Book covers commissioned from a designer first made their appearance in the 1840s. It was during this period that the design of covers for a particular work took off, designed by significant figures, such as Owen Jones, Noel Humphreys, Sir Henry Cole, and John Leighton. Breaking new ground was the Home treasury series for children – it featured colour-printed covers to renaissance designs, with Cole probably influencing the choice of these designs.
In the 1850s there was a notable increase in bindings signed with designer’s initials, presumably so that artists could be recognised for their work, although signatures are not always easy to detect; some may be widely spaced, perhaps one initial appearing at the top of the spine and one at the bottom, whilst others may be so minute as to be almost imperceptible without a magnifying glass.
The most prolific designer of the Victorian period was John Leighton, many works being signed ‘JL’, although he executed a number of bookbinding designs for J. and J. Leighton (his father and uncle’s bookbinding business) under his pseudonym Luke Limner. Throughout his career he designed bindings for nearly every leading London publisher, but it was Longmans who provided Leighton with opportunities to make more complex designs, as well as textual illustrations.
The 1870s have been noted by some as a retrograde period for book cover design, where abstract decoration became more and more meaningless. Yet this is not true of all bindings, for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Hughes, and William Morris were active during this time, designing covers in complete contrast to the general style of the period.
Dislike of over-ornamented book covers (of which John Leighton had been a pioneer) became a leading feeling amongst Arts and Crafts designers by the late 1880s. Artists such as Charles Ricketts, Walter Crane, and William Nicholson, active in the 1890s in cover design, were collectively responsible for a revolutionary change; emphasis was now on the artistic as distinct from decorative.
By the end of the nineteenth century bindings commissioned by designers were evocative of simplicity and natural manufacture. Would Archibald Leighton have seen the irony that in 1891 the Winterbottom Book Cloth Company introduced a cloth called “Art Vellum”, which allowed the texture of the weave to be clearly seen, a feature which he had endeavoured to cover up?