.  The purpose of the project “is recovering the publishing history of single 19th century book.  Owen Meredith’s Lucile was first published in 1860, by Chapman & Hall in England and as a Ticknor & Fields “Blue & Gold” in the United States.

Thomas Young Crowell (1836-1915) started a small publishing firm in New York at 744 Broadway.  The Thomas Y. Crowell Company, under variations of the name, existed from 1876 to 1979 when it was taken over by Harper and Row.  In his publishing activities “He preferred solid books and was chiefly interested in those that would inspire or be useful for reference, sa that one editor was to say that ‘never issued a book that one is not better for having read.’”  Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 49, p. 108.


  1. Hooray, another unlisted MA cover to look for hopelessly! Thanks so much. now I have 100 and 1 to look for. They don't come along very often. I reviewed the draft copy of G&E's 1991 edition, adding a half dozen items not in there. When published, I got no credit for my additions, which kind of bummed me out. Most have never been seen online to date. I will have to send you a few scans of those covers in retaliation for publishing this one I will probably never see! ~(:-)) Cheers, John Lehner aka binderfinder

    1. John, I have this book, if you are interested. It is very good condition, about like the images in this article.

      Donna Morrow

    2. Glad we helped you add to your search list! ;) Sorry, you weren't credited in the book. That's definitely not a good feeling. There are several MA covers that Paul has come across not in G&E. Someone should come out with a supplement including the newer finds and variants.


  2. I have enjoyed this article tremendously! I arrived here by a Google image search for this very book. I have acquired it. It is being shipped to me right now. How do I proceed to have it evaluated so I can sell it? Any suggestions you all can offer will be much appreciated!
    Donna Morrow

    1. Hi Donna,

      Glad you enjoyed the article! I'm not sure how to get it evaluated. I would guess you would need to get in contact with an appraiser of some sort in your area. We are catalogers, so we don't have any experience in getting items appraised or evaluated.



  3. I am looking forward to your reply. :) Thanks for your time.
    Donna Morrow