By the Cover: Dust Jackets and the Austin Clarke Collection

Dublin-born poet and author Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974) amassed a large personal library during his lifetime. Encompassing prose, poetry, drama, literary criticism and biography, this collection of publications is now part of the Poetry Ireland Library, housed in UCD Special Collections. As well as revealing much about Clarke’s own reading interests and the type of publications he received for review, this collection also contains several original dust jackets: the paper covering placed on hardback books, often with interesting graphics to attract readers’ attention.

The history of wrappers or covers for books and other written or printed materials is extensive, varying from attractive papers to jewelled boxes. However, the advent of dust jackets as we know them today occurred in the nineteenth century, when a paper wrapping was used to protect more elaborate cloth bindings from dust and abrasion. In its earliest form the dust cover simply listed the title and author of the publication beneath, but over time, these became more elaborate. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, artists – including painters and graphic designers – became involved in their production, producing designs that offered insight or a reflection of the contents of the book within. Although ephemeral, and often discarded by readers and libraries alike, collections of dust jackets are a rich source of art and graphic history, offering an insight into allied artistic disciplines and the relationships between author, artist, and publisher.

Many of the publications in the prose section of the Clarke collection were produced by British and Irish publishers in the early-mid twentieth century and range from first editions of new texts to reprints of nineteenth-century classics. The dust covers are similarly varied: some are by well-known fine and commercial artists, clearly identified, while others bear no suggestion of their creator. One of the best-known artists represented in the collection is Jack Butler Yeats (1871 – 1957), who, alongside his work as an illustrator and painter, was also a prodigious author. Sailing, Sailing Swiftly was his second significant novel, published by Putnam in 1933. While the book is illustrated throughout with small sketches by the artist, it is on the cover that Yeats demonstrates the best of his graphic art. Limited to line and three colours (black, blue, and yellow) on buff paper, it shows two men (perhaps the two main characters, Larry O’Malley and Edward Tarleton) at the coast, where a boy on a horse appears like an apparition, while a small vessel chugs in the distance.

Less painterly, but perhaps no less dramatic, is Leonard Rosoman’s (1913 – 2012) cover design for Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly. A collection of five short, gothic stories, Rosoman’s cover design draws on the first of these: ‘Green Tea’, which tells of Jennings, an English clergyman, confide that he is being followed by a demon monkey, invisible to everyone else but which inflicts psychological terror on Jennings. Rosoman’s black and white illustration, worked in closely hatched lines reminiscent of the work of Aubrey Beardsley or Harry Clarke, shows the nervous protagonist in a domestic interior, as a large creature with lamplight eyes emerges from a dark passage. The distorted scale of the drawing offers a claustrophobic atmosphere to the scene, underpinning Le Fanu’s gothic tale.

One of the most striking dust jackets in the Clarke library is British artist Lewin Bassingthwaighte’s (1928 – 1983) pink and green countryside scene for Anne O’Neill Barna’s Himself and I.  ‘O’Neill Barna’ was the pseudonym of Elaine O’Beirne-Ranelagh, an American writer and folklorist, who met her Irish husband, James O’Beirne, at Columbia University Library. Himself and I described the couple’s life in Ireland, where they moved after their marriage: in addition to chronicling life without running water and electricity, the book also criticised the attitude of the Catholic church towards women, birth control, and its role in education and censorship in Ireland. With green fields and a vivid pink sky, Bassingthwaight’s cover for this book offers a modern take on the traditional Irish landscape scene; crumbling stone walls and slightly out-of-shape iron gates suggest the faded grandeur of the O’Beirne-Ranelagh house.

These three examples offer small insight into the rich visual and literary material available in the Clarke collection. Some material from the collection is available through the UCD Digital Library: the Clarke collection is available for consultation in Special Collections, subject to UCD’s COVID-19 restrictions.

  • This post was researched and written by Dr Kathryn Milligan, Library Assistant, Special Collections.

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